Richard Wright's Black Boy
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How did racial prejudice in the Jim Crow South affect black people and how did they cope
Racial discrimination in the United States dates back to the days of slavery when blacks from Africa were transported to America to work in southern plantations. The Jim Crow system was a very effective system which was practiced in the south and went hand in hand with legalized racial discrimination at the time. This crass and discriminating system was in operation between 1866 and 1965. The Crow system laid down laws that prohibited interracial mingling between blacks and whites. Blacks could not go to the same schools, churches, organizations and clubs with whites. Surprisingly, blacks were also not allowed to buy things from shops owned by whites. At the time blacks were to use seperate washrooms and not supposed to board the same public convayances as white people or would be made to sit in a segrigated section in the back.. In his book, Black Boy, Richard Wright gives an account of his life in the Jim Crow South thus giving an insight into the life of black people during these oppressive days. Wright’s autobiography also shows the reactions of black people towards the racial discrimination they suffered under white domination. Wright‘s book offers the reader a deeper understanding of the Jim Crow era and the endeavors of African Americans to unshackle themselves from its chains (Wright, 2-25).
Based on Wright’s book, Black Boy Part 1, it possible for the reader to enumerate the many ways through which Jim Crow racial prejudice in the south affected black people and their reaction to every act of oppression. In Chapter one, the reader will notice that the book addresses poverty as one way through which racial prejudice affected black people. Black people in the segregated south could not afford something as basic as food. This is evidenced by the author’s claims of hunger all the time. The reader can also deduce evidence of hunger from the author’s outburst upon realizing that a preacher the mother had invited to the home was likely to finish the fried chicken their mother had prepared. Further evidence can be seen where the author’s mother hands him and his younger brother to an orphanage which limits parents’ access to their children thus creating some form of separation. Further, poverty forces the author to beg for money in a local bar which results in him being exploited by the people who frequented the bar. Black people in the south also lived in squalid conditions as evidnced by the tenements that the author’s family moves into after the burning of their initial home (Wright, 2-25). Poverty had many ramifications in the black community. It led to the separation of families as attested to by the separation of the author’s father from his mother. His father abandons them in abject poverty, a trend that was quite prevalent within the black community in the south.
Blacks in the south also experienced racial violence. Evidence of this can be found in chapter two of the book (53-77). The husband (Uncle Hoskins) to the author’s aunt (Maggie) is shot dead by white supremacists who were envious of his success in business. This explains the quagmire that blacks found themselves in. If they succeeded in independent ventures, they faced violence from whites. The white segregationists wanted to keep the black community in a perpetual state of poverty. Upon reception of the news of the killing of Uncle Hoskins, the author’s family decides to flee from Arkansas, something that leaves the author seething with anger. Black’s typical reaction to violence by whites was to flee. Except for professor Matthews who had killed a white man, probably in self defense, everyone else in the black community takes to their heels upon the sight of racial violence. Even his aunt’s new boyfriend, professor Matthews flees with his aunt. The author later wonders why black people could not join hands and fight oppression instead of fleeing. There were also other forms of racial violence meted out to black people by whites. Blacks were publicly hanged especially in Tennessee and Texas for attempting to make advances on white females. In the Jim Crow south, whites had been known to rape black women. Black men reacted to this by attempting to rape white women. However, they were sure to face death by public hanging if they were caught and captured. The author also cites other reactions to racial prejudice towards black people. Further in chapter two, he talks of black children who sang racist songs targeted at a Jewish proprietor of a grocery store located at the corner of the neighborhood. These children must have learned such biasness from their homes, schools and probably churches. This is a classic depiction of a community choosing to react to racial discrimination in the same way though not in the same token (Wright, 53-77)
Jim Crow south denied blacks access to education. This is why there are so many plantation workers who are ignorant and easily gullible. Chapter five introduces the reader to the extortion of blacks by fellow blacks. Brother Mance employs the author aas a life insurance sales assistant. This allows the author to interact with plantation farmers he concludes are ignorant because they were being sold life assurance policies that they will never benefit from in their entire life. Although blacks had countered segregation in education by establishing their own schools, many blacks could not enroll in school to learn how read and write (Wright, 122-144). Wright blames this on the lack of solidarity within the black community.
Another way through which blacks were affected by racial segregation can be deduced from chapter five. Here the author’s grandfather is said to be critically ill due to wounds he suffered while fighting in the First World War. Sadly, the war department had continually denied him his pension probably on racial grounds. The family reacts to this by writing to the war department and holding conferences but this bore no fruits. The reader would be right in wondering why the author’s grandfather had to go through all this when his white counterparts could easily access war benefits.
Much of the reaction to the above problems was not always sufficient, as the author claims. Many young men reacted to racial prejudice with hatred and distrust for white people. However, this distrust also crept up in the author’s relationship with his family members, something which explains the lack of solidarity in the black community during the Jim Crow era. To the threat of racial violence by which supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, blacks reacted by fleeing. Others reacted by embracing religion. A good example is the author’s grandmother and his aunt, Addie. However, being deeply religious bred another kind of prejudice; religious prejudice (Wright 102). It is this kind of biasness that leads the author’s grandmother and auntie in labeling the author as evil and a source of trouble. There were blacks who reacted to economic isolation by setting up their own businesses. Uncle Hoskins’ saloon is a good example; however, these kind of initiatives by blacks faced stiff resistance from white supremacists as evidenced by the killing of Uncle Hoskins (Wright 111).
In conclusion, Wright gives the reader an insight of the quagmire blacks went through in the hands of whites during Jim Crow system in the United States. From the essay, it is clear that all the initiatives by the blacks to unshackle themselves were not fruitful. It was not until the post World War II period that blacks started acting in solidarity in resisting racial segregation.
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