Black Boy describes a man charting his own path. The world Wright finds himself in is harsh. In the South, he struggles against white oppression, black expectations for “normal” behavior, and feelings of rootlessness. He wants to escape to the North—but in Chicago, these problems don’t disappear. There, he struggles with the big, anonymous city. He looks for unity and human connection, but is often frustrated in this search.
In Wright’s experience, Southern whites group all black people together. They assume there is no such thing as black individuality. Many whites automatically believe that Wright will steal and lie, and 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 wants to be come an optometrist. White oppression in the South is a systematic denial of black personality. 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 black 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. They want him to stay in Jackson, to live as they have. In Memphis, Wright observes that black workers, like Shorty and Harrison, are more concerned with “not making waves,” with appeasing their white bosses. Wright’s frustration with black resignation spurs his move to Chicago. There, he hopes to find other individuals who celebrate black culture, rather than shy away from it.
This isn’t true of Chicago, though. Wright disagrees with other black writers, activists, and political figures there. He cannot become a lockstep member of the Communist Party or the John Reed Club. He argues with black actors who accept stereotypes of black life on the stage. Whenever Wright seeks out an authentic black community, he realizes that white supremacy has warped it in some way.
Wright’s feelings of loneliness, of not belonging, encourage him to develop as a reader, writer, and thinker. Reading and writing, for Wright, are the ultimate assertions of individuality, as one may challenge, in writing, society’s assumptions of “normal” black behavior. Wright makes his own voice through reading, and through quiet, careful, concerted work. Although this work takes on social problems and is geared toward a public readership, it begins in private. Thus, at the end of the memoir, Wright goes back to his study, to continue making his career on his own.