“You ain nothing but a boy yit!”

February 4, 2012

Mississippi son Richard Wright

Mississippi son, Richard Wright, photographed in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Richard Wright’s character Dave Saunders has five years on Faulkner’s Sarty.  Not surprisingly, then, this seventeen-year-old “Man Who Was Almost a Man” longed to escape the name “boy,” a descriptor bestowed on him by the store-owner Joe after Dave confesses his urgent need to buy a gun: “You ain’t nothing but a boy.  You don’t need a gun.”  Dave’s mother, stunned by Dave’s request to spend $2, his monthly pay as a field hand, on one of Joe’s guns, responds the same way: “Don yuh talk t me bout no gun!…You ain nothing but a boy yit!”

But after mom considers how Dave’s gun might benefit her husband as family protector, she gives into Dave’s boyish whining.  Predictably, Dave sneaks out with his new gun and decides to try it out when he and Jenny, his boss’ mule, have plowed “down by the woods,” far enough away that no one will hear Dave’s shot.  Just as predictably, when Dave, ignorant of the gun’s recoiling power, inadvertently kills Jenny, he conjures a boyish lie about Jenny stumbling onto “the point of the plow” and impaling herself.  No one, of course, believes Dave, especially his parents, who demand the truth.  After Dave’s tearful confessions, his father promises to beat him at home, his boss charges him $50 to replace Jenny, and, worst of all, Dave faces derisive laughter and, once again, the name he hates: “Well, boy, it looks like yuh done bought a dead mule!  Hahaha!”

To help my Kosovaran students reflect on this story on manhood, I will ask them to respond in their journals—before class discussion—to these prompts on the ending of Wright’s story:  “As Dave prepares to jump the Illinois Central train for Chicago, what evidence do you see of his continued boyishness?  Do you find any evidence that this decision has, in fact, moved him closer to manhood?”  No doubt, most students will point to Dave’s immature wish to shoot at his boss’ house, “Jusa enough t let im know Dave Saunders is a man.”  Some may argue, too, that Dave’s decision to run away from home shows a childish reluctance to accept responsibility for his own actions.  But other students may stress the courage required, however foolish, to jump a moving train, to cut ties to family, to live on his own.  They may remember, too, what they read in the introductory material on Richard Wright, about his own run from his home town, Natchez, Mississippi, to Memphis, then Chicago, precisely the same story that Wright tells in his famous autobiographical work Black Boy, a story about another boy whose run to freedom generates yet more suffering but also makes him a man.

After we have discussed Wright’s story, I will invite students to share their journal entries.  I will also ask them to reflect on the phallus at the center of this story, the gun, the assumed ticket to manhood, to power.  To what extent can we describe the USA, as reflected in its history and its literature, as a gun-culture?  To what extent can we describe Kosova the same way?  Such questions may well lead to students’ inquiries about the American Second Amendment, and if they ask for my views, I will say that I support the right “to keep and bear arms,” and that at 14 I belonged to the National Rifle Association and won badges for adolescent marksmanship.  I will make this admission to assure my students that in asking these questions I do not intend to campaign for the outlawing of guns in my country or in theirs.  Instead, I ask these questions to get students to ponder the implications of equating manhood—or womanhood—with guns.  What must become of any culture, its fine educational and legal institutions notwithstanding, that defines a “man” or a “woman” as the person with the gun?