"The Rights to the Streets of Memphis" is an excerpt from autobiography "Black Boy" by Richard Wright. That story includes two episodes from his childhood in Memphis, the USA, where he lived with his mother. His father had left the family.
The first episode was about harsh living conditions for the black community in Memphis at that time. When he was a little boy he asked his mother something to eat:
"Mama, I'm hungry,” I complained one afternoon. “Jump up and catch a kungry,” she said, trying to make me laugh and forget. “What's a kungry?” “It's what little boys eat when they get hungry,” she said. “What does it taste like?” “I don't know.” “Then why do you tell me to catch one?” “Because you said that you were hungry,” she said, smiling. I sensed that she was teasing me, and it made me angry. “But I'm hungry. I want to eat.” ... She was ironing, and she paused and looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Where's your father?” she asked me."
Since that, the feeling of hunger was associated in mind of the author with an absence of his father.
The next episode was dedicated to the description of the street life in the city. The mother of the author had got a job, a salary was small but at least they didn't starve. She gave him, a young boy at that time, some money and asked him to go to the grocery and to buy some food. On the way to the shop, he met a gang of boys who took his money. When he came back home in tears, the mother gave him money again and sent him to the shop again. The situation repeated, he was grabbed by this street gang. He returned home crying. The mother didn't allow him to enter the house, she decided to teach him to stand up and fight for himself. She said “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. ... Go now! If you come back into this house without those groceries, I'll whip you!”.
The key point of the story was the turn in the mind (the thoughts) of the main character when he stayed in front of the shut door.
"She slammed the door and I heard the key turn in the lock. I shook with fright. 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."
He came back to his way. When the boys saw him they surrounded him and begun to grab his hands. He threatened “I'll kill you!”. That is what happened next: "In blind fear I let the stick fly, feeling it crack against a boy's skull. ... The boys scattered, yelling, nursing their heads, staring at me in utter disbelief." The author finished the episode by a little bit pathetic line "That night I won the right to the streets of Memphis."
The story gave readers some points for discussion:
- was the mother right to leave her son without protection;
- what could be the fate of the author if some boy from the gang was seriously injured;
- did the author exaggerate the negative perception of his life in Memphis?
After the novel "Black Boy" was published, Richard Wright became famous in the USA. He couldn't accept racism which he had experienced in his country so he moved to France, he became French citizen where he continued writing until his death in 1960.
Here is a link to the original text of the story: