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.
Christianity and “Being Saved” ThemeTracker
Christianity and “Being Saved” Quotes in Black Boy
You owe a debt you can never pay.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.
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.
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.
Why are there so many black men wearing stripes?
It’s because . . . Well, they’re harder on black people.
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.
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!
Daily I went into my room upstairs, locked the door, knelt, and tried to pray, but everything I could think of saying seemed silly.
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.