Black Boy

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Movement and Dislocation 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.
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon

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

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Black Boy related to the theme of Movement and Dislocation.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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 . . .

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Wright begins his memoir with impressions of his youth - what he saw around his family's home. He tells this not from the perspective of an adult but from the viewpoint of a child - what a child would have seen, how he would have seen it. Thus hunger was all around Wright as a young boy. He felt hunger even when he smelled the grass, for example - when he noticed something even remotely like food in the natural world around him.

But Wright was not a "normal" child - he tends to notice far more than others in his family. His sense of wonder at the natural world is the wonderment of a young artist, taking in information and attempting to make sense of it. Wright's time spent by himself, describing and cataloguing the land outside the family's home, is time spent away from the fundamental strife that the family experiences. 


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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 . . . .

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard lives most of his young life out of doors, and does what he can in Memphis to survive. Sometimes, in order to make money from the old men who linger in the bars, Richard will repeat the "bad words" they tell him - and he drinks in response to it. This creates in Richard a taste for alcohol as a very, very young child - and his mother is appalled to discover this. But Richard himself finds the taste of alcohol, and the drinking, liberating. It makes him feel that he is a grown-up, even if he is only five or six years old. And it makes him feel, for a time, free of his family and of their control.

But this episode introduces another problem in Richard's life. He realizes, as a young age, that there are two paths he can go down. The first is the path toward physical decay - drinking, gambling, and the lack of an education. The second, and much more difficult and hard-to-find path, is that of personal growth, struggle, and education. 

. . . 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.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

A deeply affecting passage. Richard understands, when he is released from the orphanage as a young boy and spends some time with his father - and later, when he sees that his father has returned to a life of sharecropping - that his father has been chewed up by Memphis. Richard associates his father with the temptations and evils of the city - the lack of steady employment, the drinking and gambling, and of course the virulent racism of whites - and though he is at first surprised to see that his father has returned to the fields outside the city, he is not shocked for long. In some sense, Richard wonders how his father escaped from those fields to the city in the first place.

Richard himself is at best ambivalent about the city of Memphis, about the opportunities it provides (for work and education) and about the dangers it offers. But Richard knows that his life is to be found in the cities, and not in the fields surrounding them. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

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

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?

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s brother
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning that his mother had suffered a stroke, Richard realizes that, along with his brother, he would be "too much" to care for by any one family - and this means that he and his brother will be separated, and Richard will be forced to live away from all the relatives he has known up to this point in his life. This is another setback for Richard, who has achieved so little stability in his life since a young age, after his father abandons the family, and then he, his mother, and his brother move around the South, from family member to family member, attempting to find a place to settle.

Richard is here told once again that he and his brother are a burden, and that others will have to care of him at great expense to them - that Richard and his brother, in other words, can only be tolerated and not loved. 

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. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard begins to discover books and reading at this time, and realizes that there is a world beyond the world he has known in his youth. He gains access to this other world by immersing himself in the thoughts of others. Of course, many in his family, including his Granny and Addie, believe that "secular books" contain only falsehoods, and will pervert Richard's mind. This is the great irony of Richard's education - that it comes precisely at the moment when those around him tell him he cannot succeed in the "normal" classroom - when they argue that Richard is a boy without morals, without aptitude, without any sense of the spiritual.

For Richard, reading is a spiritual and personal exercise - it is something as close to divine as he has found in his young life. This reading can be done in private, and occurs only in the confines of his own mind. And no one can keep him from thinking the thoughts he thinks when he is doing it - it is a way for him to become free. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

Where might you be from?
Jackson, Mississippi.
You act mighty bright to be from there.
There are bright people in Jackson.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Mrs. Moss (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard returns to Memphis, where he lived as a very young boy. He then realizes there that there is a strong bias against those from the "deep South," regardless of the color of that person's skin - that, in other words, the urbane residents of Memphis believe that people from Jackson would not know how to read, or how to speak properly, how to behave in a city environment. Of course, Richard has spent a great deal of time in his teenage years learning exactly how to fend for himself, and so is prepared to do whatever it takes to live in Memphis. But Mrs. Moss is still shocked to see that he is a self-made man from a part of the country where, she thinks, no one could be so polished and educated.

Richard embarks on a life in Memphis, in part, to prove that he is up to the challenge of living in a big city - something Richard believes his father could not do successfully. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

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 . . . .

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 284-285
Explanation and Analysis:

This striking passage is one of the final parts of the book. Richard understands that so much of his life has been formed in the South, a place he understands as one of violence and deprivation, of the extremes of the human experience. But the South is still his home. And when he leaves the South, he insists to both himself and to the reader that he will not (and can not) leave it behind in his imagination. Richard has learned, both in his life and in books, that all people are rooted in place - hence the metaphor of a plant used in this section - but that those roots might change over time, that they might find "new and cool rains." This is the hope at the end of the book, that Richard might be able to take what he has learned, despite the violence of his youth, and apply it in the service of his reading and his writing in a different location, in the North and its cities of which he has dreamed for some time.