Richard Wright was brought up in a very restrictive household, beaten by his black relatives, older black boys, and tormented by the fear of beatings from the white community as well. Although Richard is a victim of his environment and is shaped as a human by what is done to him, he also shapes his own experience in the way in which he reacts to things that happen to him.
An example of this can be seen in the first chapter of his novel, Black Boy. Richard’s mother sends Richard to the store to buy groceries, and on the way he is attacked by a gang of older boys who beat him and take his money. He runs back to his mother, but she sends him out again. The second time he starts out, he retreats to his mother, but finds no solace from her. She forces him to go back, and he is beaten and robbed a second time.
“ ‘What’s the matter?’ my mother asked.
‘It’s those same boys,’ I said. ‘They’ll beat me.’
‘You’ve got to get over that,’ she said. ‘Now go on.’
‘I’m scared,’ I said.
‘Go on and don’t pay any attention to them,’ she said.
I went out of the door and walked briskly down the sidewalk, praying that the gang would not molest me. But when I came abreast of them, someone shouted.
‘There he is!’
They came toward me and I broke into a wild run toward home. They overtook me and flung me to the pavement. I yelled, pleaded, kicked, but they wrenched the money out of my hand. They yanked me to my feet, gave me a few slaps, and sent me home sobbing.’ ”
His mother’s next reaction is where we see how overpowered Richard is by his environment. After her son has been beaten twice, she hands him more money and a stick and threatens that if he does not fight back and return home with groceries, SHE will beat him.
“...My mother met me at the door.
‘They b-beat m-me,’ I gasped. ‘They t-t-took the m-money.’
I started up the steps, seeking the shelter of the house.
‘Don’t you come in here,’ my mother warned me.
I froze in my tracks and stared at her. ‘But they’re coming after me,’ I said.
‘You just stay right where you are,’ she said in a deadly tone. ‘I’m going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself.’
She went into the house and I waited, terrified, wondering what she was about. Presently she returned with more money and another note; she also had a long, heavy stick.
‘Take this money, this note, and this stick,’ she said. ‘Go to the store and buy those groceries. If those boys bother you, then fight.’
I was baffled. My mother was telling me to fight, a thing that she had never done before.
‘But I’m scared,’ I said.
‘Don’t you come into this house until you’ve gotten those groceries,’ she said.
‘They’ll beat me; they’ll beat me,’ I said.
‘Then stay in the streets; don’t come back here!’ I ran up the steps and tried to force my way past her into the house. A stinging slap came on my jaw. I stood on the sidewalk crying.
‘Please, let me wait until tomorrow,’ I begged.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Go now! If you come back into this house without those groceries, I’ll whip you!’
She slammed the door and I heard the key turn in the lock...”
Richard is now faced with an important choice. He will be beaten either way, outside or inside, but if he faces the danger outside, he has a chance to defend himself. He cannot fight his mother, but he can fight the boys in the gang. In this way, his mother is helping him, although it is a harsh way for a child to learn this lesson.
What Richard does is his shaping of his own environment. He goes to face the gang, and triumphs over them, but is also overcome by his own fear. He not only beats the boys, but he then threatens the adults who come out to try to stop him. He goes overboard from intense emotion, and takes complete control of his situation by eliminating all of his opposition.
“...I was alone upon the dark , hostile streets and gangs were after me. I had the choice of being beaten at home or away from home. I clutched the stick, crying, trying to reason. If I were beaten at home, there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it; but if I were beaten in the streets, I had a chance to fight and defend myself. I walked slowly down the sidewalk, coming closer to the gang of boys, holding the stick tightly. I was so full of fear that I could scarcely breathe. I was almost upon them now.
‘There he is again!’ the cry went up. They surrounded me quickly and began to grab for my hand.
‘I’ll kill you!’ I threatened.
They closed in. In blind fear I let the stick fly, feeling it crack against a boy’s skull. I swung again, lamming another skull, then another. Realizing that they would retaliate if I let up for but a second, I fought to lay them low, to knock them cold, to kill them so that they could not strike back at me. I flayed with tears in my eyes, teeth clenched, stark fear making me throw every ounce of my strength behind each blow. I hit again and again, dropping the money and the grocery list. The boys scattered, yelling, nursing their heads, staring at me in utter disbelief. They had never seen such frenzy. I stood panting, egging them on, taunting them to come on and fight. When they refused, I ran after them and they tore out for their homes, screaming. The parents of the boys rushed into the streets and threatened me, and for the first time in my life I shouted at grownups, telling them that I would give them the same if they bothered me. I finally found my grocery list and the money and went to the store. Ony my way back I kept my stick poised for instant use, but there was not a single boy in sight. That night I won the right to the streets of Memphis.’”
This is one occasion in which Richard shapes his environment as much as he is shaped by it. In this way, he is able to live and learn in and from his not so pleasant surroundings, and find a way to overcome the obstacles that are involved.