Black Boy, Starring Richard Wright


Black Boy by Richard Wright has been analyzed many times and it will be analyzed once more now. Black Boy is a true story of Richard Wright, his life and his growing experience. It is an autobiography told like a story. The story is set in the South in the early 1900s, a time period when racism was prevalent. The book depicts Wright’s childhood struggles with prejudices, racism, hatred, beatings, hunger, and humiliation. The African American history in the early 1900s was a complex one. On the one hand, there was the rise of the KKK, the issuance of Jim Crow laws, and growing hatred on both sides. On the other hand, there was also the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual flourishing of African American culture through art, literature, and songs. Richard Wright, though he was trying to make a life for himself and seek independence, represented a large part of society, even the white society. He worked hard, strove for a better life, and prevailed. He was a major leader in the Harlem Renaissance, advocating culture and learning. As he recreates his childhood, the reader is able to see clearly what he suffered such that the reader is able to be there and feel what Wright is feeling. Later in history, African Americans got another chance at equality with the rising Civil Rights Movements led by prominent people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Discrimination still is prevalent in today’s society but because of Wright and his contemporaries, it is not the same as it used to be.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Introduction

General Introduction to Black Boy

Rationale for choosing Black Boy

Aesthetic Response 1

Chapter Two: Source Review

Research Questions

Review of Sources 2

Chapter Three: Historical Context

Historical Setting of Black Boy

Political and Social Impact 3

Chapter Four: Literary Analysis

Original Analysis

Comparison of Critical Response to Original Analysis

Literary Biography Relevant to Original Analysis 6

Chapter Five: Contemporary Issues

Contemporary Issues

Connection to Black Boy 10

Works Cited 13

Chapter One: Introduction

General Introduction to Black Boy

Rationale for Choosing Black Boy

Aesthetic Response

Through Black Boy Wright is able to inspire the reader to feel the pain and anger African Americans have felt over the years. The language is so honest and direct that it shows precisely how he lived, how he suffered, and how he grew. It is amazing that he could suffer through a childhood of painful beatings, bouts of hunger, and harsh realities, and come out in the end the better person. One finds much difficulty in imagining that anyone could survive such a hard life let alone thrive. This book was not merely chosen for literary elements such as tone, symbolism, or point of view, but because of the impact of the cruel reality of Wright’s story. This work of literature is set in the South, specifically in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, in the early 1900s. The main theme is the prejudice between whites and blacks. Wright was influenced in writing this by the KKK, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, Communism, the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular how African Americans were treated during those times. Wright was also influenced by what was happening outside the United States because he read books by non-American authors. He learned much about the differences between the races by reading many controversial books, because, in them, he discovered words that correlated with how he felt, what he knew, and how he was treated. After moving to Chicago, Wright started his official career as a writer. His famous works include Native Son as well as Black Boy. He later moved to France and died there. During his lifetime, he married two women, both of whom were white. All he wanted was equality and he made that perfectly clear in his book.

Chapter 2: Source Review

Research Questions

What aspects of Chicago during the early 1900s were attractive to Wright that persuaded him to move there? What was Chicago actually like? When did the KKK first appear and what do they do now? How many members does KKK have, where are they located, and who are they (Southern white males or others)? Was Wright prejudiced against whites? Who influenced Wright? What are major symbols in the book? What do the people in the novel represent (mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother, uncles, aunts)? Why was Wright’s family so religious? Could Wright ever learn to be happy being just a black boy in his family’s eyes? How did Wright's thinking develop throughout the book? Did his opinions ever change?

Review of Sources

Paul Boyer’s Enduring Vision is a history book that goes into much detail on Wright’s time. The Unfinished Nation, by Alan Brinkley is another history book that explores the 1900s thoroughly. Russel Carl Brigano’s Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works is a general overview of Wright and his major writings. He touches upon the artistic side of Wright as an author and grapples with Communism and Marxism and how that is portrayed in Lawd Today and Native Son. Richard Wright by Edward Clark is a biographical introduction to Wright, but it also probes at some of his works. The Black Boy section is helpful because it explains characterization and themes, but also contains historical information. Ralph Ellison’s critical essay called "The World in a Jug," focuses on African American aspects of Wright and his writings. Because Ellison is a black contemporary, he understands Wright’s hardship better, and he portrays the importance of being a black author. An Apprentice to Life and Art: Narrative Design in Wright’s ‘Black Boy’ by John Hodges is the most useful source. It focuses completely on Black Boy and its implications. Hodges even writes about the KKK and other social aspects such as "White Only" signs. ‘I Thought I Knew These People’: Richard Wright & the Afro-American Literary Tradition by Robert Stepto examines African American literature, specifically Wright’s works.

Chapter Three: Historical Context

Historical Setting of Black Boy

Political and Social Impact

The Ku Klux Klan, organized by six young Confederate war veterans, first appeared after the Civil War in 1866. Their goals were to suppress black voting, reestablish white supremacy, and topple the Reconstruction governments (Boyer 514) laid out by Lincoln, Johnson, and the rest of the Union. This original group had faded by the 1870s, but in 1915 with the release of the film, Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith, the Klan was once again revived (794). The KKK’s white-supremacist ideology can be compared to that of Hitler later during World War II. "The early years of the twentieth century were marked by race riots, lynchings, and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was energetically gathering ‘qualified persons’ under its banner of ‘Native, Protestant, Supreme,’ and by 1924 this organization could claim a membership exceeding four million individuals. The South, of course, with its rather large black population, became the center of the nation’s unrest and disharmony" (Hodges 1).

Black Boy is set in the early 1900s in the South, the center of racial disharmony, as aforementioned. Bishop Charles Betts Galloway once said "‘In the South there will never be any social mingling of the races. Whether it be prejudice or pride of race, there is a middle wall of partition which will not be broken’" (Hodges 1). This was absolutely clear to Wright and to every black who lived in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, or South Carolina. There were signs everywhere indicating "White Only" or "For Colored." "Segregation was a fact of life, supported by informal social pressure and sometimes violence" (Boyer 703).

The African Americans in the South during this time usually led a Jim Crow way of life. Jim Crow laws segregated streetcars, trains, schools, parks, hotels, theaters, bathrooms, restaurants, and cemeteries. Black people "could not be patients in many hospitals" (Brinkley 476). The facilities for blacks were always inferior in quality to those for the whites. Blacks earned less than whites; many times they would not even be hired. Blacks even had to use different Bibles when taking an oath in the court of law (Boyer 703). Discrimination was truly a part of everyday life. "In the 1890s, there was an average of 187 lynchings each year, more than 80% of them in the South. The vast majority of victims were black" (Brinkley 477). Lynchings occurred because the victims had committed crimes, were accused of committing crimes, or just because they had violated a white’s station or position. The main implication of these lynchings was that whites had control over the African American population, ruling with terror and intimidation.

In the 1920s, there was a social and cultural revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance. This occurred in New York City and later historians described it as a new generation of black intellectuals who created a richly artistic life heavily influenced by their African roots. Wright was a major part of the Harlem Renaissance, along with other writers such as James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke. Artists and musicians were also important during this time period, establishing a black culture challenging racial injustice. "The poet Langston Hughes captured much of the spirit of the movement in a single sentence: ‘I am a Negro – and beautiful’" (Brinkley 720).

The North was a much more pleasing place for blacks to be during the early 1900s. There they generally found less blatant discrimination, and overall conditions were better than those in the South. The unemployment rate for blacks in New York, which was 50% in the 1930s, was lower than in any other cities in the country (Brinkley 741). In American Hunger Wright recalls that he "looked about to see if there were signs saying: FOR WHITE – FOR COLORED." He saw none. Wright continued, "Black people and white people moved about, each seemingly intent upon his private mission. There was no racial fear." Wright was describing Chicago and this trend was generally true for the rest of the North.

Communism ideologies played an influential role in the African American way of life, especially among self-proclaimed intellectuals. Communism was appealing to blacks because everybody was to be equal according to that doctrine. "Perhaps the most significant segments of American Hunger deal with Wright’s connections with the Communist party and his efforts to retain his integrity despite the party’s demands that he sacrifice his artistic aims for the good of the party" (Clark 16). Marxism also enters Wright’s life for in Native Son he says, "because of his obtrusive pro-Maxism and because of the predominant theme against a particular social injustice, it defies an easy categorization into purely existential literature. The message is an existential one; but it does mirror the same social, not metaphysical, concerns and protests that powerfully emerge from Black Boy" (Brigano 4).

Chapter Four: Literary Analysis

Original Analysis

Comparison of Critical Response to Original Analysis

Literary Biography Relevant to Original Analysis

In Black Boy, Richard Wright is able to portray the humiliation and the sufferings of African Americans in a white man’s world during the early 1900s. The author creates characters who are simultaneously individuals seeking autonomy, independence, and human dignity, and representatives of a society larger than themselves. Wright uses a colloquial language to depict the characters as realistic people who could have and did actually exist. In the book, Wright demonstrates his needs to overcome obstacles encountered throughout his life in the South such as prejudices even within his own family, his own animosity toward religion, and his dire need for knowledge of society.

"I crossed restlessly to the window and pushed back the long fluffy white curtains – which I had been forbidden to touch – and looked yearningly out into the empty street" (Wright 9). The foreboding note in the middle of the sentence shows the reader the impending danger about to occur. Whenever something is forbidden, it is sure to happen. The curtains being white also represent pureness, and it is commonly known that whatever is pure will not stay pure for long. At this stage of the story, Richard is still a child of four. His life is still pure, uncorrupted by the notion of white supremacy, and all he knows of is love from his mother, father, brother, and grandmother. Though Richard later learns to hate his father and his grandmother, at four, they are still a major part of his life.

When Richard and his mother leave their current place of residence, they take a boat named "Kate Adams." Richard curiously asks why the boat is named that, and the mother simply replies, "Because that’s the boat’s name" (Wright 16). This is representative of Richard wanting to know what happens in the world around him because this is the first indication of his questioning stage. This certain question may have been harmless, but more important questions are yet to come, which the mother may not be ready to answer. As Richard grows, questions about race, segregation, and discrimination arise. These questions would be extremely difficult for any mother to answer, but especially an African American mother living in a time when her people were not treated equally. She needed Richard to know that he was not as great as the white men in their eyes, and that white would always be the better race. She is reluctant to teach her child those things as any mother would be, but she feels she has no other choice. As Richard learns slowly about the difference between black and white, he also starts questioning the why. "Had I kept the job I would have learned quickly just how white people acted toward Negroes, but I was too naïve to think that there were many white people like that. I told myself that there were good white people, people with money and sensitive feelings. As a whole, I felt that they were bad, but I would be lucky enough to find the exceptions" (Wright 163).

This boat also draws a line between the rich and the poor for Richard looked forward to this boat ride for days and days. He dreamed of a long grand Titanic type of ship almost. But to his disappointment, it was "a tiny, dirty boat that was not at all like the boat I had imagined" (Wright 16). From this he learned the definition of poor, but this did not bother him. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, because Richard, regardless of the condition of the boat, had a great time on this Titanic of his. "My father took me down into the engine room and the throbbing machines enthralled me for hours" (16). The African Americans on the boat were sitting in their own lap of luxury, for they played cards, drank whiskey, ate, sang, and did not once think that it was not what they wanted out of life. "Black Boy is clearly conceived. The dominant voice of the book seems to be finally that of its author precisely because it has a fair measure of human proportion" (Stepto 4).

There are passages upon passages where Wright sees himself a black "biological fact." His family members, specifically his mother and grandmother, have brought him up only to be a black boy. They have taught him that he is that and only that. But Wright, like any human, is seeking freedom and a voice of his own. "Black Boy is a work of art shaped by a writer bent upon making an ideological point. But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read of what is going on out there; to make identifications as to values and human quality" (Ellison 2). Wright tries to bring out the people of his stories. Ellison feels as though the white world cannot understand blacks, therefore the jug is opaque, though Wright tries to make it transparent for he believes there are white people who will understand. Richard’s grandmother, his grandfather, his aunts, his uncles and, most importantly, his mother were all zealous about their beliefs. "After my father’s desertion, my mother’s ardently religious disposition dominated the household and I was often taken to Sunday school where I met God’s representative in the guise of a tall, black preacher" (Wright 33). Religion was his mother’s solace from the world. The world of God was enough for her to believe there was a better life on the other side. Richard, on the other hand, could not believe all this. He had tried, but he felt that if miracles did not happen to him or his family, there was no God. He did not like the life he lived, which was filled with discrimination, pangs of hunger, and hatred. If God provided him with all those things, he would rather not believe in God. "The daily prayers were a torment and my knees became sore from kneeling so long and often. Finally I devised a method of kneeling that was not really kneeling; I learned, through arduous repetition, how to balance myself on the toes of my shoes and rest my head against a wall in some convenient corner. Nobody, except God, was any the wiser, and I did not think that He cared" (Wright 123). Richard saw praying and religion in general as a chore. It was not something he wanted to do, ever. He only tried to please the people who would punish him either verbally or physically but, whatever he did, they were never pleased. For most people, religion meant freedom from their daily routine; for Richard, religion was an obstacle standing in his way from what he wanted to do.

One thing that stood out from his childhood was his love to read and write. This is not surprising because he did become an author, and a renowned one at that. "‘Ella,’ I begged, ‘please tell me what you are reading.’ ‘It’s just a book,’ she said evasively, looking about with apprehension. ‘But what’s it about?’ I asked. ‘Your grandmother wouldn’t like it if I talked to you about novels,’ she told me. I detected a note of sympathy in her voice. ‘I don’t care,’ I said loudly and bravely. ‘Shhh--- You mustn’t say things like that,’ she said. ‘But I want to know’" (Wright 46). Richard’s curiosity about what was outside of his realm was once again growing. What he had was not enough, and he wanted more. Earlier in American history, slaves were not allowed to learn to read because their masters were afraid of rebellion. Knowledge is power and if a person does not know any better, they won’t try anything else. During the Cultural Revolution in China, scholars were persecuted because they knew things out of the realm of Communism, and they were the first ones to stand up and say no. Richard’s grandmother could not read and she wanted to protect him from the prejudices that lived outside his world. They existed, but he did not know that yet, because the people around him were all African Americans. When religion wasn’t there for him, there were books. He would read whenever he could get his hands on one, but because he was black, he could not get hold of a library card. A kind soul would lend him his card and Richard would go pretending to get books for him. This was how he learned and this was how he saw that there was a world other than what he had been born to. "I entered the library as I had always done when on errands for whites, but I felt that I would somehow slip up and betray myself. I doffed my hat, stood a respectful distance from the desk, looked as unbookish as possible, and waited for the white patrons to be taken care of. When the desk was clear of people, I still waited. The white librarian looked at me" (Wright 270). As a result of his reading, Richard developed a yearning to leave the South and to find a new life in the North. When he was in the South, books were his North. Living where all he could be was a black boy was not his ideal life. Being taught he was nothing more by his grandmother was not what he wanted to learn. To escape these persecutions, he finally fled to the North, bringing with him his mother and his brother. Richard had found his solace at the end.

Chapter Five: Application to Contemporary Issues

Contemporary Issues

Connection to Black Boy

The world is a better place now for the African Americans compared to the 1920s and 1930s. Today, there are successful African American professionals, businesspeople, scholars, athletes, movie stars, and politicians. While it is true that African Americans have come a long way, there is still a long way to go to overcome racial prejudice and discrimination.

The Ku Klux Klan has not disappeared yet. At its peak, the KKK membership reached almost five million in the early 1920s (Boyer 794-795). Although it is much smaller now, it is still active. Only a couple of months ago, there was a KKK riot in New York City. There were only a few Klan members that started the riot, but the riot grew larger and larger as people starting protesting against the KKK. Just because white supremacy ideology has reduced dramatically since Wright was a black boy, it does not mean it has completely disappeared.

The Civil Rights Movement between the 1950s and 1970s in the United States characterized a major turning point in racism, discrimination, bigotry, and the fight against it. "To sweep away the separate but rarely equal facilities that demeaned them in the "Jim Crow" South, African Americans developed new tactics, organizations, and leaders in the 1950s to engage large numbers of blacks in their own freedom fight" (Boyer 952). African Americans had become more determined than ever to achieve equality. They had lived in a country for so long under fear and intimidation of whites, and they felt it was time to do something. "‘There comes a time when people get tired,’ intoned Martin Luther King, Jr., an eloquent twenty-seven-year-old African American minister who articulated the anger of Montgomery blacks, ‘tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression’" (Boyer 952). Prejudices still exist today, even though they should have never existed at all. On a recent trip to the Southern states, one noted that there are still Confederate flags on store windows, on car bumpers, and flying in the front yards of people’s houses. Whether these people are just patriotic to a particular time period in American history or they are racist is debatable, because the two issues go hand in hand. South Carolina still flies the Confederate flag in front of the state’s capital building.

In the news there are always stories about African Americans and their continuing struggle for equal rights. There are stories about police shootings of blacks, racial profiling, discrimination in the labor force, homicide murders, and the KKK. In a private college in South Carolina where George W. Bush went to speak, interracial dating was not allowed for many years and the ban was not lifted until the recent mounting pressure on the school administration from the public. It is absolutely horrifying to know that there are still people today who are so openly prejudicial. Have they not learned from Rosa Parks, from Ruby Bridges, from Martin Luther King Jr., from Richard Wright?

Works Cited

Boyer, Paul S., et al. The Enduring Vision. 3rd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996: 514, 703, 794-5, 952.

Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2000: 476-7, 720, 741.

Brigano, Russel Carl. "Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works." Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970. Gale Literary Databases. The Gale Group, 2000.

Clark, Edward D. "Richard Wright." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955. Gale Literary Databases. The Gale Group, 2000.

Ellison, Ralph. "The World and the Jug." The New Leader, Vol. XLVI, No. 25, Dec. 9, 1963. Gale Literary Databases. The Gale Group, 2000.

Hodges, John O. "An Apprenticeship to Life and Art: Narrative Design in Wright’s ‘Black Boy.’" CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Jun. 1985. Gale Literary Databases. The Gale Group, 2000.

Stepto, Robert B. "‘I Thought I Knew These People’: Richard Wright & the Afro-American Literary Tradition." The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XVIII, No 3, Fall, 1977. Gale Literary Databases. The Gale Group, 2000.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945). New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (1945). New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1966.