Black Boy

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Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Black Boy, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon

Christianity is the dominant moral and religious system of the American South at the time of Wright’s memoir. Many African Americans in Mississippi seem to place their entire faith, and hope for salvation, in the Christian church. But Wright is not able to believe in God, and his struggles against religious authority contribute to his desire to leave the South.

Wright’s mother is not especially religious (except for a brief period, during remission from her illness), and Wright does not attend church when he is young. Only after moving into Granny’s house does Wright find Christianity to be a burden in his life—a moral system against which he must fight. The kind of Christianity practiced by Wright’s grandmother and aunts is a harsh one, filled with rules, injunctions, demands, and beatings with the switch. Reading of any extraneous material is not permitted. Wright is to pray constantly, in the morning and at night, and before meals. Any talk in the house unrelated to faith is considered un-Christian.

And schooling itself is only useful, in Granny’s eyes, if it contributes to Wright’s Christian sensibilities. Moreover, Granny and the aunts fear that Wright has been brought into the house as some kind of “plague” on them. Many women in Wright’s extended family believe that Wright himself is the source of his mother and brother’s torment. This stems primarily from Wright’s unwillingness to throw himself, zealously, into church life. Wright attempts to tell Granny, in one heartbreaking example, that he will believe in God if he sees an angel. But his grandmother misunderstands, and thinks that Wright has proclaimed he has actually seen an angle. This causes Wright to have to repudiate his grandmother and the preacher before the entire congregation in Jackson: a scene that causes even more household strife.

Wright treats Christianity in the memoir as a form of false “salvation,” imagined by African-American families to make their day-to-day sufferings bearable. But Wright himself does not believe that his salvation will come simply by religious “wishing,” by asking a distant God for help. Wright instead believes that he must save himself—use his wits to pull himself out of his impoverished circumstances. For Wright, salvation does come, but in a different form—through intellectual communion with the broader world, in the form of literature. In particular, the essays of H. L. Mencken, at the end of the memoir, introduce Wright to a world of literature from which he will derive comfort the remainder of his life.

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Christianity and “Being Saved” ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Christianity and “Being Saved” appears in each chapter of Black Boy. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Christianity and “Being Saved” Quotes in Black Boy

Below you will find the important quotes in Black Boy related to the theme of Christianity and “Being Saved”.
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. 

There was no funeral. There was no music. There was no period of mourning. There were no flowers. There were only silence, quiet weeping, whispers, and fear.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Uncle Hoskins
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Hoskins, the man whose funeral young Richard describes in this section, was the owner of a liquor store, and he was making good money in a part of Georgia where white people did not necessarily appreciate black men making any kind of money at all. Although Richard does not explain it directly, he implies that the while population near Jackson, MS, believes that Hoskins was doing too well for himself, and so he was killed - his liquor business thus making itself available to a white owner. Although Richard does not necessarily understand all that stands behind the killing - the fact that, for example, the police will not investigate it, because the police force protects white interest - he sees that the death is understood only as terrible luck. The family takes the news of the death quietly and with bitter anguish at the authorities, who will do nothing to protect them, and who seem only to reinforce the violent attitudes found in the white community. 

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. 

Christmas came and I had but one orange. I was hurt and would not go out to play with the neighborhood children who were blowing horns and shooting firecrackers. . . . Just before going to bed, I ate it, first taking a bite out of the top and sucking the juice from it as I squeezed it; finally I tore the peeling into bits and munched them slowly.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

On Christmas Day, Richard's family is so poor - and, in truth, has so little to celebrate, based on the violent difficulties of the past year - that Richard can enjoy only a single orange, which he has tucked away for the occasion. That orange seems, later on in his life, a poignant sign of the harshness of his childhood. But at the time, the orange was a small moment of salvation - a way to transcend the difficulty of his circumstances.

Richard will wonder, as he goes along, how he survived a childhood of such anguish, and indeed one of the primary shocks of the memoir is the overwhelming array of violent difficulties standing between Richard and a life as a writer. But Richard does in fact overcome these circumstances, and this moving scene of his enjoyment of the orange is a small flicker of hope in a landscape of mostly bleak and frightening events. 

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. 

Daily I went into my room upstairs, locked the door, knelt, and tried to pray, but everything I could think of saying seemed silly.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

After being forced into it by his family members, Richard tries as hard as he possibly can to "get" religion. He attempts to pray, but finds that he has no one to pray to - he does not believe there could be a God looking down on the kind of world in which he lives, when so little is stable, and so little seems to make sense. Richard understands, abstractly, that religion is "good" for him, that it will help him to become a stronger person - but when he sees the religious students in the school he attends, he wonders what it is they're praying for, and whether their prayers are any different from his.

Richard believes instead that this is all "silly," a game of make-believe that helps people to make sense of lives that have been twisted by the difficult conditions of the place in which they live. Richard will go on to find redemption from his circumstances, but it will not be through prayer - rather, it will come in the form of reading and self-education. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Uncle Tom, Granny says to come at once. Grandpa’s dead.
You certainly are a prize fool. Don’t you know that that’s no way to tell a person that his father’s dead?
I ran all the way out here . . . I’m out of breath. I’m sorry.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Uncle Tom (speaker), Granny, Grandpa
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard famously notes at the end of this passage that "he can never seem to do what people expect of him." He has tried his best to rush over to Uncle Tom to tell him what has happened to his father - but Uncle Tom replies that Richard has not done this correctly. In a sense, Richard has never been socialized at all - he has not been taught how to behave with friends, or relatives, or strangers; how to act in polite company. Richard does not really know how a family works, how people sit down to eat together, or talk. For Richard, life has been a series of struggles simply to eat, sleep, clothe and house himself, and stay alive. So when Uncle Tom tells Richard he doesn't know what to do with himself, Tom is, though harsh, correct - Richard has simply never been taught what it means to be in the world. He knows only how to suffer through it.