Black Boy

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Black Boy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Richard Wright's Black Boy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Richard Wright
Richard Wright grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee, and was raised mostly by an aunt and grandmother. Having performed extremely well academically until he was forced to drop out of high school and work to support his family, Richard Wright moved in 1927 to Chicago—a city that would allow Wright to develop as a writer and thinker. Wright saw his first short story published when he was sixteen years old. In Chicago, Wright joined, for a time, the Communist Party. After writing a first, and only marginally successful, novel entitled Lawd Today, he moved to New York City in 1937 and published, in 1938 and 1940, respectively, the short-story collection Uncle Tom’s Children and the novel Native Son, which launched his career and national profile. Wright’s Black Boy, a somewhat fictionalized tale of his young life, was released in 1945, and also became famous. Wright moved to Paris in 1946, and lived there, primarily, until his death in 1960. Wright was a stated inspiration for other African-American writers of the time, including Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man) and James Baldwin, who would go on to critique Wright’s work severely, but always with the acknowledgment of its influence on his own.
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Historical Context of Black Boy
Black Boy’s events take place during a period between the Civil War (and Reconstruction) and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. This period in the American South was dominated by a system of racial suppression and separation known, collectively and colloquially, as the “Jim Crow laws.” Thus Richard’s African-American heritage is the determinant of a great many aspects of his young life: his education (at poorly-funded schools which served only black students); his religion; his employment opportunities; and his ability to vote and participate in local politics. Jim Crow laws were complex, and varied from state to state, but typically included provisions for the separation of races in public places and in some privately-owned businesses. African Americans were sent to different hospitals, made to use different entrances and water fountains, and (perhaps most infamously) forced to sit in the back of public buses. The Jim Crow laws represented a continuation of racist policies stemming ultimately from the institution of slavery in the South, and from the plantation system that forced African Americans to labor long hours in the fields, as part of the region’s primarily agricultural economy. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and other federal political decisions (including the desegregation of public schools in the 1950s), helped to mend some of the policies, but inequality and de facto segregation in certain parts of the country have not disappeared, even in the 21st century.
Other Books Related to Black Boy
Wright’s Black Boy is ostensibly a work of non-fiction, and although it seems likely that Wright took certain liberties in “reconstructing” the events of his childhood, the book is typically read as being a more or less accurate encapsulation of the difficulties of Wright’s young life. Narratives of African-American experience in the United States have a long history: most famous among them, and published in the 19th-century, are Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In the former case, Northup was a prosperous northern musician, kidnapped during a trip to Washington, D.C., and forced into slavery. In the latter, Frederick Douglass rose from conditions of servitude to become an accomplished man of letters and political figure in the second half of the 19th century. Of course, Wright was not born a slave, but the conditions of his life were characterized by racial cruelty, white violence, and white-dominated economic and political systems. Wright’s Grandpa, too, was a soldier in the Civil War; thus the characters of Black Boy are not so far removed from the country’s slave history, and indeed are living in a post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights Act South that has yet to come to terms with its overwhelming racial inequalities. Other of the great novels of the 20th century written by African-American writers—including Go Tell It On the Mountain and Invisible Man, by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, respectively—include aspects of autobiographical writing and memoir, as a means of investigating the nature of black-white relations in the United States. And Wright’s own Native Son provides, in the form of a fiction, a complex narrative of violence, power, politics, and racial struggle, set against the backdrop of a supposedly “freer,” but still prejudiced, Chicago.
Key Facts about Black Boy
  • Full Title: Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth
  • When Written: 1943
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1945
  • Literary Period: the 20th-century African-American novel; the American memoir
  • Genre: Memoir; coming-of-age story
  • Setting: Primarily Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, from 1908 till the 1920s
  • Climax: Richard finally decides, with his aunt, mother, and sister, to leave Memphis and start a new life in Chicago
  • Antagonist: Granny; Pease and Reynolds
  • Point of View: first-person
Extra Credit for Black Boy

“Bildungsroman.” Although Black Boy is a memoir, it could also be classified as a “coming of age” story. The German term for this type of narrative is “Bildungsroman,” or, literally, a “novel of education.” In Black Boy, especially, Richard’s personal education in the classics of world literature helps spur his journey to the North. (See, among other publications, the scholarly work Ten is the Age of Darkness: The Black Bildungsroman, by Geta LeSeur.)

Job. The epigram in some editions of the novel reads: “They meet with darkness in the daytime / and they grope at noonday as in the night.” This is taken from the Book of Job, a notable book of the Hebrew Bible, in which the main character suffers a series of trials and losses at the hands of God, to determine if he is a worthy person and a true believer in divine power.