Gather around, Shmoopers. Put on your thinking caps and buckle your seatbelts, because we’re going on a trip in the Wayback Machine. Time: 1945. Place: The US of A. But something is… different.
Just like today, the United States of 1945 was a diverse land. But if you opened the newspaper, you'd see a different story. Politicians, journalists, models, even small business owners: they’re all a whiter shade of pale. A black president? Fat chance. There isn’t even a black Disney Princess (although it’s worth pointing out that the US got a black president before it got a black princess).
So imagine how the public felt when Black Boy was released in 1945. Richard Wright’s story about a young boy from the South struggling to grow up and become a writer in a world that constantly tries to crush his dreams hit the literary world like the eighth, undiscovered Harry Potter. It spent four months at the top of the best seller’s list, and was the fourth best selling novel at the end of 1945. With a bump from the Oprah-like Book-of-the-Month Club, everyone was reading Wright’s words.
Before the Book-of-the-Month Club agreed to give it that boost, though, Wright had to make some changes. The entire second section was nixed, along with some "obscene" parts from the first section. Mentions of the Communist Party, in which Wright was an active member? All gone. Suggestions that the North was not the Promised Land for black people? Also axed. The 1945 version of Black Boy was a much more cheerful book than Wright originally meant it to be.
Even in its bowdlerized form, Black Boy was a favorite of both fancy literary critics and regular folk like us Shmoopers. Wright’s literary skills, as well as his honest portrayal of the life of black Americans, won him plenty of admirers—and plenty of money.
When the complete manuscript was published in 1991 (thirty-one years after Wright died in 1960), readers were in for a nice surprise. Turns out that Wright had mad philosophy skills in addition to impressive literary credentials. With its second half intact, the book is about much more than the personal experiences of one boy growing up in the racist South. It’s also about every individual’s struggle to find a meaningful life.
Why Should I Care?
In 2009, the US officially became "post-racial." We got a black president. We got a black Disney Princess. Just a few years later, Beyoncé was named People's Most Beautiful Woman. Racism is over, and you don’t need another dusty old book to tell you how bad it was. Right?
Not so much. While we've made great strides when it comes to civil rights, there's still a long way to go. And the dream of a post-racial America isn't the only one that's still a work in progress.
Have you ever had a dream that everyone said was impossible? It doesn’t have to be something major, like solving racism. It could be something like getting an A in a subject you’re bad at, or being the first person in your family to go to college, or keeping your room clean for a month. If you know what it is like for people to say your dream will never happen, then it doesn’t matter what your skin color: Richard Wright is talking to you.
Ignore the fancy literary criticism and the highbrow philosophy, and Black Boy is an open letter to everyone who said he couldn’t make it. It’s also a letter to all the people who feel just like he does. He’s urging you not to act like everyone expects you to act and not to do what everyone assumes you will. He wants you to find your own path. He wants you to clear your own way. He wants you to stand at his side shouting "Shmoop you!" right along with him.
Do you know how he feels? If so, Comrade, welcome to the club.