Rite of Passage


Wright's never-before-published novel details the coming-of-age of Johnny Gibbs. Set in Harlem in the late 1940s, the story is shaped around Johnny's painful discovery that he is a foster child. Afterword by Arnold Rampersad.

When fifteen-year-old Johnny Gibbs is told that he is really a foster child, he runs off into the streets of Harlem and meets up with a gang that wants him to participate in a mugging. Includes criticism of ...

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Wright's never-before-published novel details the coming-of-age of Johnny Gibbs. Set in Harlem in the late 1940s, the story is shaped around Johnny's painful discovery that he is a foster child. Afterword by Arnold Rampersad.

When fifteen-year-old Johnny Gibbs is told that he is really a foster child, he runs off into the streets of Harlem and meets up with a gang that wants him to participate in a mugging. Includes criticism of Wright's fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Leila Toledo
Negative images for a teenager are rampant throughout this story. The foster care system that we have is not the best but it is not as insensitive as depicted in this story. Since our social service programs are currently undergoing scrutiny, this book may just muddy the waters with misinformation. Positive images are what teenagers need, not negative, hostile ones. To sum it up, this story is out of date and irrelevant.
The ALAN Review - Nancy E. Zuwiyya
Although Richard Wright wrote this novella fifty years ago, its themes of urban violence and family instability are just as relevant for today's teenagers. Wright sets his story in Manhattan around a neighborhood school used as the meeting place for a local gang. Fifteen-year-old Johnny suddenly discovers his parents are really foster parents and his real parents were unfit. He runs away and finds out that his best friend belongs to a gang of misfits. His flight, fears, initiation into the gang, and development into a leader compose the plot. Wright's prose is lean and powerful, his tone tough and impatient. Although the novella itself is easy reading, the impact of the violence and racism will require a mature reader. Following the novella is a scholarly essay by Arnold Rampersad assessing Rite of Passage within the context of Wright's other work. Recommended for high school and college reading, especially for multicultural discussions.
Hazel Rochman
A newly discovered novella written by Wright in the 1940s evokes today's urban violence and also the "cold wet shelterless midnight streets" of Dickens' "Oliver Twist". Johnny, a gifted 15-year-old student, runs away from his loving Harlem home when he discovers that he's really a foster child and that the faceless city bureaucracy is moving him to a new family. Suddenly alone on the streets, hungry, and lost, he survives with a brutal gang, fights the leader for dominance, and helps mug a man in the park. As the title suggests, this is an archetypal story of the loss of identity and the search for manhood. There's some overwriting at times, with far too many adverbs ("guiltily," "bawlingly," "dreadfully," etc.); a few minor characters are stereotyped; and the symbolism about crossing the barrier of childhood is overexplained. But the story is taut and terrible, and the account of Johnny trapped in a bleak, hostile city will hold teens fast. They'll also recognize the ironic truth of Johnny's friend who envies him the chance to break free of family. Opposed to the corrupt adults (including the police) who pay the kids to steal is the figure of an African American woman who calls out to Johnny in moral outrage for the crime of mugging an innocent person. Real or imaginary, she haunts Johnny. He wishes she would find him and bring him home. The eminent critic Arnold Rampersad, in a long, insightful afterword, shows how this story integrates many themes of Wright's work, including the relationship between racism, poverty, and violent crime.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780780770805
  • Publisher: Harpercollins Childrens Books
  • Publication date: 9/1/1994
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Wright won international renown for his powerful and visceral depiction of the black experience. He stands today alongside such African-American luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and two of his books, Native Son and Black Boy, are required reading in high schools and colleges across the nation. He died in 1960.

David Diaz has illustrated numerous award-winning books for children, including smoky night by Eve Bunting, for which he was awarded the Caldecott Medal; The Wanderer by Sharon Creech, which received a Newbery Honor; and Me, Frida by Amy Novesky, a Pura Belpré Honor Award winner. Mr. Diaz lives in Southern California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Johnny slouched down behind his desk, clutching his battered reading book, his mind winging away. The white woman teacher's silver voice caressed his ears droningly, lulling him into the depths of a daydream centered about a bowl of steaming beef stew waiting for him upon the kitchen table. Beneath the measured rhythm of the teacher's voice came the quiet ticking of the wall clock, the sound of soft breathing, and an occasional scrape of a restless shoe. Through the west windows a flood of sun washed the classroom. Johnny hungered for the streets, his nostrils yearned for fresh air, his legs for movement, his lungs for shouting . . . Then the bowl of beef stew swam again before his eyes and he sighed.


The gong for closing made Johnny's body jump for joy. A buzz of whispers filled the air and the teacher rapped for order.

"You may pack your books," she said. "And, as each of you pass my desk, stop for your report card." She held aloft a batch of white sheets.

Murmurs of dismay and expectation. Johnny was glad; he wanted his card, for he knew that he had passed. And his mother would be happy when she saw his high marks.


Johnny turned and saw his pal, Billy, signaling him.

"Wait for me outside," Billy whispered.

"What's up?" Johnny asked.

"Gotta plan to go to the movies," Billy whispered.

"Okie doke," Johnny said.

Wow! His body tingled. The movies . . . maybe Billy had found some money . . .

The teacher rapped her knuckles upon the desk and ordered:


The class struggled to its feet and began to file

out.Standing prim behind her desk, the teacher handed a report card to each pupil as he passed, singing out names:

"Lucy Gerdain . . . Robert Holmes . . . James Dukes . . . "

Johnny inched forward, eager for his card and aching to get out of doors.

"Johnny Gibbs," the teacher sang, handing him his card.

"Thank you, ma'am, " he said.

The teacher smiled at him, crinkling her blue eyes behind thick spectacles. Johnny was scared of her, but her approval made him glow with pleasure. He glanced at his card. As . . . Yes, A's in every subject. Peaches and cream The world was rosy and he was happy. He jammed the card into his coat pocket, followed the long line into the corridor, through the big door, and down the front steps. About him boys and girls jostled, shouted, and whistled. jumping Jupiter, he was free until Monday morning. He caught a glimpse of a boy flashing a knife and he smiled superiorly. He had never owned anything but a tiny penknife; nobody ought to bring a big knife like that to school.

But where was Billy? He looked about vainly, then put two of his fingers in his mouth and blew two loud, short blasts, then a long one. He waited. Then, like an echo, the answer came from his left. He hurried forward. Yes, there was Billy waiting on the corner.

"Hi, Billy. What's up?" Johnny asked.

"My brother Jack's in from the army camp," Billy gushed.

"For real?"

"Yeah. And he's got a gun with 'im.

"You're kidding!"

"The hell I am. Say, you want to go to the movies tonight?"

"Sure. But how?"

"Jack'll take us," Billy explained. "Superman's playing at Loew's State."

Johnny leaped a foot into the air, his eyes glowing. Then he looked crestfallen.

"I've only got thirty cents," Johnny wailed.

"My brother's taking us," Billy said. "He asked me to ask you."

"Wow, man," Johnny approved. "When are we going?"

"Come by the flat at eight," Billy instructed.

"Sure. Fine!"

"So long."

"So long."

They separated, going in opposite directions, their minds filled with Superman. Johnny bubbled with elation. Billy was a good egg, a real pal. He darted homeward through Harlem streets, picturing Superman zooming out of windows, shooting through the sky, moving mountains, lifting up trains, traveling to the moon and back in ten seconds. A cold wind stung his black cheeks and made him turn up his coat collar. Thundering subway trains made the sidewalk quiver under his feet. He elbowed his way through the crowds, hearing a dog bark, a policeman's shrill whistle. Passing a tavern, he heard a jukebox blaring:

I want some seafood, mama . . .

"Hi, Johnny!" a black girl hailed him.

"Hi, Agnes," Johnny answered.

"Can you come over tonight?" Agnes asked.

"Nope," he sang cheerily. "Going to the movies." "Aw, gee . . . Wish I could go. Say, can't you take me?"

"Not tonight, Agnes," Johnny said, rushing on.

"You could at least stop long enough to say 'Hello, dog!" Agnes taunted him angrily, poking out her red tongue tip, and flouncing up her dress over her buttocks at him.

His eyes full of his waiting bowl of stew and images of Superman, Johnny sprang upon the stoop of the brownstone tenement in which he lived, pushed open the heavy glass door whose surface was so dimmed by dirty grease that it made the vestibule almost as pitch as night. Clutching the wooden banister, he swung up the steps four at a leap, his stomach crying for his beef stew. Fronting his door, he reached inside his shirt, pulled out the key suspended from his neck by a stout length of twine, inserted it into the lock, turned it, pushed the door in, and stepped into a brightly lit hallway. He paused, his lips parting. The garishly painted yellow walls of the corridor enclosed an alien pile of clutter that he had never seen before. Still as a stone, he blinked at suitcases, trunks, and cartons that blocked his path. What was happening? He had lived in this smelly, ramshackle tenement all his life, but he had never seen the hallway so crowded. Oh, maybe they were moving? Or maybe they had out-of-town visitors? But, no.

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