Black Boy

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Black Boy Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Richard recognizes that, as he is now an “uninvited dependent” in Granny’s home—since his mother is no longer earning money, but rather lying in her bed, and since Richard’s brother is now in Detroit—he must submit to Granny’s will. Granny, for her part, is an extreme adherent to the doctrines of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Her youngest daughter Addie (Aunt Addie) returns from Alabama to Jackson to teach in the church’s religious school, which Granny forces Richard to attend. Addie is nervous in front of the classroom, and Richard is annoyed by the “docility” of the other students, who are not as rough and boisterous as the public-school crowd.
Although Richard does not address the issue directly, it seems especially cruel to make a young child, whose mother is quite ill, feel that he is not welcome in his own family’s house. Addie and Granny often tell Richard that he is partly responsible for the family’s “bad luck,” that his inability to follow religious teachings is what keeps his mother sick. They are attempting to force him into living as they want him to, but Richard's disdain for the "docile" kids in Addie's class suggests his devotion to maintaining his individuality.
Themes
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Granny and Addie both feel that Richard is an ingrate, because he refuses to accept the teachings of their church, and is therefore not “saved.” One day, in the schoolroom where Addie is the teacher, Addie observes that crushed walnuts are under Richard’s seat, though they were left to fall by the student in front of Richard. Richard denies that he was eating in the classroom, and cannot believe that the student in front will not own up to his “crime.” But Addie decides to make an example of Richard anyway, and whips him in the front of the classroom.
Once again, Richard is punished not for one of the things he has actually done wrong, but for something Addie only believes he has done wrong. Addie believes that Richard’s denials are only evidence of his guilt. What Addie does not realize, however, is that this is the same accusatory attitude assumed by whites toward African Americans—the white population assumes that African Americans are inherently guilty.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Later that day, Richard and Addie return to Granny’s home, and Addie begins yelling at Richard, again, for not respecting her, and for eating in class. Richard again denies the charge, saying that the boy in front of him left the shells, and that Addie would not let Richard defend himself publically in class. Addie then yells at Richard for “lying” about his crime—for not blaming the crime on the other student—and begins whipping him again for his “lie.” Richard then picks up a knife from the kitchen and says that he will kill Addie if she tries to beat him, since he has done nothing to deserve punishment. Granny, Richard’s mother, and Grandpa finally persuade Richard to put down the knife, but Granny and Grandpa call Richard “wicked” and say that “the gallows await him” for his crimes.
Richard’s threat with the knife is perhaps credible, although it is hard to imagine the young man actually stabbing and wounding Addie. But his anger is palpable and real, and Addie understands that Richard feels, quite literally here, that he is backed into a corner. Addie, once she realizes that Richard was not guilty of dropping the shells, yells at him for “lying” to her, and not accusing his classmate, but one can readily anticipate that, if Richard had done this, Addie would then be angry at Richard for attempting to pin the blame on someone else, for not being “responsible” for his actions. Addie's real goal is to save face for herself and force Richard to behave as she wants him to.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard continues going to school in Addie’s classroom, though she no longer calls on him, and barely acknowledges his presence around the house. Richard is encouraged by Granny and others in the house to pray constantly, and the family incorporates religious rites into nearly every activity in the home, including chores and meals. Granny also brings Richard to all-night prayer sessions, in the hopes of converting him to Jesus’s path. But Richard says that, although he respects, to an extent, the emotional severity and beauty of parts of the Christian service, too much of his personality “has been formed” by the difficult events of his young life, and he does not believe in God, nor look to Him for salvation. Richard, aged twelve, also begins to go through puberty, and spends a good deal of time in church, when is supposed to be praying, looking at the young women around him.
To Richard, church is simply a time when people in the community come together and sit with one another. He understands the social element of the church, and to the extent that he responds to church activities, he does so by conceiving of them as a gathering of likeminded people. But Richard does not possess any religious “feeling,” and praying is time he could be spending reading or writing. Later on, when Richard writes his first story, he does so when his grandmother assumes he is up in his room, asking Jesus Christ for forgiveness for his sins. Richard looks not to God or religion for salvation; he looks to himself.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
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Granny prepares to make one final effort to convince Richard to become a full-fledged member of the Seventh-Day Church. Richard’s extended family arranges for a faithful young boy (unnamed) to come and speak to Richard about his soul. Richard disputes the boy’s conclusions about God, saying that he (Richard) simply has no “religious feeling,” and he concludes by saying that, “If he thought he could lay down his life to end suffering in the world, he would do so, but he doesn’t believe that this sacrifice would help anyone.” The boy is stunned by Richard’s bleak and convincing conclusion, and he goes away without having converted him.
Richard’s personal philosophy is here on display, and Richard is only about twelve years old. Richard recognizes the power of the story of Christ’s sacrifice, and he perhaps even wishes that this story were true. But Richard has had no occasion in life to view religion as a benevolent impulse. Rather, to Richard, religion is simply a way for even stricter order to be imposed on the African American population of the South, and one which in embracing it the African Americans now impose on themselves.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Granny, then, “mounts one final attempt” to bring Richard to the church. She takes him to a revival, or long worship ceremony, at which the elder gives a long speech about Jacob, who was visited by an angel. Richard, trying to reason with Granny, tells her in the pews that if he ever sees an angel, he will convert on the spot. But Granny mishears and believes that Richard has said he has in fact seen an angel; Granny rushes up to the elder and tells him so, and the elder pulls Richard in front of the congregation to celebrate his conversion. Richard then embarrassedly tells the elder, Granny, and the rest of the churchgoers that he had been speaking hypothetically, and all are disappointed—Granny most of all, because she believes for a time that Richard has intentionally tried to make her look foolish in front of the church.
As Richard states, his intention here was positive, thinking that there would be no case when anyone would actually believe that Richard had seen an angel. But Richard realizes, after the fact, that everyone in the church was already primed to see angels, and that the preacher and Granny would readily accept the idea that Richard had been visited by the holy spirit in the church hall. Thus, Richard manages to upset his Granny and to alienate himself further from the church community.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
But Granny soon believes Richard’s apology, and asks him to continue praying in his room for forgiveness. Richard tries but “does not feel the holy spirit close to him,” after many days and nights of attempting. One day, while he is supposed to be praying, Richard’s mind wanders, and he begins thinking of a book on native Americans he read recently. He drafts, quickly, a story of a young native American woman, sitting in the woods, and though the story “lacks plot” and is by Richard’s account only a crude effort, he is so excited to have written something, he runs next door later that day and reads the story to a young woman, his neighbor. The woman is baffled by Richard’s story, and asks why he has written it and where he thought it up—Richard is struck by the disconnect between his excitement at the story’s composition, and the young woman’s confusion as to why he wrote it at all.
Many of Richard’s early literary efforts are attempts to imagine the world from different perspectives. Here, Richard does all he can to understand what a young Native American woman might experience, if she were simply looking at nature. Richard writes, later on, that he comes to understand literature as perhaps the most powerful tool, for him, in the lifelong project of understanding other people’s viewpoints. For Richard, literature is therefore a force for empathy in the world—a substitute for religion, which he experiences as other people trying to force him to adopt their viewpoints, and an art form in which Richard can believe absolutely.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon