One of the defining features of Black Boy is its constantly shifting setting. Richard Wright’s young life is one of movement—from one place to another, especially in his younger years—and dislocation, both physical and psychological. Wright is born in Mississippi, and Jackson, the capital of the state, serves as his home base for much of his young life. But after his father leaves the family for another woman, and especially after his mother’s stroke and period of illness, Wright moves back and forth between relatives in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Memphis. Wright’s movement from place to place causes him never to feel truly at home in a single location. His schooling is frequently interrupted, and he reports that he has only a few years’ continuous schooling in Jackson, up to the ninth grade, before he flees to Memphis and, eventually, to Chicago, in his early twenties.
Wright is forced to move around, in part, because of the instability of other family member’s lives that is itself primarily the result of the racism and racially imposed poverty they must endure, and because of the overwhelming strictness of his grandmother’s household. Wright’s mother, after her stroke, cannot work, and Wright’s father refuses to pay for child support. Wright’s brother leaves Wright, for a time, and lives with relatives in Chicago. A great many other characters in the memoir, especially the young black men Wright meets in Memphis, desire to move North, and to escape lives of discrimination, violence, and servitude to whites. Shorty, Harrison, and others, with whom Wright talks and eats lunch during his time in Memphis, are greatly jealous that Wright has saved up the money—and has the courage—to make a break for Chicago.
The consequences of Wright’s movement, and his desire to improve his station in life, are many. These desires cause him to feel psychologically separate from his schoolmates and friends in Mississippi and Memphis. Wright’s intellectual aspirations are lofty, and he never loses sight of them, despite the horrors of his childhood. Wright also feels distant from many members of his family—his grandparents are extremely strict, as are some of his aunts and uncles; his brother moves away to the North, and his mother is largely incapacitated by illness. But Wright concludes the memoir by saying that, though he is moving to Chicago, he will never abandon a piece of the South that lives within him. That “southern” quality, the complicated life of black-white interaction, will always preoccupy him. But he will learn to “transplant” it into the “new soil” of a freer life in the north.
Movement and Dislocation ThemeTracker
Movement and Dislocation 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 . . .
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 . . . .
. . . 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 last fled the city—that same city which had . . . borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.
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.
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!
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.
Where might you be from?
You act mighty bright to be from there.
There are bright people in Jackson.
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 . . . .