“The Library Card” by Richard Wright
Richard Nathaniel Wright, the son of an illiterate sharecropper father and a school teacher mother, was born on September 4, 1908, on a Mississippi plantation some twenty miles from Natchez, in the community of Roxie. His parentage is emblematic: his father may be seen as the soil, the concrete in life; his mother as the world of ideas, the abstractions that shape our sense of reality. The trajectory of Wright's life from his birth in Mississippi to his death in Paris on November 28, l960, at 52 years of age, marks a long and unfinished quest for the liberation of the mind and the human spirit. What seems to have driven Wright's quest might be described as the multiple dimensions of hunger. During his boyhood, Wright's hunger was often physical due to his father's desertion of the family when Wright was only seven years old. In fact, the absence of food and of his father became interchangeable in the boy's mind. When, as a man of thirty-seven, Wright reflected on his black childhood and youth in the Deep South, he exposed his pain in words that are haunting: "As the days slid past the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, and whenever I felt hunger I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness." The bitterness, however, is not only directed against his biological father but also against a whole society that provided grounds for hunger. The painful knowledge that in the South of the early twentieth century, the ceiling of a brilliant BLACK BOY's possibilities was indeed low, thus creating a vast need for fulfillment in Wright's young life. Wright's hunger to develop as a whole human being was social, psychological, and spiritual. This hunger to be, to know, and to understand was pervasive, formative, and motivating throughout his lifetime. n the books that followed BLACK BOY, Wright expresses his deep interest in the large questions of authority, power, and freedom. Like Cross Damon, the hero of The Outsider (1953), Wright himself had existential longings. If one understands this novel as one segment of Wright's intellectual autobiography, it is easier to understand why and how he situated himself in non-fiction works and why he was so fascinated by modern psychology in Lawd Today, Savage Holiday, and The Long Dream. Whether Wright was analyzing the independence movement and African culture in Black Power (1954), reporting on a conference at which Asian and African nations debated what should be their future in the global order in The Color Curtain (1956), or examining the political and religious intricacies of Catholic culture in Pagan Spain (1957), Wright was always the engaged writer, the brother in suffering. It is the ethos of Wright's voice, his ability to be both victim and asserter, that insures his authority and is the most enduring quality of his literary legacy.
What gave Wright the idea that he should read something by Mencken? (45) What problems did he face when he resolved to read one of Mencken’s books? (46) Once he obtained a copy of a book by Mencken, under what conditions was Wright able to read it?
When Wright claims that reading a novel by Sinclair Lewis enabled him to understand his boss (implicitly even better than his boss understood himself), how do you think this might have happened? (49)
What was the reaction of white men / women to his reading? Why? What does it tell you about the nature of knowledge?
How did reading create a tension in Wright’s life? (49-50) Can you explain why Wright calls himself carrying a “criminal burden” (50) because of his reading? How did Wright view his options in life once he began reading regularly? (51)
How does this selection contribute anything to our course? Does it highlight any features of the intellectual journey that you can discern? Can this be related to any of the other readings in the section or to themes from Bonaventure?