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Black Boy
Submitted by Taylor Stoehr (profile)

Title and Author: Black Boy by Richard Wright (Note: the edition currently in print contains Wright's complete text, which takes his story up through his adult years in Chicago - 1908 to 1937. The section originally published as Black Boy ended with him leaving the South to go to Chicago in 1927, and that is the version that our classes have used. Part 2, originally published as American Hunger, recounts Wright's life in Chicago and, particularly, his mixed experiences in the Communist Party.)
Genre: Autobiographical novel
Theme: Wright's slightly fictionalized account of growing up in the Deep South
Class type: Probably best with African American men's groups

This text works both as an entire book and in excerpts. In the Dorchester Men's Program, we have used it both ways. In the suggested questions and writing prompts listed below, some of the possible uses of Wright's work can be seen. There are many other sections of Black Boy that lend themselves to the themes that come up in a CLTL curriculum, especially one with minority students. One other passage may serve to indicate some of these possibilities. Early in the book, the boy Richard is ordered to the blackboard on his first day in school but is so frightened that he is unable even to write his name, though he is in fact already quite literate and, of course, destined to be a famous writer. The passage might be read in combination with the chapter in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave recounting his own discovery of reading and writing, or the section of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in which Malcolm sets himself to master the dictionary during his incarceration. Given the fact that our students are often anxious about their own degree of literacy, passages like these have special impact.

Suggested questions and writing prompts:

On the theme "Cruelty and Punishment," we have used an excerpt from Black Boy in combination with selections from Maxim Gorky (Notch) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The House of the Dead). For that assignment, we asked these questions:

What causes cruelty? Why do people inflict pain on others? Is it out of anger and hatred, or for other reasons? What's the effect of cruelty on the person who is cruel? On the victim?

In the above assignment, we used the following prompt for an in-class writing exercise:

What does punishment do to its victims? And what does it do to the person who does the punishing? Can a person inflict pain and suffering on someone else without being cruel? Does it make any difference whether the punishment is deserved?

On the theme "Manliness and Violence," we have also used an excerpt from Black Boy in combination with selections from Langston Hughes ("Last Whipping," from The Best of Simple) and Bill Russell (Second Wind). Chapter 10 of our central text, Frederick Douglass's Narrative, was also assigned. We used the following question in that assignment:

To what degree is it necessary to use force to defend one's rights against oppression or injustice: In public life? In private life? Can you think of examples in your own experience?

In the above assignment, we used the following prompt for an in-class writing exercise:

When Frederick Douglass was threatened with a whipping by his "slave-breaking" boss, Mr. Covey, he took a risk and fought back. He won. Later he said that this desperate choice to defend himself was a turning point in his life. From then on, he regarded himself as a free man, even though he was still a slave, because he was resolved to die rather than to submit to another beating. Is his experience a useful model for men today? What other ways can a man stand up for himself? When is it right to accept defeat or humiliation?

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