For nearly two centuries, from the first time a slave ship touched land, until the 1960's, the only voice heard in the United States was that of whites. Those that were of a different race, particularly blacks, were relegated to nearly complete silence. With very few exceptions, such as Frederick Douglass, black men and women idly sat and lived their lives without voicing the truths of race and race relations. One of the first writers to challenge the social problems that were attached with race was Richard Wright.
Wright's autobiographical novel, Black Boy, was a ground breaking work that sought to shed a light of truth onto what it truly meant to live in America. Richard Wright uses his novel to assert his full belief that there is no inherent identity to a person based solely on his or her skin color. Instead, Wright pushes forward his full belief that any and all ideas that are attached to race are based on a cultural ideology. That is, ideology as defined by James H. Kavanagh.
In his piece, "Ideology," Kavanagh stresses ideas that are labeled as normal, such as race or even gender relations, are actually constructions of a culture's larger institutions (institutions being mass media, churches, schools, etc). Kavanagh clearly states this as he says, "… ideology designates a rich "system of representations," worked up in specific material practices, which helps form individuals into social subjects who "freely" internalize an appropriate "picture" of their social world and their place in it,"(Kavanagh 31).
Right along with this line of thought, Wright sought to bring to the forefront the notion that it is the ideology of America that shapes the so called truths attached to not only blacks, but every race. Like Richard Wright, I fully agree and declare that the ideas that are attached to all races are mere ideological constructions. I fully believe that the ideology of America, pushed by large institutions, creates a non-inherent belief that people of differing skin colors are also inwardly different.
Furthermore, I do too propose that their must be a societal change for this ideology to be displaced, but unlike Wright, I do not propose Communism. Instead, I propose a nonviolent up rise of sorts that will point out the stereotypes that the American ideology creates. Richard Wright does not open Black Boy with any kind of declaration against American ideology. Instead, he shows his readers that he too was born into a world that dictated what he felt towards other races as well as his own.
As a young child, Wright does not inherently know that there must be differences between him and the white people he sees every day. This is best shown when, as a young child, Wright can not understand the outrage of the blacks around him concerning the beating of black child at the hands of a white man. Speaking of this occurrence, Wright says, "I felt that the "white" man had had a right to beat the "black" boy, for I naively assumed that the "white" man must have been the "black" boy's father," (Wright 23).
Clearly, this line of thought reflects the fact that Wright had to be shown what to know, fear, and believe about people of his own color, as well as those who were different. Stated better, Wright gives this particular example to show that, as a small child, he did not know blacks and whites had to be different. He as well as the others around him had to be taught that they were different because of the color of their skin. Like Wright, I too fell into similar situations.
At the age of 6, is the year 1989, I witnessed a white man publicly berating a black teenage girl. The incident became widespread news as it reached all over south central Alabama. All of the people who were the same color as my family and I seemed to be outraged, yet I did not and could not understand. As with the incident that surrounded the environment of Wright, I too felt that the man must have had some kind of right for his attack. In my mind, he had to have been her father, or at least a close relative.
Neither myself nor Richard Wright were able to see that what took place was all based on a societal construction concerning race. Both white men sought to "put a nigger in his/her place. " Yet, because we were children, Wright and I both were not yet shackled with the "truths" of race built by American ideology. This then only furthers the point that one is not born knowing that he and the children of different races must be inherently different that him/her. However, ideology is hard to completely escape.
Even in seeing at a very young age that there were no intrinsic racial differences, Richard Wright still went through a stage where he too grasped ideological racial differences. Before he is able to reject ideology and assert his own beliefs, Wright first lives what would be a "normal" life. That is, normal in the sense that he too clung to the beliefs concerning race that were given to him by everyone around him. Unlike a small child who sees all people as some what the same, Wright grows into a person that seems to know and even feel that the difference of races must be true from birth.
Wright best states this as he says, "These fantasies were no longer a reflection of my reaction to the white people, they were a part of my living, of my emotional life; they were a culture, a creed, a religion," (Wright 74). Again, like Wright I too lived this same experience. I lived in world where it was now obvious that people of differing skin shades were born to live, breathe, and act a certain way. Like Wright, I was exposed daily to people of my color and differing colors, and in their actions I saw that they perfectly fit to all that I had learned and heard.
As Wright stated, I too was surrounded and lived by a stead fast creed that I was born into a certain attitude and way of life, and furthermore, I "knew" that everyone else around me was born with these same attitudes and lifestyle based solely on skin color. The difference comes however, for Wright and I both, in the fact that we each were able to see through the walls erected by ideology. Wright's disenchantment with ideology came as he was able to see that people of all races were merely performing a role. That is, they acted just like society said they should or should not.
For Wright, this then clearly points out that American life is shaped by constructions as opposed to truths. Wright marvels at and is too disgusted with this way of life as he says, "I began to marvel at how smoothly the black boys acted out the roles that they white race had mapped out for them. Most of them were not conscious of living a special, separate, stunted way of life. Yet I knew that in some period of their growing up – period that they had no doubt forgotten – there had been developed in them a delicate sensitive controlling mechanism… ," (Wright 197).
Personally, there was a specific incident that allowed me to see that what I and everyone around me felt about race was shaped by cultural constructions. At the age of 20, only two years ago, I sat with my family and spent the night watching the stand up performances of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Roc. I became amazed at the way each comedian, although separated by decades, seemed to repeat the same exact ideas about race. All three men joked about and repeated how people of specific races should act and even why they should act that way.
This is when the change was struck. I started to see that what I had once held close to my heart as natural truths were actually constructions pushed by my environment. The more I closely listened to those that were always pushed in front of my face by large institutions, the easier it became to see that they were constructing, for all of America, a very specific way of life. Ideology is not something that is easily defined or grasped. It permeates every aspect of not only American life, but others cultures too have their own ideology.
Race is just one small aspect of what is shaped by those that present mass information. This way of life will continue to exist until some kind of change is affected. Richard Wright proposed Communism. Here, however, is where I am different. I propose a mass attack on all information outlets. There are several people that idly stand by and live their lives even in knowing that they are barred down by social constructions. I ask that all people in this situation, all that know there is no inherent difference between any person based solely on race get their belief "out there.
" Stated better, do not idly sit by and complain or remain angry. Instead, I propose that we all write papers, give speeches, give interviews, do whatever is necessary in a non-violent way to grow from the minority to the majority. We must make sure that the young and old alike here our voice, and that they here our message. Only then can it be seen that it is ones environment that shapes their identity as opposed to some birth right. If we sit and wait or do nothing, we will continue to live in a world that we claim to despise.
Kavanagh, James H. "Ideology." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. F. Lentricchia
and T. McLaughlin. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1990. 27-42
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers: 1998