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.
Racism Quotes in Black Boy
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.
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.
What grade are you in school?
Then why are you going to school?
Well, I want to be a writer.
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?
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.
Where might you be from?
You act mighty bright to be from there.
There are bright people in Jackson.
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.
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.
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 . . . .