Concept of the Month -- January 2013

A Social Agenda Trumps the Reality of Character in Richard Wright's "Rite of Passage"

The famous American author, Richard Wright, died in 1960. His writing lives on in 20th century American literature. "Native Son" and "Black Boy" are two of his best known works. He also wrote "Rite of Passage," a short novel that was not published until more than thirty years after his death.

Mr. Wright at one time was a member of the Communist Party but later severed his ties with that organization. He was passionate in his focus on social injustice, notably racial .He believed that juvenile delinquency arose out of poverty, child neglect, and government bureaucracy which was insensitive to the plight or minorities, often making their already desperate situations worse.

In "Rite of Passage," he writes about, Johnny, a fifteen year old who, after receiving his straight "A" report card, comes home after to school only to discover that his belongings have been packed up and he must leave the only home he ever knew. Adopted as an infant, he was raised in a loving, although not well to do, Harlem family. The bureaucracy of New York City cruelly demanded that Johnny leave this family and live with another couple. Outraged and determined not to be pushed around, this teenager strikes out on his own and joins a small ruthless criminal gang of other black teens who are living on their own. They survive by committing crimes, some of which are violent and ruthless.

After a brutal fight with the leader of the gang, Johnny becomes the leader. He joins the others in mugging an innocent white man who was walking through a park. He does not become involved in this with enthusiasm. Instead, he hears a woman calling to him, "You boys, you boys". Whether this is a real person or someone whom Johnny conjures up in his mind does not matter. He wishes to cease living as an outlaw and return to the security of a family. and the life that he had known. But that does not hppen and he "had to go on alone to make a life for himself .by trying to reassemble the shattered fragments of his lonely heart."

This book is beautifully written, and the reader can feel great sympathy toward Johnny as his life takes a change for the worst. But to this reader, it did not ring true. It is highly unlikely that a highly responsible individual, which Johnny apparently was, would out of desperation even over a dramatic and traumatic change in circumstances, would manifest a complete change of character. For this reader, tJohnny's jarring transformation from a humane, loving, responsible person into a violent criminalt required a suspension of belief.

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