“'Quit Asking Questions and Do What You Are Told': Questioning the Hardscrabble Reality of A
Here's a copy of an essay I wrote in 2017 about Richard Wright's novel Black Boy.
The reality of post-Reconstruction life is brilliantly depicted in Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy, with Wright showing the mortal dangers faced by African-Americans and the daily struggles in a society designed to oppress and marginalize; in essence, a hardscrabble reality. Wright’s own personal struggle to find identity and success serve as a microcosm for African-Americans of this period, and sadly, even today. This struggle is reflected in Wright’s continuous questioning of life’s inequalities and injustices and ironically, by people around him questioning why he asks so many questions. This theme is epitomized when Wright’s grandmother tells him, “Quit asking questions and do what you are told” (142). As the novel progresses, Wright does neither, discovering the reality of life in the Jim Crow South and struggling to cope with it.
The word hardscrabble seems to fit Wright’s life with its definition, “getting a meager living from poor soil” (“Hardscrabble”). Here, the poor soil symbolizes the Jim Crow South. The Jim Crow laws, written and unwritten restrict African-Americans, hampering any progress in education, social, and employment opportunities. Wright experiences this repeatedly, questioning why it is and why it has to remain.
Like most children, Wright begins questioning life at a young age. When his brother tells him he shouldn’t burn a broom, Wright questions him, ignoring the dangers. He repeatedly asks his mother about race, such as when he questions why his grandmother is white (confused by her biracial identity), or why she married a black man. Wright does not take long to learn that whites treat African-Americans differently and that African-Americans must defer to this or face consequences, usually violent.
Richard Wright’s questioning nature is understood at the age of twelve when he realizes he has, “… a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter a conviction that the meaning of living only came when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering” (100). However, many questions lie ahead and any answers he finds, are usually not easy. Wright seeks answers to these questions but he must do so while navigating a dangerous society where questions can be risky.
The independent Wright’s question make him a target of a society dedicated to disempowering African-Americans but it also makes him a target of his fellow African-Americans. “As the outside world grew more meaningful, I became more concerned, tense; and my classmates and teachers would say: ‘Why do you ask so many questions?’ or ‘Keep quiet’” (169). Various family members try to stifle his curiosity, often striking him when he asks too many questions.
Wright’s fellow African-Americans see the dangers ahead for Wright due to his independent and questioning nature. Griggs warns Wright, “Your way of doing things is all right among our people, but not for white people. They won’t stand for it” (184). Wright’s way of doing things- making deliveries to white neighborhoods during the evening, forgetting to say sir to whites, and asking when he will learn a trade he was promised he was hired to learn, are just three instances where his blackness target him for unequal and dangerous treatment.
Wright not only questions how whites treat African-Americans but how some African-Americans put up with abuse. Working as a porter at a store that sells to African-Americans, Wright observes how they are overcharged for cheap merchandise and treated contemptuously by the store’s owner and staff. Wright cannot help but wonder, “No matter how often I witnessed it, I could not get used to it. How can they accept it? I asked myself” (179). Wright will not allow himself to become desensitized to injustice. This is seen again when Wright asks Shorty “How in God’s name can you do that?” (229) after Shorty encourages a white man to kick him for a quarter. Later, Wright wonders if justice is attainable. Wright’s genius and relentless questioning of injustice do not provide an easy path or easy answers. “But, as I listened to the Communist Negro speakers, I wondered if the Negro, blasted by three hundred years of oppression, could possibly cast off his fear and corruption and rise to the task” (298). Wright’s journey for truth seems to lead him to conclude that there will be no easy solution.
Questions can also be used as weapons as Wright shows when he employs questions to attack injustices he sees. Wright is only a child when he defends his decision to kill a cat at his father’s rhetorical request and when punished, asks, “Then why the hell did he tell me to do it?” (11). Wright seems to know he did wrong but questions his father’s authority with this question. Later, Wright uses a question to call out a Communist agitator about an erroneous prediction. “’What about that revolution you predicted if the bonus marchers were driven out?’ I asked” (296). Wright sees through Communism’s easy promises and realizes that people in general (not just African-Americans) are complacent in rising up against injustice. His question also shows his refusal to blindly follow someone.
Black Boy provides deep insight into living conditions in the Jim Crow South through Richard Wright’s non-stop questioning of economic, social, and political inequalities. Wright’s refusal to stop questioning things are a testament to his character but the answers he finds are a disturbing confirmation of the harsh reality of inhuman treatment suffered by African-Americans.
"Hardscrabble." Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/hardscrabble. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.