Black Boy is a memoir of racism and racial identity. It describes 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 black families live. Black Boy shows in brutal detail the consequences of Southern racism. It also demonstrates that racial distinctions are not “inherent” or “biological,” but are products of a society that is economically and politically 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. As he grows older, Wright notes 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 many occupations are open to them. Black families live in their own parts of town, and white families treat them contemptuously. 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 black people. Richard is physically threatened by Pease and Reynolds, and is forced to leave his job at Crane’s eyeglass shop. Matthew, 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 merely for the suspicion that he slept with a white prostitute. Uncle Hoskins, owner of a successful 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. Instead, he must sweep the store for whites, who do the “real” work.
Characters 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) that some black families impose on themselves. Some black workers, like Shorty in Memphis, act as “clowns” for white men to gain favors and make extra money, but Wright is unwilling to act submissively for white men’s benefit, and he knows that Shorty will never save enough money 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 to gain some knowledge of the world beyond the American South. This reading does not always help Wright overcome racial violence, but it gives him the confidence to try his luck in the broader world.
After moving to Chicago, however, Richard realizes that subtler forces of racial distinction exist in the North. Richard still has trouble finding a steady job, and whites control much of the city’s economic opportunity. Even when he joins the Communist Party, which is supposedly committed to racial equality, Richard finds that white men direct most of its activities. Richard also learns that not all black workers in Chicago share his political beliefs. Some left-wing black radicals on the South Side think of Richard as an “intellectual,” an “Uncle Tom” who sides with whites. And Richard finds some black artists too concerned with sex, or a return to Africa, to be taken seriously as social thinkers. By the end of the memoir, Wright sees race as a problem to be addressed, if not entirely overcome, by the conscience of every individual, attempting to make sense of the society in which they live.