Black Boy

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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.
Racism Theme Icon

Black Boy is a memoir of racism, racial identity, and the difficulty of surviving as a young African-American man in the South. As a boy, Richard sees that some people have lighter skin, and other people darker skin. But he only understands what these distinctions mean, culturally and politically, after observing the bigotry of whites and the fear with which many black families live. Thus, Black Boy shows in brutal detail the consequences of Southern racism, and demonstrates that racial distinctions are not “inherent” or “biological,” but are products of a society that is economically and political unequal.

Wright asks his mother, early on, if he is a “Negro.” His mother replies that society will label him one, though he is actually of mixed white, Native American, and African ancestry. Wright states that, as he grows older, he begins to see that “white” children and “white” families in the South are a privileged class, and that “black” families serve those white families. Wright also realizes that “white” groups direct significant anger at “black” groups, for no reason other than those groups’ “blackness.” White children go to their own schools; they learn to read and write at a young age; and a full range of occupations is open to them. “Black” families, however, live in their own parts of town; they are treated with open contempt by white families; and they are believed to be inherently “criminal,” disposed to lying and theft.

Throughout his young life in Mississippi and Arkansas, Richard is exposed to white violence against blacks: Richard himself is physically threatened by Pease and Reynolds, and is forced to leave his job at Crane’s eyeglass shop; a boyfriend of Aunt Maggie’s must flee Arkansas, because he has dared to fight back against forces of white supremacy; a brother of a friend, Ned, is killed in Jackson for sleeping with a white prostitute. And Uncle Hoskins, owner of a tavern in Arkansas, is murdered by white competitors eager for his business. In Memphis, Richard finds work at another eyeglass shop, but he is not permitted to train professionally in lens grinding, and must again sweep the store and serve the whites who do the “real” work.

Characters in the memoir respond to this overwhelming racism in different ways. Some black families, like Granny’s, find solace in religion. But Wright does not have any “feeling for God,” and rejects the stern discipline (symbolized by the “switch” used for beatings) black families impose on themselves. Some black workers, like Shorty in Memphis, act as “clowns” for white men, in order to gain favors, make extra money, and, with luck, earn enough to move north. But Wright is unwilling to act foolishly or submissively for white men’s benefit, and he knows that Shorty will never save enough money to be able to leave. Wright’s only solace, and eventually his salvation, comes in the form of books. He begins a serious effort in self-education in Memphis, and reads enough that he feels he has gained some knowledge of the world beyond the American South. This reading, though it does not necessarily provide a practical guide to living as a black man in a country dominated by whites, nevertheless gives Wright the confidence to try his luck in the broader world—in Chicago.

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Racism ThemeTracker

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

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

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. 

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. . . 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

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. 

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?

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker), Granny
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this heartbreaking section, Richard begins to learn what "race" really means in the context in which he lives, and the role it will play in his life. Richard notes that his Granny's skin is lighter than his, and he asks, therefore, if Granny is white. But his mother notes that his Granny will be called "black," just as he will be called "black," even though their ancestry is a mixture of African, European, and Native American families. Richard begins to see that the color of the skin itself is not "important" to those living in the racist South, so much as the distinctions that come with this racial separation. In other words, Richard, through his mother, learns that he is "black" because society says that he is "black," and that society will treat him unfairly, often violently, as a black man regardless of what he says to them. 

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. 

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. 

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 6 Quotes

What grade are you in school?
Seventh, ma’am.
Then why are you going to school?
Well, I want to be a writer.
A what?
A writer.
For what?

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard announces, to anyone who asks and cares to hear, that he does indeed have professional plans, ideas for his future - that he wants to write books, to participate in the joy he himself has found in the books he has read. However, many in his life refuse to see this as evidence of Richard's motivation. Instead, they think that books are things written by others, certainly not by poor black men from the South. Although Richard insists that this future will be possible for himself, and that he must gain an education in order to achieve it, those around him think it is a dream of the faintest order, if they even consider it at all.

Thus Richard must combat two things in his path toward an artistic life. He must gain an education however he can, by reading the books he acquires when he acquires them - and he must fight back against a world that thinks he can never write at all. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

Look, Dick, you’re throwing away your future here in Jackson. Go to the principal, talk to him, take his speech and say it. I’m saying the one he wrote. So why can’t you? What the hell? What can you lose?
No.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Griggs (speaker), The principal
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard is given a speech by the superintendent of his junior high school, to deliver as that school's valedictorian. But Richard believes he has earned the right to give his own speech, and he labors over his words for weeks and weeks, doing everything he can to make them shine. Tom reads both speeches and says that the administration's version is better, but Richard believes in the principle at stake - that he has a right to say what is on his mind, especially if he has earned this right by being the best student in the class.

Richard knows, however, that there will be consequences for his actions - that he might not get a job as a teacher in that school if he is insubordinate to the school's administration. But it has become clear at this point in the novel that Richard does not want to stay in Jackson and teach, that he wants to move somewhere else and continue in his education - which is what he winds up doing. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

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.
Yes, sir.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard realizes that, if he stays much longer in Jackson, he might suffer a cruel fate like those he has witnessed for many of the African American men in his life, since a young age. Richard does nothing to incite the hatred of the white people of Jackson, yet they are predisposed to hate him, to believe that he will harm them, that he is a criminal, or "impudent," unwilling to settle for white authority (of course Richard does reject white authority, but mostly in private). Thus with every incident in which Richard is rebuked or physically attacked by white men in the town, he further resolves to leave Jackson, and to make his way northward. Although Richard knows that there is still a great deal of violence against black men in the North, he believes that at least there he has a better chance of simply surviving while walking on the street and going about his work. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard learns by his late teens that there is only one way to behave in order to get the white residents of Jackson to treat him with even a small amount of respect - or, at least, not to harm him physically. Though it pains Richard to do it, he resolves to abase himself to white authority - to pretend that he knows nothing, to acquiesce to all demands, to do only what is told of him, to joke and smile and otherwise be "docile." Richard understands that, in doing so, he is giving up a part of himself - he is making it seem, at least on the surface, that he accepts white superiority, that he is willing to live "in his place."

But Richard maintains his beliefs, deep down, that he will leave Jackson and begin a life of his own. He understands that this compromise is one he engages in only to survive, and that, once he begins his life independently in the North, or at least outside Jackson, he might be able to return to a more authentic version of himself. 

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 12 Quotes

How in God’s name can you do that?
I needed a quarter, and I got it.
But a quarter can’t pay you for what he did to you.
. . . My ass is tough and quarters is scarce.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Shorty (speaker)
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard realizes that many in Memphis do whatever they can do make their way in a city that is still staunchly segregated according to occupation. Shorty runs the elevator in the office where Richard works, at an optician's shop, and Shorty is willing to behave in a manner that whites view as stereotypically African American in order to receive a small tip. Richard considers this an abominable thing, even though earlier, and to a lesser degree, Richard has acknowledged that there were ways he showed deference to those in Jackson in order to survive, and not to "make waves" among whites in the community.

But at this point, Richard has vowed that he will be true to the principles of education and racial justice that have caused him to seek out life in the North - with Memphis as a way-station to Chicago. Thus, Richard is not willing to live as Shorty does in order to survive. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negros, and this man was not a Negro. . . Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard realizes that there are those in the North (like Baltimore, which, though close to the South, is affiliated more with cities like Philadelphia and New York) who are willing to defend the cause of African Americans, to argue that Jim Crow laws are ruining African American lives. Richard believed, as he notes here, that only African Americans could be scorned in this way by whites in the South - but here, Mencken stands up not only for black populations, but for the idea that men are created equal, and that the laws of the country are designed to protect everyone, not just white men and women, and so he is scorned in a (somewhat) similar way. This is a revelation for Richard. Richard goes on to read whatever Mencken writes, on all possible subjects - and he believes that Mencken, at that point a critic of great renown in the United States, will help him to strike on his own as a writer - that Mencken can inspire him to read omnivorously, and to begin working on his own essays, stories, and journalism in earnest. 

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.