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RACISM AND OPPRESSION IN BLACK AMERICAN LITERATURE: AN EXAMPLE OF RICHARD WRIGHT’S BLACK BOY

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RACISM AND OPPRESSION IN BLACK AMERICAN LITERATURE: AN EXAMPLE OF RICHARD WRIGHT’S BLACK BOY

 

CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

1.1 BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY

Racism in literary studies is defined by Wikipedia as the belief the of genetic factors which constitute race, are the primary determinants of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produces an inherent superiority of a particular race. Racism effects are called racial discrimination. Although the term racism usually denotes race based on prejudice, violence, dislike, discrimination or oppression. Racism is also defined simply as a reflection of the economic system and its cultural, ethnic and political ways. The concept of racism is derived from the word race and it is believed that one racial or ethnic group is inferior to another and the unequal treatment is therefore justified.

According to Charles V. Hamilton and Kwame Ture they defined racism as

“A prediction of decision and policies on consideration of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group”.

On the other hand, oppression is defined by the encyclopedia as torture or degrading treatment and the use of threat or violence. It is also the exercise of power/authority in a burden, cruel or unjust manner. Oppression is also defined by Wikipedia as an act or instance of oppressing the state of being oppressed and the feeling of being heavily burdened; mentally or physically by troubles adverse conditions and anxiety.

It is this experience of Black Slaves that Richard Wright tries to capture in BlackBoy (1945). In the text, Wright recalls the plight of the Africans that were sold into slavery between the early 1700’s and 1860’s through the convenience of their own fellow Africans. They were transplanted to American, Canada, the Caribbean Island and other parts of the world. The Africans taken into America were now referred to as “Black Americans” while those on the Caribbean Island are called “Afro Caribbean” but they all have a common roots and common problem- Racial Discrimination. The Africans faced a great ordeal trying to survive hardship on their journey across the Atlantic Ocean on arrival to America; they were conscripted into force labour, maltreated, abused and demoralized on the cotton fields and plantation where they were put to work as slaves. As a result of this hardship deprivation and degradation, the blacks began expressing themselves through Negro spirituals which marked the beginning of the artistic expressions of the emotion. They told stories of unpleasant experience of slavery and oppression through pamphlet and short stories, which formed the basic of Black writings and which were later referred to as “Slave Narrative” or “secret text” because they were written without the knowledge of the slave owners. This inhuman trade led to the transportation of Africans to American to work as slave on the plantation where they experienced unimaginable oppression from the white owner. Many youth are ignorant of this fact and see American as a peaceful place and a bed of roses.

The project therefore sets out to trace the origin of racism in America and try to expose the horrible experience that the black slaves went through. The experiences of the blacks recounted by Richard Wright in BlackBoy will therefore by analysed to expose the themes of racism and oppression as aspect of the American society.

1.2     RICHARD WRIGHT’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Richard Wright, the grand son of slaves was born in Natchez Mississippi on 4th of September 1908. His father deserted the family in 1914. When Richard was ten years old, his mother had a paralytic shock. The family was extremely poor. After a brief education, he was forced to seek employment in other to support his mother. He had a difficult childhood which was characterized by hopelessness, insecurity and hunger as portrayed in his autobiography Novel, BlackBoy. Wright worked in a series of menial jobs in Memphis. He wanted to continue his education by using the local library but Jim Crow laws prevented this. Richard Wright solved this by pretending he was collecting a book for a white man.

After passing a civil service exam, Wright find a job as a post office clerk. When the wall street crash and the beginning of depression was over, Wright lost his job for a period. He found employment with the Negro Burial Society but that came to an end in 1931 and he was forced to go on relief after several jobs, the relief office found his work with the Federal Writer Project. This enabled him to publish his story Superstition in the Magazine Abbot’s Monthly.

In 1932, Wright began attending meeting of the literary group at the John Reed Club he meets several Marxist at the club and later in the year, he joined the American Communist Party. His poems, short stories and essays are accepted by various left using journal including the new masses and international literature, his poem Between The World And Me and a short story BigBoy Leaves Home were both based on the lunching of a black man that he had witnessed when he was a child.

In May 1937, Wright moved to New York where he became Harlem editor of the daily worker and a new literary quarterly new challenge. The following year, a collection of short stories about racism in the United States titled Uncle Tom’s Chicken was publish and Wright announced that all royalties would be used to help to pay the appeal cost of Earl Browder, the general secretary of the American Communist Party who had been sentenced to four years in prison for misusing a passport.

The publisher accepted Wright’s novel, Native Son in 1940. The book of the mouth club selected the novel as its March selection, therefore, ensuring large sales and publicity. Over a quarter of a million copies were sold within four weeks, making it the fastest selling large novel in twenty years. Wright’s next book, Twelve million Black Voices (1941) was a sociological study of black migration from the rural south to the urban north. By 1944, Wright left the American Communist Party and published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled The God that Failed, his short novel, The Man Who Lived Underground appeared in 1944.

Wright’s powerful autobiography and our main concentration in the project, BlackBoy is a record of childhood and youth which was published in 1945. After then, there was a wave of great hostility towards black writers, so Richard Wright fled to Paris. In 1953, Wright published The Outsider and in 1954 Savage Holding was published, when he traveled to Ghana he wrote about his experience in Black power (1954). This was followed by a collection of essays. White listen (1957), The psychological reaction of the oppressed people and the literature of the Negro in the United States.

Wright final novel, The Long Dream was published in 1958. He died of a heart attack in Paris on 28th November 1960. Richard Wright was indeed a true voice of the Black Americans, every bit of his literary works sought to bring an end to physical and psychological oppression and also abolish racism and oppression.

1.3     PURPOSE OF STUDY

The purpose of this study is to create an awareness of racism and oppression using the personal experience of Richard Wright in his autobiography BlackBoy.

This essay concentrates on the theme of racism and oppression in Black American literature. Our intention is to show that racism and oppression indeed is a prominent theme in BlackBoy especially because the book was written during the Jim Crow era at a point where racism was very prominent in the American society.

It also looks at the personal understanding of the Blackman’s point of view and his situation. Examples of racism and oppression are cited in BlackBoy. This project exposes how racism and oppression affects the mentality and the way of living of the Black race, reducing them to a level of inferiority, in every aspect of their lives.

1.4     SCOPE AND LIMITATION

Our scope and limitation is on the theme of racism and oppression in BlackBoy by Richard Wright so as to prevent the project from being untidy and ambiguous in nature. From intense research we believe that BlackBoy, an eye witness account is accurate enough to fully express the terms of racial segregation and oppression because it has made a strong impact on American literature with its strong commentary on the cultural, political, racial and social issues going on during the period of 20th century racism.

The very title of the book “BlackBoy” already gives us an idea of our thematic discussion because he uses the term ‘Black’ in the title to emphasize the fundamental racial facts of his life (the author Richard Wright); the black against the white. Black race subordinate to the white race which is the main and only scope and limitation.

1.5     JUSTIFICATION

Many works have been carried out on Black American literature majorly focusing on self identity and racism. For example Babalola (1992) “The concept of racism and crisis of self identity in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain (1954) and George Lamming’s Water with Berries (1972) focused on aspect of racism. Both novels highlighted the concept of self identity. The present study will be different from the works mentioned above. It will shed more light on oppression experienced by the African’s using Richard Wright’s autobiographical novel {BlackBoy}.

1.6     METHODOLOGY

The methodology used in this project is a Carl Jung (1952) psychological approach in literature. It is believed that this approach will best expose the inner mind and psychological torture of the Black American characters in Black Boy. Oppression and Racism are better analysed, examined and portrayed through the workings of the intellectual thinking of those affected. This approach is the only approach that has helped to review visual and close insight of confrontations and conflicts between the Blacks and the Whites. Concentration is placed on the major character which serves as the representative character for the Blacks. Through his life experience, we can deduce the predicament of the Black Americans in South Africa.

 

END NOTES

Wright, Richard (1945) BlackBoy. New York: Harper and Row

Abramson, D.E (1950). Negro playwright in the American Theater. New York: Yale Press

Adewoye, S.A (1988). The Essentials of literature Ibadan: Paper back publishers limited.

Balogun, J (2009), ENG 413 Note “Caribbean and Afro-American literature” (unpublished), University of Ilorin.

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