The Vengeance of Black Boys: How Richard Wright, Paul Beatty, and Aaron McGruder Strike Back
Rambsy, Howard, II, The Mississippi Quarterly
"Jesus was black, Ronald Regan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11."
--10-year-old Huey Freeman
INTELLECTUALLY ADEPT, IMAGINATIVE BLACK BOYS SEEM ALMOST unthinkable, even in conversations that propose to concentrate on the "plight of the young black male." In its most recent contribution to this now longstanding discussion, the National Urban League published its annual State of Black America report with a special focus: "Portrait of the Black Male." The document contains essays, statistical narratives, and charts designed to highlight the perilous status of African Americans and black males in particular. "The crisis of the black male is our crisis whether we are black or white, male or female," writes then-Senator Barack Obama in the foreword. "It is in our shared interests and in the interest of every American to stop ignoring these challenges and start finding the solutions that will work" (11). The quantitative data regarding prison and poverty rates, lack of education, and under- employment, to name just some of the many trouble areas for black men, comprise a distressing "portrait." However, these portraits or snapshots often fail to adequately render the variety of multifaceted ideas, attitudes, and motivations that characterize the diverse ruminations of African American men. But then, who knows what type of data researchers would need to collect in order to generate charts and graphs pertaining to the intellectualism and artistic output of black men? For portrayals of the intellectual plight of African American men, a focus on artistic compositions would be necessary.
This essay seeks to highlight the significance of more nuanced depictions of African American men by pinpointing the methods utilized by three writers--Richard Wright, Paul Beatty, and Aaron McGruder--whose works disrupt conventional portraits of young black boys. Concentrating on these nuanced depictions of young black boys enhances an understanding of how three African American writers provide audiences with progressive, alternative views. Wright, Beatty, and McGruder offer multidimensional perspectives that counter typical profiles and portraits, as these writers compose narratives that showcase how black boys interpret their circumstances, confront challenges, and speculate about new possibilities. The writers detail the plights of young black boys from insider perspectives and produce progressive outlooks that oppose conservative ideologies, ideologies promoted by whites as well as blacks and men as well as women. Tactical uses of anger and opposition underscore the writers' compositions and exert degrees of retribution on those who have physically or psychologically abused pre-adolescent African American males. Beatty and McGruder appear to have embraced a notion that Wright had championed--the possibilities of "using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club" (Wright 248).
Like Wright, Beatty and McGruder forcefully utilized words to counterattack those holding rival, if not oppressive, ideologies. According to culture critic bell hooks, "in the world of the southern black community I grew up in, 'back talk' and 'talking back' meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure" (5). Talking back, hooks further explained, "meant dating to disagree and sometimes it just meant having an opinion" (5). In many respects, the defiance of authority figures that runs throughout Black Boy, The White Boy Shuffle, and The Boondocksconstitute instances of talking back." Or, as McGruder, who is a fan of Star Wars, alluded to in one of his drawings, the act of defying larger systems of oppression constitutes an act of "striking back." On the cover of the June 3, 2002, issue of The Nation, McGruder's protagonist wears the robe of a Jedi knight and holds a light saber as he prepares for battle with FBI agents dressed as Imperial storm-troopers. For Wright, Beatty, and McGruder, acts of striking or talking back represent central methods of confronting oppositions. …