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Black Boy | Context

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Jim Crow South

Part 1 of Black Boy takes place in the southern United States during the Jim Crow years. This historical context affects virtually every scene in Part 1 and contributes to the development of Richard Wright's personality as expressed in Part 2.

During the Jim Crow period many American laws supported segregation and racism. Across the South a patchwork of local and state laws enforced strict separation between blacks and whites. In the regional slang of the late 1800s, a black man was sometimes called Jim Crow, after a highly stereotypical black character popular in southern white theatrical performances. Based on this reference, the racist laws of the South became known collectively as Jim Crow laws.

Jim Crow laws prevented blacks and whites from using the same public facilities and applied to nearly every aspect of public life, including restrooms, train cars, drinking fountains, and waiting rooms. The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson declared that this institutional segregation was constitutional as long as the separate facilities were equal. In practice, however, facilities for African Americans were worse than those for whites—if they existed at all. Workplaces were also segregated, and many businesses and unions explicitly excluded African Americans.

In addition to making it more difficult for African Americans to travel, participate in daily life, and earn a living, Jim Crow laws prevented most Southern blacks from exercising their right to vote. Local and state laws placed restrictions on voters that the majority of African Americans could not meet, for instance demanding they pay a tax to vote or demonstrate advanced reading ability.

It was also common for white Southerners to commit acts of terrorism against blacks—especially those who attempted to challenge racist laws and practices. In order to intimidate blacks and maintain control, white supremacists killed people and raped women and children, or they burned black homes, churches, and businesses. In combination with racist laws, these terrorist practices kept African Americans in a state of fear and subjugation.

Northern Racism

In Part 2 of Black Boy Richard Wright flees northward in search of greater opportunity, only to find additional racial barriers. In the North racism and segregation were enforced mainly through unwritten social codes and private business practices—not through laws or the same degree of violence as in the South. White property owners entered into agreements called covenants that prevented African Americans and other minorities from living in certain areas. Banks often refused to grant mortgages to African Americans, even if they met the same basic requirements as whites. Unions discriminated against African Americans, and employers refused to hire African Americans or promote them beyond menial positions. Thus, while blacks in the north had more opportunities to earn money and superficially greater social freedoms, they were equally inhibited in terms of race relations and the true social mobility that comes from access to education and finance.

American Communist Party during the Great Depression

Blacks and the Great Depression

In 1929 the stock market crashed, setting off a period of economic stagnation and unemployment that lasted throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s. Because of racism, African Americans suffered at a far higher rate than whites during this period. Employers explicitly favored white over African American workers, so African American unemployment reached about 50 percent—at least twice the rate of white unemployment. Meanwhile, government relief programs discriminated on the basis of race, making it more difficult for African Americans to receive aid. The result was extreme poverty and suffering in segregated African American communities.

Simultaneously, poor agricultural practices coupled with severe droughts throughout the South and Midwest led to a phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl. The loss of agricultural lands and opportunities caused many blacks to migrate to urban areas such as Chicago to seek work.

American Communist Party

The Great Depression led to a surge of interest in communist theory, which highlights power and dignity for people suffering from poverty. For Richard Wright, who joined the Communist Party for a brief period in the 1930s, the appeal of communism lay in its emphasis on equality and dignity for marginalized people.

However, communist theory also emphasized conformity, and when internal political disagreements arose, party leaders pressured members to accept decisions without complaint. Wright, an independent thinker who tended to question authority, chafed against this authoritarian culture, especially when it encroached on his free expression in writing.

Publication History

Wright's novel is written in two parts. The first, "Southern Night," treats his childhood in the South, and the second, "The Horror and the Glory," deals with his young adulthood in Chicago. The book was accepted by his publisher in its entirety under the title American Hunger.

However, Wright had won mainstream acclaim with the publication a few years previously of his novel Native Son, in large part because of the Book of the Month Club's decision to feature it as its first selection by a black author. Both Wright and his publisher hoped to capitalize on their previous success with this popular marketing venue, but the Book of the Month Club had no interest in the book's second half. So the original version of Black Boy included only the chapters about Wright's boyhood in Memphis.

The book's second section was not published until 1977, after Wright's death, under the title American Hunger. And it was not until 1991 that Black Boy was published in its entirety, with both volumes intact.

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