Black Boy details the efforts of one man to chart his own path—to realize his potential in a world that often seems impossible to navigate. In this way, it is a memoir of one individual, Richard Wright, as he develops within, and pushes against, the constraints and rules of Southern society. In particular, Wright struggles against white oppression, against black expectations for “normal” behavior, and against feelings of his own rootlessness.
Wright’s difficulties with white society stem from an impulse, among southern whites, to group all African Americans together, to assume that there is no such thing as black individuality. All whites assume that Wright will steal, that he lies, that he is capable of murder. The police warn Wright against riding his bicycle alone through white neighborhoods; Pease and Reynolds accuse Wright of asserting himself too vigorously when Wright attempts to learn the skills of the optometry trade. White oppression in the South consists, in essence, of a systematic denial of black personality, with an aim toward subduing the entire black population. If black people do not have an individual character, according to whites, then black servitude will remain the cultural norm under Jim Crow.
But Wright hardly has an easier time among his African-American peers. Granny, Addie, and Uncle Tom consider Wright’s dreams—of becoming a writer, of leaving the South—to be “soft” or strange. Each encourages Richard to “fall in line” with Christian teaching, to hold down a job in the Jackson area, to live as they themselves have lived. In Memphis, too, Wright observes that black workers, like Shorty and Harrison, are more concerned with “not making waves,” with appeasing their white bosses, than with asserting their individual desires. Wright’s frustration with black attitudes of acceptance and resignation spur his move to Chicago, where he hopes there are other African-American individuals who celebrate black culture, rather than shy away from it.
Finally, Wright’s own feelings of loneliness, of not belonging to southern society, encourage him to develop as a reader, writer, and thinker, and enable him to speak his mind in the broader world. Reading and writing, for Wright, are the ultimate assertions of individuality—one may challenge, in writing, society’s assumptions of “normal” black behavior. Thus Wright becomes an author out of a desire to create art, and out of a desire to add his individual voice into the literary history of the Western world, to which he has become acquainted through reading.
Society and the Individual ThemeTracker
Society and the Individual Quotes in Black Boy
You owe a debt you can never pay.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.
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.
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!
Daily I went into my room upstairs, locked the door, knelt, and tried to pray, but everything I could think of saying seemed silly.
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.
Uncle Tom, Granny says to come at once. Grandpa’s dead.
You certainly are a prize fool. Don’t you know that that’s no way to tell a person that his father’s dead?
I ran all the way out here . . . I’m out of breath. I’m sorry.
What grade are you in school?
Then why are you going to school?
Well, I want to be a writer.
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?
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 . . . .