In "Everybody's Protest Novel," James Baldwin envisions Richard Wright and Harriet Beecher Stowe in mortal combat: "it seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses."(1) Richard Wright's shouted curse is his novel Native Son (1940). In 1945, Richard Wright published Black Boy,(2) an autobiographical text in which he literally curses his way through the early part of his life. A concern with the nature and use of "bad" language(3) marks Black Boy. Wright's deployment of bad language plays a crucial role in shaping him as an African-American artist. For Black Boy considers not only the development of an artist, but the conflict inherent in the very idea of becoming an African-American artist, and of gaining control over a tool - language - which traditionally barred or curtailed African-American expression.
The importance of education, and of learning to read and write in particular, is a pronounced theme in African-American literature, dating at least from the time of the slave narrative. As Frederick Douglass explained the racial politics of education through the mouth of his master: "'Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,' said he, 'if you teach that nigger . . . how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.'"(4) The ability to express oneself as an educated person can alter fundamentally the identity of a slave; the snuggle for self-expression is the snuggle for freedom.
Thus, from slavery onward, the meaning of "bad" language doubles back on itself. "Bad" language can be good; the "obscenity" of an African-American expressing him/herself also frees African-Americans from the stereotypes imposed on them by an oppressive white culture. Such self-expression is also "bad" because it endangers the life of the African-American who disrupts the racist status quo. These contradictions underlie the slang term "bad" in African-American culture. As Tony Thorne defines the term, "bad" means "good," and originates "from the terminology of the poorest black Americans, either as simple irony or based on the assumption that what is bad in the eyes of the white establishment is good for them."(5) An African-American who speaks proper English may in fact court alienation from his/her own community. Zora Neale Hurston's experiences in Florida provide a striking illustration of this phenomenon:
I went about asking, in carefully-accented Barnardese, 'Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?' The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads.(6)
The African-American community understands that language is not a simple communication tool and acts with full awareness of the political uses of labeling language "good'" or "bad."
To compose Black Boy, Richard Wright negotiated through a language fully implicated in the hierarchies of social power. As Horace Porter notes, "Wright's incredible struggle to master words is inextricably bound to his defiant quest for individual existence and expression."(7) Wright needed language to express himself but in acquiring these skills he risked becoming "bad" by definition of both African-American and white cultures. To become the artist he wanted to be, Richard Wright had to overcome the "badness" ascribed to his expression because he was African-American and avoid complicity with Western ideas of "good literature." He needed to turn "bad" and "good" into "bad" in the African-American sense. Richard Wright accomplishes this negotiation in Black Boy by linking literal "bad" language - dirty words, obscenities, curses - with ideas of inappropriate speech as defined by a racist society. He plays these notions off each other to redefine notions of "good" and "bad" language.
As narrator, Wright does not use direct citations of swearing frequently in the text until the younger Richard has mastered their meaning and use. …