Black Boy

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The “switch” Symbol Analysis

The “switch” Symbol Icon
In many ways the opposite of the symbol of books—the means by which Richard is liberated—is the switch, used for the beatings that make Richard’s life in the South so terrible. Although Richard lives in fear that he will be hurt by whites—who hate him because of the color of his skin—the switch is most often used by people within Richard’s own family. His Uncle Tom beats him for little reason, and his Aunt Addie wishes to beat him after believing, wrongly, that Richard has littered her classroom with walnut shells. Granny and Richard’s mother also beat Richard when he is young, fearing that he has no religious spirit, that he is a “plague” in their household. And Pease and Reynolds, at Crane’s shop, threaten also to beat Richard (in their case, with an even more terrible piece of steal), simply because Richard has dared to learn about the trade. The switch, and other implements of physical violence, represents the narrow social and racial roles Richard is forced to fill both by Whites and his own family in the South, and the consequences of the violation of these roles. And it is only after his escape to Chicago that Richard can be free, or less fearful, of punishment and bodily harm.

The “switch” Quotes in Black Boy

The Black Boy quotes below all refer to the symbol of The “switch”. 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 1 Quotes

You owe a debt you can never pay.
I’m sorry.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes a childhood trauma. Richard, playing with a cat, keeps his father awake with the noise, and his father begs Richard to "kill the cat" and make the noise stop. Richard is smart enough to know, even as a child, that his father is speaking metaphorically, but a part of Richard wants to get back at his father, so he follows his "orders" and really does kill the cat. Richard's father then makes Richard bury the cat and arrange a "funeral" for it.

His comments afterward to his son, that the cat's death is a "debt" that cannot be "repaid," haunts Richard. He fears precisely this - that he, as a young man, will do things for which he can never atone. And so Richard, for one thing, does not want to go near cats for the rest of his childhood. And, more broadly, Richard associates with his family ideas of terror, detachment, and violence that cannot be undone. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

The next day Granny said emphatically that she knew who had ruined me, that she knew I had learned about “foul practices” from reading Ella’s books, and when I asked what “foul practices” were, my mother beat me afresh.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Granny, Ella
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard's grandmother is deeply religious - and although this changes the moral atmosphere of the home in which the family spends time (after the orphanage and in Georgia, as opposed to Memphis), it does not reduce the threat of physical violence for Richard. Because Richard has stumbled upon the book owned by Ella (a teacher boarding with the family), Granny mistakenly believes that the books themselves have corrupted Richard (as he has made a lewd comment to her while bathing). This lewdness, Granny believes, comes from an "educated" mind. To her, the only education necessary for a young man is that of Biblical precepts, and even those sparingly. For the most part, whatever is taught in the house is taught at the end of the "switch."

Richard's first real interactions with books, then, are tinged with secrecy and danger. Books, for him, represent liberation, a life lived beyond the confines of his family's home. But for Granny and occasionally his own mother, these books represent a threat to the purity of Richard's mind. 

Why are there so many black men wearing stripes?
It’s because . . . Well, they’re harder on black people.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard's mother notes, without equivocating in any way, that it is simply more difficult to be a black man than to be a white man in the American South - and of course the events of the memoir up till this point reinforce that assertion. Richard begins to understand, after Hoskins' death, that the world is deeply unfair to African Americans, especially in the South, where black men and women are presumed to be criminal, and where that "criminality" is punished by the state far more harshly than any overt criminality in white populations.

But at this stage, Richard is still making sense of this information - it is not reasonable, after all, that black men should be punished simply because of the color of their skin. Richard's innocence, which gradually gives way to a hardened understanding of what black men must do to survive in the South, is one of the great tragedies of the memoir - the way that he understands what it means to be a "black boy" becoming a black man in America. 

For weeks I wondered what it was that “uncle” had done, but I was destined never to know, not even in all the years that followed.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), “Uncle” Matthews
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another instance of violence, and of Richard's coming to terms with that violence. The man Matthews, living with Richard's aunt, has committed a crime against a white family and, to hide further evidence, has burned a barn and killed a white person - and for this, he must leave town in the middle of the night, never to return. Richard is told by his mother and others in the family that he must never breathe a word of this to anyone - if he were to do that, the entire family could be in danger, could be targeted by white families or by the "law" in the area, and put in jail or killed.

Richard again notes that the law seems to work very differently for white and black families. If a person is white, the law defends those white families, especially against perceived African American aggression. But if that family is black, the law presumes that the family is guilty - and if the family is accused of violence against anyone white, the harshness of the penalties multiply. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

All right, I’ll send you home Saturday. Tell me, where did you learn those words Jody heard you say?
I looked at him and did not answer . . . . How could I have told him that I had learned to curse before I had learned to read? How could I have told him that I had been a drunkard at the age of six?

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Uncle Clark (speaker), Aunt Jody
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Although his Uncle Clark, living with his "middle-class" and "respectable" family in Greenwood, offers to take Richard in, and indeed does so, Richard has a very difficult time living with them - in part because he learns he has taken over the bedroom of Uncle Clark's son, who passed away. Richard has trouble sleeping in that room from then on, fearing that something bad will happen to him, too. This causes Richard to be more agitated than usual, and these circumstances, coupled with the dislocation of living in a new place, cause him to act out in school.

Richard notes to the reader, here, that his life has been so difficult - so filled with terror, and violence, and deprivation - that he has a hard time explaining how he could feel so angry or confused to anyone who has not experienced these things. Uncle Clark wants to do well by Richard, but he cannot understand what Richard himself is only just coming to terms with - that Richard's life has been almost unimaginably hard. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

You’re just mad at me for something!
Don’t tell me I’m mad!
You’re too mad to believe anything I say.
Don’t speak to me like that!
Then how can I talk to you? You beat me for throwing walnuts on the floor! But I didn’t do it!

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Aunt Addie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Addie, another of Richard's relatives, teams up with Granny when Richard leaves the house of Uncle Clark - believing that Richard is an inherently bad boy, that there is nothing anyone can do to help or "save" him, and that Richard needs only the guidance of Christianity to admit to and amend his ways. Richard finds Aunt Addie to be extremely cruel, and when Addie punishes him for making a mess in school, Richard denies doing it - it was in fact another student. Addie will not hear this, and when Richard tries to defend himself against her beatings, Addie tells Richard that he is possessed by the devil, and that he will one day be executed for the crimes he will commit.

This sheds yet more light on Richard's circumstances. He has done nothing wrong in this instance, other than standing up for himself. But those in positions of authority around him believe, in part because he has moved around so much in his youth, that he is inherently wicked - and that Christianity, imposed harshly, is the only thing that will put a stop to it. 

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The “switch” Symbol Timeline in Black Boy

The timeline below shows where the symbol The “switch” 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
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...him so heavily that he nearly dies. Lying in bed after his beating (with a switch), he hallucinates in a fever for days, but ultimately survives. (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...a time, though he is only six years old. His mother beats him with a switch to correct his behavior, and finally, after his mother hires a babysitter to look after... (full context)
Chapter 2
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...not come into the main room for his beating. Richard is beaten savagely with a switch by his mother, but cannot tell his family where he learned such “dirty” language. Granny... (full context)
Chapter 6
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...should have had a long time ago.” But while Tom goes outside to find a switch, Richard grabs a razor blade from the house, and approaches Tom, showing him that, if... (full context)