Sunday, May 25, 2008

Richard Wright, Paris, and Memories

I am going to the Richard Wright conference in Paris next month. Whenever I'm preparing a paper for a conference, I tend to re-read as much of the writer's work as I can. I decided to re-read biographies on Wright by Walker and Fabre. I'm always intrigued by writer's lives, wishing that I had had the nerve to take the risks that some of them took in order to live their unique vision of their life. For awhile, I was headed on that path. Then I capitulated for security: got married, settled down, and had a child.

But I was combing my memory trying to remember how Richard Wright entered my life. Trust me, it was not from my institutionalized education. I am certain that my mother gave me a copy of "Black Boy" to read when I was thirteen years old or so, because I have given each one of my nephews as well as my son a copy of "Black Boy" to read when they turned thirteen, and I know that this tradition did not originate with me.

This past Friday, my son sent me a text message: "Mom, do we have a copy of 'Black Boy' in the house?" Although the books whose authors' last names begin with W are not shelved (I've run out of shelf space), I was certain that all of my books by and about Richard Wright were accessible. When I combed through a stack of books, I realized that I own six copies of "Black Boy," including two hardback copies from my childhood. I sent my son a text message, and he responded by asking me to bring the book to school at 12:30 p.m. Oh, it must be nice to have a mom who is readily available to drop off a book at school in the middle of the day.

I was puzzled as to why he was asking for Wright's autobiography, for I was certain that he had read it before. When my son arrived home I queried him, and yes, he had read "Black Boy" before, which is why he asked me to bring it to school. Evidently he needs a book to read for English class: the last two weeks of school. In my opinion, his English teacher should have taught "Black Boy" in 12th grade English as a prerequisite for graduating. But hey, I don't select the books for Fairfax County Schools, and I have met some of the folks who do. Don't ask me about them. It was quite a revelation when I served on the committee with these folks and wrote reviews for "School Library Journal." I quickly gained insight into why the public and school libraries in Fairfax County are replete with mysteries and romance novels. Oh, and yes, I was the only African American on the committee. Uh, hum.

Unlike my relationship with my mother wherein we discussed nearly every book I read, my son will not discuss literature with me. My son was an avid reader when I homeschooled him. He had no choice. I designed his lessons so that he read in all discipines, and wrote across the curriculum. No worksheets in my house; however,when he entered school in the 7th grade in Ann Arbor, he came home with a stack of worksheets, and he quickly realized that he could not finish all of the worksheets if he took time to read the material in his textbooks. He stopped reading. When he entered the 7th grade, he was tested and his reading level was at the college level. Each year that he was in school, his reading comprehension level dropped, so that by the time he was in the 10th grade, he was reading only at a 10th grade level. Work sheets and busy work decreased his enthusiasm for reading literature and likewise lowered his comprehension level. My mother always warned me that public schools can ruin a bright child, which is why I homeschooled my son in the first place. Oh, well, I am hoping that he will one day revisit his love for reading and understand why I made the educational choices for him that I did.

In the meantime, I miss that my mother is not alive to talk literature with me. This is one of the greatest losses for me in her death: the ability to call her and talk about any book because more likely than not she had read it. My mother and I talked about Wright, and many other writers, at length. And I so miss her stories and insight. My mother grew up in the same neighborhood as Paule Marshall and June Jordan. In fact, once my mother and I attended one of Paule Marshall's readings when Marshall's novel "Daughter" was published. Afterwards my mother and Marshall talked at length about people whom they knew from their neighborhood. Marshall is older than my mother, however, she remembered some of my mother's older siblings.

So I forge ahead without her insight and conversation, but with memories of our debates, and a house full of books to prove that I am truly her daughter.


Johnny said...

Richard's work is awesome and inspiring; "Native Son" was my intro into Richard's world. The flame-burning hatred of the character "Bigger" was understandable during that era.

Roger W said...

Hello Ms. Walker:

Check out Adam Mansbach's Angry Black White Boy. It riff's Richard Wright's classic.


M. L. Simms said...

Johnny, I'm glad to know that you read "Native Son." Roger w, I will read "Angry Black White Boy."