Wright’s Black Boy and Cather’s My Ántonia:
Enlightening Tales of Literature

According to critic Louise Rosenblatt, literature “enlarges our knowledge of the world and our ability to sympathize with others.” In other words, what we read in various works of literature increase our understanding of what happens during different times in varied parts of the world. They also help us to understand, and show compassion for many of the hardships people have suffered throughout history. Black Boy, by Richard Wright, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather are two excellent examples of books that support Rosenblatt’s statement. In Black Boy, the reader is given an insight to what it is like being a poor, young, African-American growing up in the South. My Antonia is a celebration of the past, and illustrates the difficulties and troubles of different people during the period of Immigration in America. Each book enlarges our knowledge and ability to sympathize with others in different and similar ways.
Black Boy, the autobiography by Richard Wright, takes you into the life of a young African American boy growing up in the South. It reveals many things about the customs, troubles, and flaws that people were forced to live with in the south. Black Boy vividly portrays the deprivation Wright and many other African Americans faced growing up. In the earlier years of Richard’s life, the book shows poverty, hunger, lack of emotional support, and miserable living conditions faced by Richard. It sheds a light onto the true circumstances many people have no choice but to live with growing up. However more importantly, it shows Richard's response to these difficulties. “Living space for the four of us – my mother, my brother, my father, and me – was a kitchen and a bedroom” [Wright 11]. “Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant…now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly…this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent…I would find hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached” [Wright 16]. Black Boy also brilliantly illustrates the ever-present prejudice against African-American men and women during this period in time. Richard’s experiences, from selling KKK newspapers to being beaten up by white men giving him a ride home all display the ever present prejudicial perspective people had on life at that time. “In the paling light I turned the pages and read the articles so brutally anti-Negro that goose pimples broke out over my skin” [Wright 154]. Finally, Black Boy shows us that all the experiences that someone encounters wind up shaping their future, who they become. In Black Boy, different events such as the incident involving the speech at his graduation, and many others of his childhood experiences indoctrinated his life, and who he became. When looked at in a wider perspective, all of his life experiences were combined to form Black Boy, his autobiography. Black Boy is an excellent example of Rosenblatt’s statement.
Another book which gives us a better understanding of the world and a sympathy for people in it, is the novel My Antonia, by Willa Cather. My Antonia has been called nostalgic and elegiac because it celebrates the past. The inscription on the title page of My Antonia is a quote from Virgil, “Optima dies... prima fugit”, which means the best days are the first to flee. The childhood days were best for Jim Burden, as he discovers when he leaves home. Each scene seems immediate and vivid, as if time has been suspended. This sentimental feeling about the past seems to reflect who Cather was as a writer and especially a human, more than anyone else, but is also the view many people in today’s society have – that the past is a steadfast, “incommunicable” [Cather 238] commodity which must be forever cherished. Many themes in this semi-autobiographical novel teach us about the world in that time period, and the people who lived in it. Another main theme in My Antonia is the journey of immigrants from foreign lands to America. Often times, this process was very difficult. As displayed by the Shimerda’s, many families who were well-off and well respected in