The American Hunger: an analysis of "Hunger" as used by Richard Wright in his book, Black Boy.

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The American Hunger“A hungry man is not a free man.” - Adlai E. Stevenson“Men can starve from a lack of self realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.” - Richard WrightThe life and story of Richard Wright is one of heartbreaking defeats and powerful victories. Growing up a poor black boy in the South, Richard Wright lived a life that was all too familiar to those in his situation at that time in history, a life of impoverished uncertainty. Richard experienced a rough childhood, and in many ways even more difficult later years, and while many people were in the same situation as he was, he was fortunate enough to be able to manage life’s hurdles and put to work in his favor. One of his biggest personal obstacles was one that many were facing, that of hunger. However, for Richard, hunger became to him much more than a simple physical desire for food.

For Richard, hunger became not only a way of life, but a way of dealing with life. Throughout his formative years, Richard Wright was faced with the torment of hunger. While he may have had a difficult time getting there, Richard was able to change his perception on his hunger and utilize it as a cognitive metaphor to help manifest a better life.

Richard lived a life typical for that of an impoverished black child of his era. He often moved from place to place, had little to no money, and was regularly exposed to violence and other threats. While he and his family moved from place to place, very rarely did his situation improve. Throughout most of childhood, Richard was faced with the torment of hunger. However, for Richard, his hunger was more than just a physical desire for sustenance. For Richard, his hunger was a driving force that shaped his very life. From an early age, Richard made an association of his hunger for food and his hatred for his father. As it was rather intently pointed out to him by his mother, his father was the one that brought home the food. Richard extrapolated from this to make the realization that because his father left him, he would not get to eat. Richard states: “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.” His association of hunger pains with his distaste for his father provides a constant source of psychological distress for Richard, persistently reminding him of his negative father. As Richard gets older, he begins to feel his physical hunger so strongly that he sees his pain as a manifestation in the form of a stalking predator. The pains of hunger were a part of most of Richard’s life, and as a result of this constant lingering suffering, he has learned to cope with his agony in much the same way one might deal with a benign, chronic affliction. He makes reference to his hunger as being like that of a companion following him throughout his day, but as his situation worsens, that companion becomes more menacing and threatening, as depicted in his saying, “Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.” However, with this “new hunger” that “baffled [him], scared [him], made [him] angry and insistent,” while antagonizing, also brought to him a great gift of insight. As a result of this hunger, Richard begins to make connections in his life and it causes him “for the first time. to pause and think.” This acts as a transcendent experience in Richard’s life as it opens his eyes and forces him to not only question his surroundings, but also reflect on his own soul and psyche. With this introspective awakening, Richard is exposed to a new kind of hunger, a hunger for knowledge and intellectualism.

This new “hunger” for knowledge engulfs him as much as his physical need for food. Much like his struggle with his previous feelings of hunger, Richard sees many obstacles standing in the way of his new desire, and he begins to look for ways to be more proactive in his quest for satisfaction and fulfillment. Just as Richard’s quest for food would lead him to try to sell his dog, his desire for knowledge leads him to face his fears and take a bold approach. One of his first eye-opening experiences comes following his discussion with Ella, his grandmother’s boarder, in which he says that he was “… as much afraid of her as he was attracted to her.” This meeting leads to him asking about her books, in which he becomes infatuated with. As Ella and Richard read Bluebeard and His Seven Wives, Richard is enthralled in nearly every aspect of the story. Richard states: “I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murder…” It is in these lines that Richard finds a new passion in his life, and while his declaration is in reference to the dark nature that he has grown up with as a result of various hardships and violence in his life, it is through this new passion that he is able to both satisfy his hunger for knowledge, as well as “quench this thirst” for the violent rage that lies within him. Richard responds to his reading of books that he “had tasted what to [him] was life, and [he] would have more of it, somehow, someway.” This determination is directly related to that of which led Richard to be more proactive in his quest to satisfy his initial hunger. While his first experience with hunger made him “pause and think,” this new intellectual hunger pushed Richard into action. Richard soon realizes that to satisfy his cravings, he much break free from his shackled life and flee the South. With new determination, Richard becomes emboldened in his advances to attain what he desires. From his aforementioned attempt to sell his dog in a white neighborhood, which he previously thought of with fear, to his writing a short story and having it published, a significant step to him gaining independence and freedom from his past life, hunger, Richard’s experiences, stemming from his conflicts with hunger, lead him to adopt a new attitude and outlook on to his life: “Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning.” Richard begins to realize that there can in fact be good in his life. To realize this good, he must change his outlook and perceptions, and to achieve this, he can utilize that which he has always known, his hunger.

Richard comes to realize that food is not as important as many of the other problems that he, like many of his world, is facing. Furthermore, while he fights with his urges of physical hunger, he learns valuable life lessons that draw on the same insatiability of his appetite of desire. Richard learns to utilize these feelings of “hunger,” of want, to evoke changes in his emotional and psychological world for good. He realizes that the he is not the only one with needs, and that tending to the social ills and problems facing the world are more important than his physical desires. Even as he becomes more independent and stable, Richard is still plagued by physical hunger, all the while serving as a symbol for the emptiness of his life. From the earliest of his years, hunger, whether literal or metaphorical, has been a part of Richard’s life. From his searing stomach aches from lack of food to his almost irrational compulsion of reading and advancing from his lack of intellectual stimulation, Richard’s experience with the desire of hungering has been such a shaping element of his life through his formative years that he cannot rationally differentiate the two. In his mind, whether he is aware of it or not, he believes that much like with without sustenance, if he does not satisfy his intellectual hunger, he might not survive.

Richard, Wright,. Black boy (American hunger) : a record of childhood and youth. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998. Print.