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Contribution to Book
Transforming Naturalist Hunger Through African American Artistry
Revisionist Approaches (2018)
  • Cara Erdheim Kilgallen
Although central to American literary naturalism, the black experience is often obscured by a critical emphasis on white-authored writings and social Darwinist discourse.  Many associate naturalist narratives with images of physically fit white men asserting their racial superiority and sexual strength; however, a dedication to social reformism and the immigrant experience also guided this group of authors, as exemplified by Upton Sinclair’s muckraking fiction and Jack London’s socialism.  Recently scholars like Jennifer Fleissner, June Howard, Donald Pizer, and Jeanne Reesman have drawn attention to representations of racial otherness in naturalist novels.  They have focused also on the role of women writers, such as Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose contributions to naturalism have been overlooked by critics.  My work on Richard Wright contributes to these critical conversations about marginalized identity.  This articles locates the presence of black voices within literary naturalism, a movement often viewed as masculine and white. 
Through an ecocritical analysis of hunger and food in Wright’s African American narratives, I participate in recent efforts to rethink naturalism in terms of race, gender, the body, ethnicity, and class.  This paper explores African American culinary history through close readings of “Black Confession,” the manuscript for Black Boy, and the memoir itself.  I open with illustrations of racialized hunger in Black Boy (1945) and Uncle Tom’s Children (1938).  From here I move into Wright’s works of fiction, especially Lawd Today! (1963) and Native Son (1941), which depicts eating as a degrading and destructive practice among African American individuals, families, and communities.  Ultimately, I demonstrate how disordered eating patterns shift from shameful to soulful in 12 Million Black Voices (1941), Black Boy or American Hunger, and the posthumously published Haiku: This Other World (1998).                          
I argue that Black Boy (including its earliest manuscript version, “Black Confession”)[i] functions as a transitional text in which Wright transforms hunger from a shameful racial mark, which prompts a purely physical numbing of the senses through impulsive eating and drinking, into an appetite for literacy, stories, and songs about African American ancestry, community, and identity.  This thematic link between scraps of food, knowledge, and land connects Wright to the history of black cuisine, as well as to the 1960’s Soul Food Movement, which Wright’s early literature anticipates.  Similar to the way that black culture created quality out of scraps, so too does Black Boy reshape his response to white constructions of African American hunger by refusing to accept his appetite as shameful and dirty.  Black Boy ultimately dismisses the leftover food, filth, and knowledge of the white world, and instead hungers for the ability to create and digest his own stories.  Through the creation of narratives about food, family, and the natural world, Black Boy learns to cultivate a taste for his own cuisine and culture

  • African American literature,
  • Naturalism,
  • Cultural Food Studies,
  • Richard Wright
Publication Date
Spring June 30, 2018
Citation Information
Cara Erdheim Kilgallen. "Transforming Naturalist Hunger Through African American Artistry" Revisionist Approaches (2018)
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