Black Boy details Wright’s physical discomfort and the privations of his life in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Many characters in the memoir also suffer greatly, because African-American families in the white-dominated South do not have access to proper food, medicine, and other life necessities.
Wright is hungry for almost the entire memoir. In the beginning, after his father leaves his mother for another woman, Wright’s father refuses to pay alimony, and Wright and his brother must live on the meager salary his mother makes, cooking for white families. Thus, although Wright’s mother works all day in a kitchen, Wright himself must eat mush, very little meat or bread, and almost no fruits or vegetables. Later, when his mother becomes ill and cannot support the children, Wright moves in with his grandmother in Jackson. There, his diet improves slightly, but he still does not eat enough to feel satisfied. Hunger becomes one of the dominant emotional states of his young life, and a metaphor for both the lack that he must face as a result of Southern racism and his gnawing desire to escape that life. He does everything he can to fill his stomach, including drinking large amounts of water just to simulate “fullness.”
In Memphis, once Wright flees Jackson, he limits his food intake to hamburgers, peanuts, and beans from a can. Now, Wright has enough money to eat better—and Mrs. Moss, with whom he boards, is willing to feed him—but Wright wishes to save money for his trip up north, and he does not want to be beholden to anyone feeding him, since he believes it is important for a man to “make his own way.” Wright’s hunger continues till the end of the memoir, when a white man approaches him in the eyeglass shop and offers him a dollar, saying Wright has the look of a starving man. But Wright will not accept the money from the white northerner—again showing that one’s pride and self-reliance are more important, to Wright, than any passing discomfort.
Others in the memoir experience different kinds of physical torment. Wright’s mother has a series of paralyzing strokes, causing her extreme pain for much of her life. It becomes clear, after several years, that she will never recover fully, that her pain will not recede, and that Wright will have to support the family, if they are to make the journey to Chicago. Grandpa, a veteran of the Civil War, is also ill for much of the memoir, and is denied health coverage because a white officer misheard and mis-reported his name after the war. Wright is often beaten, as a child, by older family members, and he learns quickly that white families would just as soon beat and kill black children who they believe are committing crimes. Wright learns about “lynching,” the extra-legal killing of black men in the white South, and comes of age with the fear of this kind of vigilante injustice.
The only possibility for the alleviation of this suffering, Wright concludes, is a trip to the north, to Chicago, where Jim Crow laws are not in effect, and where members of black society have at least a nominal chance at living on equal terms with white persons. Although Wright does not believe that life in Chicago will be paradise, he sees, in Jackson and in Memphis, what lives of servitude, violence, and deprivation can do to black society. Wright hopes that, by living in the north, he will at least free himself from the constant threats of physical harm that characterize southern life under Jim Crow.
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering ThemeTracker
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Quotes in Black Boy
There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass. And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights . . .
You owe a debt you can never pay.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.
I was a drunkard in my sixth year, before I had begun school. With a gang of children, I roamed the streets, begging pennies from passers-by, haunting the doors of saloons . . . .
Blot it [she said].
I could not lift my hand. I knew what she had said; I knew what she wanted me to do; and I had heard her correctly. I wanted to look at her and say something, tell her why I could not move; but my eyes were fixed upon the floor.
. . . My father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at lest fled the city—that same city which had . . . borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.
Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.
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.
Mama, is Granny white?
If you’ve got eyes, you can see what color she is.
I mean, do the white folks think she’s white?
Why don’t you ask the white folks that?
But you know.
Why should I know? I’m not white.
Granny looks white. Then why is she living with us colored folks?
Don’t you want Granny to live with us?
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.
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.
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.
Out of the family conferences it was decided that my brother and I would be separated, that it was too much of a burden for any one aunt or uncle to assume the support of both of us. Where was I to go? Who would take me?
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?
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.
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?
I reached my hands higher. They searched my pockets and packages. They seemed dissatisfied when they could find nothing incriminating.
Boy, tell your boss not to send you out in white neighborhoods at this time of night.
The words and actions of white people were baffling signs to me. I was living in a culture and not a civilization and I could learn how that culture worked only by living with it. Misreading the reactions of whites around me made me say and do the wrong things.
The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different.
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 . . . .