Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Black Boy, Racism and Gentrification

I first read Black Boy in the 1960's during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The book had a strong impact on my southern perspective of the plight of the "Negro" (term used in the 60's) living under the Jim Crow System of racial segregation. The landscape of the South during this time was filled with Jewish and other white organizers riding into the South in buses as part of the Freedom Rides or taking part in the civil disobedient sit-ins or defending those arrested for this behavior. The nation watched in horror as the living situation of the Negro in the South came to light with reports of murders, lynchings, bombings, dogs and water hoses taking up the major part of the nightly news reports - along with Vietnam. As a college student and Young Democrat at the time majoring in social studies and English, I became a fierce supporter of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Therefore, this raw portrayal of a young Negro's experience with the Jim Crow System had a profound impact upon me.

Two episodes in the book stayed with me from the time in my late teens and early twenties until the age of 71 when I decided to pick up the book and read it again. Both episodes involved the breaking of the law. The first was the conspiracy between Richard Wright and a Jewish man who worked in the same facility where Wright worked as a janitor and errand boy. Part of Wright's job was to run errands for the white workers in order to get tips that supplemented a less than adequate food budget for the family of four he supported. One of these errands was to pick up books at the library. The white bosses would send a note along with their library card requesting Wright be allowed to pick up books for them. It was against the law for colored people to have a library card. Having a library card was a crime punishable by a beating at best. Wright had a thirst for knowledge and did everything he could to find material to read. He reported to work early each morning so he could read the daily newspaper provided on loan  to him by a Negro friend who sold them out front.

One day, Wright read about a writer named H.L. Mencken and he became interested in reading some of the author's books. How could he get them? That's when he approached a Jewish man who sent him to the library on a regular basis and asked if he could use his card to check out some books by the author. The Jewish boss had no idea who Mencken was and, he noted, his card was already full.
The man suggested that he would use his wife's library card and send a note to the library with his card asking that Wright check out some books by Mencken for him.What an elaborate and dangerous scheme to be allowed to check out a book! Thinking about how much I loved books and how important the Portland Library was to a poor Southern "white" girl, I was filled with disgust. This, more than anything, stirred my passions about the plight of the Negro living under such a system.

The second episode also involved the breaking of the law. This time, Wright was working taking tickets at a movie theater. He had decided he was going to leave the South and move North, but at the rate he was saving money for a minimum stake, he figured it would take years that he didn't have. The law he broke this time was indeed a criminal act. He worked a system to cheat the movie theater owner with two other employees. He would skim tickets off the top and give back for resale to the girl at the ticket booth when the theater was full and then the three would split the profits. This was working and helping, but Wright lived in fear of getting caught before he had enough saved. That's when he broke into a store and stole some dry goods and resold them to get the rest of the money. Once again, I understood how this unjust system nurtured the development of criminal behavior in people desperate for a chance to live free in a society that was supposed to be free. Another story came to my mind. I never met this uncle, my father's half brother, because he died in prison. He was sentenced to jail for stealing a loaf of bread. I remembered the story of Jon Val John in "Les Miserables" and once again my passions were stirred.

 I eventually became a school teacher and social worker choosing to work with the least fortunate and being a champion for their cause. After 25 years of  teaching in the public school system, I, too, became a writer and in 2014 moved back into my old neighborhood to be part of the revitalization of the community - the Portland Renaissance. I never realized how connected I was with Richard Wright who had become a successful author and part of the Harlem Renaissance of the late 20's and 30's until I once again read "Black Boy." It is my intention to read the book to a group of middle school students this summer at the Portland Community Center in an effort to bring back respect for the Library and reading and critical thinking in the community. The book has changed since the time it was originally written in 1945. A second part was added in later editions  when the name "Black Boy" was changed to "Black Boy/American Hunger."

Part I of the book is the part that I intend to read to the students at the Center. It covers Wright's life from his earliest memories at the age of 4 or 5 (1913)  until he makes the desperate move to the Promised Land - the North and Chicago- in 1927. In Part II "The Horror and the Glory" Wright recounts his experiences living in the South Side of Chicago - the Black Belt - and observes the behavior of the oppressed people living there. His prophetic and insightful observances from the period of the Great Depression until the beginning of World War II have deepened my awareness of the sprouts of illiteracy, violence and intolerance that still thrive in the rotten soil poisoned by
 racial, religious and ethnic groups that have never come together in unity and whose perspective is colored by ingrained attitudes propagated by the society that has never been truly "united" since its inception.

At the end of the book Wright relates his experience with fellow Negroes who are members of the Communist Party in Chicago working in the trade unions to improve the plight of the working man. 
He begins to be labeled as dangerous to the Party even among the Negroes that he thought shared the same goals as he.

 "During the following days I learned through discreet questioning that I had seemed a fantastic element to the black Communists. I was shocked to hear that I, who had been only to grammar school had been classified as an intellectual. What was an intellectual? I had never heard the word used in the sense that it applied to me. . . I learned to my dismay, that the black Communists had commented upon my clean shoes, my clean shirt, and the tie I had worn. Above all, my manner of speech had seemed an alien thing to them. 'He talks like a book,' I heard one of them say. And that was enough to condemn me forever as bourgeois."

As I read this, I thought about the word gentrification as it applies to the controversy over acceptance of programs intended to revitalize the community in Portland. What's wrong with gentrification if it means better jobs, better schools and a dignified way of life for all in the community regardless of "race, color, or creed?" Shouldn't all who live here look at what our common goals are to work together for a better community and environment and embrace those that offer potential toward this end instead of the constant focus on who's different and who's not based upon superficial judgments in regard to speech, clothing and "right" and "wrong" ways of thinking? My mind began to race with trying to put all this into some kind of perspective for me and what I am doing in Portland. I found my answers in the last part of the book.

"Yes, the whites were as miserable as their black victims, I thought. If this country can't find its way to a human path, if it can't inform conduct with a deep sense of life (all lives matter, my thoughts), then all of us, black as well as white are going down the same drain . . . I picked up a pencil and held it over a white sheet of paper, but my feelings stood in the way of my words. Well, I would wait, day and night until I knew what to say. Humbly now, with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity, I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world that was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal. I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march to fight, to create a sense of hunger for the life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."

In these words I found the meaning of gentrification. The artists and writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance of the late 20's and early 30's have built bridges of words, paintings and music that the writers, poets, artists and musicians living in Portland during its Renaissance can use to span the vast water of segregation that still exists in this country to bring us to that realization of a life full of expression of that which is "inexpressibly human" in us all. I cannot wait to read "Native Son."