I was browsing through piles of books collected by the Friends of Rosenberg Library, looking for Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
The Friends offer used books for sale to raise money for the library, and they are planning a display of books by and about African-Americans for Black History Month.
As I browsed, I thought about writers who had influenced me.
I read Wright’s “Black Boy” when I was a teenager and dropped out of high school.
My school didn’t really offer much education, and I was going only because others expected me to. Wright’s book convinced me that I was wasting my life trying to conform.
Wright grew up under two powerful influences: the racism of the Jim Crow South and the religious beliefs of his family. One system told him he must behave as if he were less than human. The other told him he was not free to choose what he believed — that his beliefs and values had to conform to those of the community.
Wright’s book is the story of how a child grew into an adult by resisting pressure to conform.
I read Wright’s masterpiece as if he were talking to me. His message: Find your own way. It’s your responsibility, and if you fail to do that one essential thing you can’t blame anyone else.
Wright’s book is, to my mind, the greatest autobiography written by an American — unless you consider Baldwin’s autobiographical essay “Notes of a Native Son.” The title refers to Wright’s novel “Native Son,” and both writers grappled with “self-reliance,” that peculiar American idea.
Emerson preached it. Thoreau refined it. But African-American writers of the 20th century took the idea into new territory. Who can you rely on when an entire society demands that you conform to a system that would make you less human?
It’s still a profound question. How do we set boundaries between the individual and the community in a democracy, a state in which the people themselves set the standards and demand conformity?
Good writers start a conversation with readers, and I have been arguing with my favorite writers for decades. If you’re interested in joining a conversation like that, the Friends’ collection offers possibilities.
This collection will be available throughout February in the Friends’ Book Shop on the second floor of the library.
Some of the books feature old voices you really ought to be familiar with. But there are some new voices. You might discover a new friend. And who knows? You might get into a conversation with a provocative writer that lasts for decades.