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Surviving the Southern Night

by Max Bufkin


Firsthand accounts have helped the modern world understand and analyze this bleak era of American history. One of the most prevalent and influential accounts was Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy. Wright’s memoir told the brutal truth about African American life in the South during Reconstruction. Not only did Wright explicitly demonstrate the dread of living during Jim Crow, but what skills he had to adapt in order to survive. Wright had to endure systematic oppression, dehumanization, and outright violence. However, his aspirations and cultural socialization were ultimately what brought him out of the South.

The first part of Wright’s memoir ends with him finally reaching his goal and moving up north. Wright summarized his experience in the South perfectly when he stated, “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled” (257). The beginning of the quote seemed harmless, almost optimistic, but the latter half quickly told readers that where Wright had “sprung from” was not a culture of love but of hatred. Throughout the entire memoir, Wright delves into the messy, complex culture of the Jim Crow South. He recalls vivid, traumatizing memories caused by his own family and community, as well as the white supremacy ruling over the South.

The terror of Wright’s culture was the strict Jim Crow laws enforced at the time. These laws came in many forms and had many effects. For example, debt peonage kept African Americans in poverty, forcing them to depend on whites. Wright wrote about this in his memoir, discussing the poor conditions in which he and his family lived. Wright commented on this dependence when he stated, “If the white people left anything [any food], my brother and I would eat well…” (19). Because of debt peonage, Wright and his family lived on the constant brink of starvation. Tactics like debt peonage were more subtle ways of oppressing African Americans used by white supremacists, but overt methods were just as prevalent.

Wright had to endure intense racial violence within and outside of his community. From a very young age, Wright knew white people were prone to attacking and killing African Americans. One of Wright’s friends, Ned, had a brother who was kidnapped and shot by a group of whites (171). The fear of being killed was constantly looming in Wright’s mind, as well as many African Americans at the time.

To excuse the overt violence, white supremacists also made great strides in dehumanization efforts. Many of the white people Wright interacted with in his memoir either treated him like property, a slave, or an animal. Wright was sexualized at work, asked invasive questions regarding his body, and was even compared to an ox by one of his white coworkers (188). White people also had no issue playing tricks on Wright, trying to give themselves an excuse to beat him; this occurred several times throughout the memoir. Over and over, in a million different ways, Wright was made to feel less than human.

This was the “culture” of the South and the “terror” Wright had hoped to flee from. Wright fled to the North, where African Americans supposedly had more opportunities and security. Hope was an enormous factor in Wright’s survival. In his dismal state, Wright could keep going with the hope of moving North and becoming a writer. Wright’s determination to leave drove him forward, encouraging him to take every job opportunity he could, no matter how brutal the work (199). Having a motive was Wright’s way of accepting the brutality of the South as a means to move somewhere safer. Wright had never found solace in religion as his family had, but motivated himself with his own goals and ambitions.

Nonetheless, Wright still had to figure out ways to survive the South while he collected enough money to move north. One of the most prevalent ways Wright and many African Americans endured their circumstances was by learning how to act around white people. Wright struggled with this initially, not understanding that white people expected certain behaviors and mannerisms from African Americans. Griggs, a close friend of Wright, advised him on the matter by saying, “Your way of doing things is all right among our people, but not for white people” (184). Because of their presumed and self-appointed superiority, white people expected black people to act obedient and overly respectful toward them, like when Wright lost his job for forgetting to refer to a white coworker with “Mr.” However, Wright quickly learned the expectations white people had for him and reluctantly complied with their standards to avoid further setbacks and potential conflicts.

Despite all the ways Wright tried to follow the white’s rules, he actively broke some.

Wright became a writer. This was dissuaded not only by the white people in his life (who couldn't conceive of a black writer) but by his own community. Wright summarized this best by stating, “My environment contained nothing more alien than writing…” (121).

Like his dreams of moving north, his writing helped motivate him even under extreme oppression. Reading and writing were the only ways Wright found an oasis from the South and a place to express his thoughts freely. This was Wright’s own way of indirectly defying systematic oppression and white supremacy. As Richard Wright famously said, “All literature is protest.” Writing allowed Wright to reclaim the humanity white supremacists had desperately tried to take away from him.

An enormous factor in the survival of African American lives and culture was their ability to retain their humanity. Wright found his humanity within his writing–within the act of creating, arguably, what makes one human.

Art was an essential part of expressing and keeping African American humanity. The Blues, for example, was an extremely popular form of music in the black community. It helped give words to the feelings African Americans were experiencing. This music did for many African Americans what writing had done for Wright. It gave them a voice. It gave them something to relate to and share with one another. Even in the 1920s, black culture blossomed through the use of art in the Harlem Renaissance. Art has helped African Americans express and embrace their humanity for centuries. Art has given them the durability to withstand even the most unimaginable brutalization.

Wright’s memoir cleverly demonstrated what he and many African Americans did in order to keep some semblance of their humanity. Wright was obedient enough to avoid a majority of potential conflicts, but quietly protested using his wit and words. And it was his ambition to share those words that kept him going even in a suffocating environment. Wright’s learned behaviors and socialization saved him from lynching, but it was Wright’s words that ultimately saved his soul.

Throughout all of history, what has saved cultures is their own voices. Whether passed down orally or written in memoirs and novels, it is words that have prevailed over bigotry and hatred.



Wright, Richard. Black Boy. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1948.


 

Max Bufkin is a mixed, genderfluid writer who enjoys writing and reading in all genres, including short stories, novels, and poetry. Their essay was a selected submission for Stories of Inspiration to be featured for Juneteenth. Currently, they are seeking a college degree while working for the local newspaper. They aspire to pursue a career as an author and intend to publish more of their literary works in the future.

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