Black Boy

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Books and Novels Symbol Analysis

Books and Novels Symbol Icon
Books symbolize a great deal of the memoir’s most important ideas. Books provide an imaginative escape for Richard, whose life is lived in grinding poverty and amid terrible racial suppression and violence. They allow Richard to develop as an individual, and provide windows onto different parts of the world—places Richard has not yet visited, and can only dream of visiting one day, after he has left the South. They are hard for Richard to obtain (Ella, for example, lends him some, and Falk allows Richard to use his library card), but once Richard has them, the ideas within them can never be taken away. Thus books offer a respite from the difficulties of Richard’s life, and a means of escaping that life, of learning about the world, of attempting to set up a new and better home in Chicago. And, of course, it is Richard’s education in literature that allows him to write Black Boy itself. Thus the memoir is a story not just of Richard’s development as a young man, and of the racial conditions of the South. It is also a memoir of its own writing—of the means by which a person might narrate, and make sense of, his or her own upbringing.

Books and Novels Quotes in Black Boy

The Black Boy quotes below all refer to the symbol of Books and Novels. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of Black Boy published in 2015.
Chapter 5 Quotes

I burned at my studies. At the beginning of the school term I read my civics and English and geography volumes through and only referred to them when in class. I solved all my mathematical problems far in advance; then, during school hours, . . . I read tattered, second-hand copies of Flynn’s Detective Weekly or the Argosy All-Story Magazine.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard begins to discover books and reading at this time, and realizes that there is a world beyond the world he has known in his youth. He gains access to this other world by immersing himself in the thoughts of others. Of course, many in his family, including his Granny and Addie, believe that "secular books" contain only falsehoods, and will pervert Richard's mind. This is the great irony of Richard's education - that it comes precisely at the moment when those around him tell him he cannot succeed in the "normal" classroom - when they argue that Richard is a boy without morals, without aptitude, without any sense of the spiritual.

For Richard, reading is a spiritual and personal exercise - it is something as close to divine as he has found in his young life. This reading can be done in private, and occurs only in the confines of his own mind. And no one can keep him from thinking the thoughts he thinks when he is doing it - it is a way for him to become free. 

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Chapter 6 Quotes

What grade are you in school?
Seventh, ma’am.
Then why are you going to school?
Well, I want to be a writer.
A what?
A writer.
For what?

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard announces, to anyone who asks and cares to hear, that he does indeed have professional plans, ideas for his future - that he wants to write books, to participate in the joy he himself has found in the books he has read. However, many in his life refuse to see this as evidence of Richard's motivation. Instead, they think that books are things written by others, certainly not by poor black men from the South. Although Richard insists that this future will be possible for himself, and that he must gain an education in order to achieve it, those around him think it is a dream of the faintest order, if they even consider it at all.

Thus Richard must combat two things in his path toward an artistic life. He must gain an education however he can, by reading the books he acquires when he acquires them - and he must fight back against a world that thinks he can never write at all. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Son, you ought to be more serious. You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?

Related Characters: Wright’s mother (speaker), Richard Wright
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Richard grows older, he works in manual labor to continue to make money to attend school and buy books. At this point, some in his family, like his mother, tell him that it might be possible for him to get a job teaching - but only if he gives up the writing of stories, which many in the family consider a worthless and wasteful occupation, something that only the "soft-minded" or degenerate might do. After all, his family members contend, what does it mean to make up the events of a story? Anyone could make up anything - stories therefore have no value to anyone, and there is no purpose in reading or in writing them.

Of course, Richard understands that stories can be a gateway to another way of life, and he reads partly so that he might hone his craft of writing. Thus the overwhelming feeling on the part of his family members that writing is bad for him, and bad for his future, does not deter Richard from continuing to read and write. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

Look, Dick, you’re throwing away your future here in Jackson. Go to the principal, talk to him, take his speech and say it. I’m saying the one he wrote. So why can’t you? What the hell? What can you lose?
No.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Griggs (speaker), The principal
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard is given a speech by the superintendent of his junior high school, to deliver as that school's valedictorian. But Richard believes he has earned the right to give his own speech, and he labors over his words for weeks and weeks, doing everything he can to make them shine. Tom reads both speeches and says that the administration's version is better, but Richard believes in the principle at stake - that he has a right to say what is on his mind, especially if he has earned this right by being the best student in the class.

Richard knows, however, that there will be consequences for his actions - that he might not get a job as a teacher in that school if he is insubordinate to the school's administration. But it has become clear at this point in the novel that Richard does not want to stay in Jackson and teach, that he wants to move somewhere else and continue in his education - which is what he winds up doing. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

Where might you be from?
Jackson, Mississippi.
You act mighty bright to be from there.
There are bright people in Jackson.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Mrs. Moss (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard returns to Memphis, where he lived as a very young boy. He then realizes there that there is a strong bias against those from the "deep South," regardless of the color of that person's skin - that, in other words, the urbane residents of Memphis believe that people from Jackson would not know how to read, or how to speak properly, how to behave in a city environment. Of course, Richard has spent a great deal of time in his teenage years learning exactly how to fend for himself, and so is prepared to do whatever it takes to live in Memphis. But Mrs. Moss is still shocked to see that he is a self-made man from a part of the country where, she thinks, no one could be so polished and educated.

Richard embarks on a life in Memphis, in part, to prove that he is up to the challenge of living in a big city - something Richard believes his father could not do successfully. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negros, and this man was not a Negro. . . Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard realizes that there are those in the North (like Baltimore, which, though close to the South, is affiliated more with cities like Philadelphia and New York) who are willing to defend the cause of African Americans, to argue that Jim Crow laws are ruining African American lives. Richard believed, as he notes here, that only African Americans could be scorned in this way by whites in the South - but here, Mencken stands up not only for black populations, but for the idea that men are created equal, and that the laws of the country are designed to protect everyone, not just white men and women, and so he is scorned in a (somewhat) similar way. This is a revelation for Richard. Richard goes on to read whatever Mencken writes, on all possible subjects - and he believes that Mencken, at that point a critic of great renown in the United States, will help him to strike on his own as a writer - that Mencken can inspire him to read omnivorously, and to begin working on his own essays, stories, and journalism in earnest. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South. So, in leaving, I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, and bend in strange winds . . . .

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 284-285
Explanation and Analysis:

This striking passage is one of the final parts of the book. Richard understands that so much of his life has been formed in the South, a place he understands as one of violence and deprivation, of the extremes of the human experience. But the South is still his home. And when he leaves the South, he insists to both himself and to the reader that he will not (and can not) leave it behind in his imagination. Richard has learned, both in his life and in books, that all people are rooted in place - hence the metaphor of a plant used in this section - but that those roots might change over time, that they might find "new and cool rains." This is the hope at the end of the book, that Richard might be able to take what he has learned, despite the violence of his youth, and apply it in the service of his reading and his writing in a different location, in the North and its cities of which he has dreamed for some time. 

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Books and Novels Symbol Timeline in Black Boy

The timeline below shows where the symbol Books and Novels appears in Black Boy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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
...teachers Richard how to recite the numbers. Richard also begins picking his way through children’s books left on the street by schoolchildren. (full context)
Chapter 2
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
...skin. She has a young girl board with her, a teacher named Ella. Ella reads novels frequently, and tells Richard the plot of the novel Bluebeard after Richard asks, continually, what... (full context)
Chapter 4
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 5
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Granny and Addie will not give Richard money for “earthly books,” meaning anything that is not the Bible, and they continue to feed him on a... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...Richard is nonetheless ashamed. Richard works hard that year in school, and reads whatever dime-store novels he can get his hands on in his spare time. As summer begins, however, Granny... (full context)
Chapter 6
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...searches for employment, in order to make enough money to buy food for himself, and books to read. He asks his fellow students if they know of any work helping white... (full context)
Chapter 7
Racism 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
...continues, and Richard looks again for better-paying work to enable him to eat and buy books. He gets a job as a water-boy at a brickyard, where he is bitten by... (full context)
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...writer. Although his family finds this dream “foolish” and “weak-minded,” Richard has convinced himself, from novels he has read secretly, in his spare time, that the life of a writer is... (full context)
Chapter 11
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...marriage. After dinner, Richard and Bess talk for a moment, and she shows him her schoolbooks (she is 17 but only in fifth grade); Richard goes up to his room that... (full context)
Chapter 13
Racism 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
...must be a writer worth reading, and decides he will get his hands on Mencken’s books from the public library, which is for whites only. Richard asks an Irish Catholic man... (full context)
Racism 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
...“Falk’s” note to the librarian at the Memphis library, and she agrees to lend the book to Richard “for Falk,” although she worries for a moment that Richard himself will read... (full context)
Racism 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
Richard begins staying up most nights reading. He checks out more books from the library, using Falk’s card, including novels by Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Richard does... (full context)
Chapter 14
Racism Theme Icon
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
...he’s leaving, and though they ask why he’s going to Chicago, and wonder if the books he reads have encouraged him to leave, Richard simply replies that he is moving north... (full context)