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.
Reading and Writing Theme Icon

Black Boy is also a memoir of one man’s personal education—his love affair with reading and writing, and the way in which these intellectual acts open him up to the wider world.

Wright understands, from a young age, that he feels most satisfied when he is reading the great ideas of the world, and when he is writing his own stories. Wright pens a few stories as a child, one of which is serialized in an African-American newspaper in Mississippi. Granny and Aunt Addie believe it is the “devil’s work” to make up a story having nothing to do with Scripture, but for Wright, this “making up” is the fundamental creative act that gives his life meaning. Wright has little by way of formal schooling—he only goes to school until the ninth grade—but he ends up helping the teachers to teach the class when he is around 15, and he delivers the valedictory speech at his ninth-grade graduation. Indeed, his unwillingness to say the principal’s prepared remarks, and his desire to read his own, keeps him from obtaining a teaching job in the district, but also helps Wright to gain confidence in his ability to make a career as a writer and thinker.

In Memphis, where Wright works in an optometry shop, and where the laws of black and white interaction, though still oppressive, are more moderate, Wright is able to gain access, through a white man’s library card, to library books. At the library, Wright discovers the essays of H. L. Mencken and the novels Mencken references, including those by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other great European, American, and English writers. These books introduce Wright to a series of ideas previously unknown to him: religious struggle, capitalism and communism, and the philosophies of the west. It is from these novels and other works that Wright is to gain his personal education. These works will also mark his intellectual development and form the basis, along with his lived experience, of the novels he is to write later in life. Thus, Black Boy serves, finally, as the description of its own composition—as the story of a writer coming into his own, learning about the world around him, and learning, too, from the books that tell of a life beyond his immediate circumstances.

Reading and writing therefore satisfy two impulses in the memoir. First, they make Wright’s immediate life—of poverty and violence—more bearable, and allow for a means of escape into imagined worlds. Second, reading and writing provide a functional alternative to a life of menial labor. Through Wright’s extraordinary effort, he is able to educate himself, which spurs him to move to Chicago with his mother, brother, and aunt, and to begin a new life less encumbered by the stifling racial realities of the Deep South.

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Reading and Writing ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Black Boy related to the theme of Reading and Writing.
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. 


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Chapter 3 Quotes

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. 

Daily I went into my room upstairs, locked the door, knelt, and tried to pray, but everything I could think of saying seemed silly.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

After being forced into it by his family members, Richard tries as hard as he possibly can to "get" religion. He attempts to pray, but finds that he has no one to pray to - he does not believe there could be a God looking down on the kind of world in which he lives, when so little is stable, and so little seems to make sense. Richard understands, abstractly, that religion is "good" for him, that it will help him to become a stronger person - but when he sees the religious students in the school he attends, he wonders what it is they're praying for, and whether their prayers are any different from his.

Richard believes instead that this is all "silly," a game of make-believe that helps people to make sense of lives that have been twisted by the difficult conditions of the place in which they live. Richard will go on to find redemption from his circumstances, but it will not be through prayer - rather, it will come in the form of reading and self-education. 

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 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 7 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Wright’s mother (speaker), Richard Wright
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Richard grows older, he works in manual labor to continue to make money to attend school and buy books. At this point, some in his family, like his mother, tell him that it might be possible for him to get a job teaching - but only if he gives up the writing of stories, which many in the family consider a worthless and wasteful occupation, something that only the "soft-minded" or degenerate might do. After all, his family members contend, what does it mean to make up the events of a story? Anyone could make up anything - stories therefore have no value to anyone, and there is no purpose in reading or in writing them.

Of course, Richard understands that stories can be a gateway to another way of life, and he reads partly so that he might hone his craft of writing. Thus the overwhelming feeling on the part of his family members that writing is bad for him, and bad for his future, does not deter Richard from continuing to read and write. 

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?

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 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 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.