The novel “Black Boy” by Richard Wright is his autobiographical story from childhood through his teen age and was published in 1945. Wright was born in 1908 and lived until 1960 and has been exclaimed as a great novelist, non-fiction writer, poet and short story writer with his works of art being widely read and still relevant to modern-day society.
Wright writes more about his life from early childhood dealing with racial relations and unsettlement to social isolation, clashes with religion, problems with employers of the white race as well as political issues. The book forms part of American non-fiction works in modern-day literature. Wright’s work of Black Boy is the novel of study in this paper. The paper analyzes the book’s plot summary, characters, themes, quotes, objects and places mentioned and their significance to the author.
The story opens with one of the earliest memories of the author in a rural Natchez, Mississippi plantation as a child of four years, standing near the fire place. Since he had been warned to stay quiet; he plays with fire and accidentally burns down the family house. This causes his mother to beat him up almost to the point of death (Jones and Wright 4).
They later move to Memphis where his father abandons them and his mother Ella struggles to provide for the family while the family falls into perpetual hunger and poverty (Andrews and Taylor 15). Ella’s hard work causes her to develop health problems leaving Richard with the option of looking for odd jobs to provide for the family.
At this point, education is not a priority for Wright and his brother. The family then moves to Elaine, Arkansas to live with Maggie, Ella’s sister, and her husband Hoskin where life is much better due to the success of the saloon business run by Hoskin. Hoskin is later murdered out of sheer white jealousy, and the two women run away with the two children to West Helena, Arkansas where life is good due to their combined financial efforts. Maggie leaves for Detroit, forcing Ella and the children to experience hard economic times.
They later travel to Jackson, Mississippi to live with Richard’s grandmother. Alan, Richard’s brother, goes to Maggie’s place in Detroit, Ella lives with her mother in Jackson, while Richard chooses to live with Uncle Clark in Greenwood, Mississippi. Richard later goes back to his granny’s place, despite the problem of hunger but faces another problem of strict religion from his granny and Aunt Addie who force him to attend religious classes.
His Uncle Tom comes to live with the family in Jackson. Richard joins school with interest in writing upon graduation. He joins the work life at an optical shop, in the post office and other jobs and continues his struggle with racism. The story comes to a close as he leaves the Communist party and also the south region still determined to continue his writing work (Felgar 37).
Characters in the Book
Wright is the central character of the novel with the story revolving around him. He is presented as a four-year-old child who progresses with the story in his childhood to early adulthood (Briones 4). As a young child, he refuses to accept the notion about his color, lack of religion and develops intellectual curiosity. Wright is presented as not only believing in his own worth and capabilities, but also as a stubborn, willful, independent and a rebellious youth who challenges parental authority, refuses to adapt to strict religion, stands up to his aunts and uncles even challenging them to physical violence, refuses to read the script required by his school principal and stands up to the whites at his work place (Wright 156-167).
Wright is willing to express himself and this makes him experience emotional isolation and physical violence which fuel in him an urge of creativity and love for reading and writing (Felgar 700).
He is a non conformer with a strong willed character despite his background, social status and racism. He is willing to stand to his principles but has negative traits when he lies, steals and engages in physical violence and shows some weakness and inferiority towards some whites. He is not closely connected with people especially his family though he has love for humanity (Bell-Russel 115). Due to his age, his character traits are dynamic depending on the circumstances.
Ella Wright is Richard’s mother. The story captures most of the moments when she is sick and suffering. However, she presents parental authority when she disciplines Richard and is compassionate and independent due to her ability to take care of the family when her husband abandons them. She is tolerant and affectionate especially in her support of Richard’s writings (Gallantz 88). The author uses her suffering nature to present the issues of family relationships, poverty, racism, hunger and injustice. Nathaniel, Richard’s father, is presented briefly as a selfish man who abandons his family and later on as a sharecropper who represents slavery (Felgar 39). Granny with her white hair is compassionate as she takes Richard and his family to live with her. Her strict religion and hot temper stand out as she acts as a dictator who forces Richard to religion, uses it as an excuse for her anger and stands in the way of Richard’s curiosity (Felgar 700).
Addie and Tom are presented as dependent living with their mother, but Addie is strictly religious, fearful and a conformist. Maggie is a hardworking lady, married to Hoskin and on his death remarries thus representing her dependence while still compassionate and affectionate as she takes Alan to live with her. Reynolds and Pease who are whites and Nealson and Ed Green who are black communists are racist, rigid, and intimidating (Dinnerstein 81).
The female relatives stand out in the life of Richard from his mother who disciplines and supports him, his Aunt Maggie with whom Richard gets well along, his granny who is hot tempered and religious and his aunt Addie who teaches Richard the religious classes. Richard’s brother does not seem significant in Richard’s life. He does not share in Richard’s rebellion and later goes to live with their aunt Maggie in Detroit. The school principal is a conformist and dictatorial who tries to force Richard to change his speech.
Themes in “Black Boy”
Black Boy outlines several themes most of which are connected to Richard. Racism forms the main theme which Richard associates with discrimination and injustice (Young 695). While growing up, he witnesses a black boy beaten by a white man. Hoskin is killed out of jealousy of the whites. His principal wants him to give a speech to please the whites.
He encounters Reynolds and Pease who are racist and he eventual leaves the Southern region due to racism (Felgar 701). Family life serves as a theme for Black Boy with Richard presenting it as living a deprived life with no support especially emotionally and financially when the father leaves them and the criticisms experienced from the relatives who want Richard to conform to their expectations (Briones 5).
During his childhood days, Richard experiences miserable living conditions, poverty, hunger, constant resettling of the family, lack of emotional support and hunger among others which make him more hard working and determined (Nexuslearning.net). The family however proves supportive through the willingness of the relatives to help Richard’s family during his mother’s illness and her support for his writing work.
Religion is presented in Black Boy. Richard is of the opinion that religion is oppressive and meaningless though there are some imagery and stories of the same he finds interesting. Richard perceives religion as a way of silencing curiosity and a questioning attitude to maintain the status quo of racism (Wright 100).
Isolation is presented in the book through the life of Richard most of which he spends alone. These times provide him with strength and happiness out of which his love for writing, reading and creativity is developed. Black Boy also presents the theme of rebellion based on the behavior and attitude of Richard from his childhood to his early adulthood.
Richard rebels and challenges both parental and other forms of authority (Wright 2). He refuses to fit in the racial expectations of his parents, he rebels against religion from his granny, he attempts physical violence against his aunt Addie and uncle Tom, refuses to read the speech as directed by the principal and goes against the party expectations and those of his fellow employees.
Objects and Places of Significance in Black Boy
The novel Black Boy places emphasis and significance on certain places and objects in society. The places start at home, the church, Beale Street, the school, the church and the communist party (Felgar 699). Richard portrays the home as a place of high emotional conflict with him being criticized for his rebellion, his father leaving them and having to work at an early age (Wright 7).
However, the home is also presented as a place of support where Ella is able to get support from the family during her poor health condition while she also supports the writing of Richard. Richard’s family perceives Beale Street as evil, yet contrary to this, Richard meets Moss his landlady and daughter who welcome and show interest in him by suggesting that he marries Bess since to them he is a nice person.
Black Boy presents the place of the hospital where as a custodian dealing with animal experiments, his black friends are not able to handle the experiment since the white doctors had not taught them causing them to cover up for their mistake.
This is presented in the working life of Richard since whites do not mind blacks stealing or lying as long as they maintain their places in authority (Andrews and Taylor 77). The church plays a significant role in the book that granny and Addie use to discipline Richard.
The church has transformed them to a faith and belief that causes them to believe that the church is the one that can transform Richard who to granny is sinful and rebellious. Granny perceives the word of God as law and hence cannot be questioned while Richard is not interested in it. Black Boy presents the church as one way of increasing racism (Dinnerstein 82).
The school presents as a significant place that enables Richard to get away from his family and reveals his desire for reading and writing. It presents a platform for Richard to be able to express himself for example through being able to present a speech and being able to write “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-acre” published in the local daily.
However, the aspect of racism is also presented where the principal demands that Richard presents a different speech than the one he wanted so as to create a good impression and appease the white audience to maintain his job. Later on in his professional life, Richard joins the communist party which gives him a platform for his writing career (Bell-Russel 116).
The party helps him realize that racism is not common to everyone with some people just able to help others with the human perspectives and have the zeal for realizing their full potential as normal human beings. Richard realizes that these kinds of people try to not only transform themselves but also the world through the use of politics. He finds like-minded people but they are suspicious, ignorant, with human fears and insecurity and they criticize him on the basis of intellectualism. Richard experiences another moment of isolation and he later leaves the party so as to maintain his values (Wright 389).
The novel Black Boy by Richard Wright comprehensively presents the story of the author in his childhood through to his teenage hood. The relevance of the novel has been enhanced through the use of the first person narration. This paper provides a review and analysis of the novel based on the plot summary, characters, themes, objects and places mentioned in the novel thus revealing its creative and orderly manner.
Andrews, William, and Douglas Taylor. Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American hunger): a casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Bell-Russel, Danna. “Richard Wright: Black Boy.” Library Journal, 1 (1997): 115-116.
Briones, Matthew. “Call and Response: Tracing the ideological shifts of Richard Wright through his correspondence with friends and fellow literati.” African American Review, 37.1 (2003): 53-64.
Dinnerstein, Leonard. “The Viciousness of Racism.” Labor History, 40.1 (1999): 81-82.
Felgar, Robert. Understanding Richard Wright’s Black boy: A Student casebook to issues, sources and historical documents. Westport: Greenwood Publishers, 1998.
Gallantz, Michael. Richard Wright’s Native Son & Black Boy. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 1985.
Jones, Edward, and Richard Wright. Black Boy. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005.
Nexuslearning.net. From Black Boy by Richard Wright, 2010. Web. 14 August 2010. http://nexuslearning.net/books/Elements_of_Lit_Course5/Black_Boy_1-7.htm
Wright, Richard. Black Boy (P.S). New York: Harper Perennial Publications, 2007.
Young, Robert. “The Politics of Reading Richard Wright: Black boy as Ideological Critique.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, 29.4 (2005): 694-701.