Black Boy

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Society and the Individual 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.
Society and the Individual Theme Icon

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.

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Society and the Individual ThemeTracker

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

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

You owe a debt you can never pay.
I’m sorry.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes a childhood trauma. Richard, playing with a cat, keeps his father awake with the noise, and his father begs Richard to "kill the cat" and make the noise stop. Richard is smart enough to know, even as a child, that his father is speaking metaphorically, but a part of Richard wants to get back at his father, so he follows his "orders" and really does kill the cat. Richard's father then makes Richard bury the cat and arrange a "funeral" for it.

His comments afterward to his son, that the cat's death is a "debt" that cannot be "repaid," haunts Richard. He fears precisely this - that he, as a young man, will do things for which he can never atone. And so Richard, for one thing, does not want to go near cats for the rest of his childhood. And, more broadly, Richard associates with his family ideas of terror, detachment, and violence that cannot be undone. 


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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

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 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. 

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. 

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.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Uncle Tom (speaker), Granny, Grandpa
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard famously notes at the end of this passage that "he can never seem to do what people expect of him." He has tried his best to rush over to Uncle Tom to tell him what has happened to his father - but Uncle Tom replies that Richard has not done this correctly. In a sense, Richard has never been socialized at all - he has not been taught how to behave with friends, or relatives, or strangers; how to act in polite company. Richard does not really know how a family works, how people sit down to eat together, or talk. For Richard, life has been a series of struggles simply to eat, sleep, clothe and house himself, and stay alive. So when Uncle Tom tells Richard he doesn't know what to do with himself, Tom is, though harsh, correct - Richard has simply never been taught what it means to be in the world. He knows only how to suffer through it. 

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 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.