Black Boy

The “switch” Symbol Analysis

The “switch” Symbol Icon

Books liberate Richard; violence oppresses him. People use the switch (a rod or stick) to beat and punish Richard. Though he lives in fear of white violence, he is even more afraid of the switch, which his family uses on him. His Uncle Tom beats him for little reason, and his Aunt Addie wants to beat him after believing, wrongly, that Richard has littered her classroom with walnut shells. Granny and Richard’s mother beat Richard when he is young, fearing that he’s without religion—a “plague” in their household. Finally, Pease and Reynolds, at Crane’s shop, threaten also to beat Richard (in their case, with a piece of steel) because he has dared to learn about their trade.

The switch and other implements of violence enforce the narrow social roles Richard is forced to fill, by whites and his own family. If he violates these roles, he is punished harshly. After his escape to Chicago, Richard leaves the switch behind, though not the threat of violence. It remains a feature of Northern city life. Even at the memoir’s close, while marching in a peaceful parade, Richard is thrown aside by former comrades. For Richard, bodily harm is an obstacle to be surmounted. Free from this violence, he can continue in his project of writing and reading.

The “switch” Quotes in Black Boy

The Black Boy quotes below all refer to the symbol of The “switch”. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Perennial edition of Black Boy published in 2015.
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 Father (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
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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:
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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:
Quotes explanation short mobile

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:
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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:
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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:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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The “switch” Symbol Timeline in Black Boy

The timeline below shows where the symbol The “switch” appears in Black Boy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...him so heavily that he nearly dies. Lying in bed after his beating (with a switch), he hallucinates in a fever for days, but ultimately survives. (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...a time, though he is only six years old. His mother beats him with a switch to correct his behavior, and finally, after his mother hires a babysitter to look after... (full context)
Chapter 2
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...not come into the main room for his beating. Richard is beaten savagely with a switch by his mother, but cannot tell his family where he learned such “dirty” language. Granny... (full context)
Chapter 4
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...“crime.” Addie decides to make an example of Richard anyway, and whips him with a switch in the front of the classroom. (full context)
Chapter 6
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
...should have had a long time ago.” But while Tom goes outside to find a switch, Richard grabs a razor blade from the house and approaches Tom, showing him that if... (full context)