Richard Wright has much in common with other colored writers who struggled against poverty and racial discrimination. Like others, he too has schooling that was disrupted by frequent moves. But the lack of higher learning did not thwart his ambition of being a writer. His fame rides on a few books written when he was in his thirties. The brutal frankness with which he writes of his childhood leaves an indelible impression on the reader.
Relevance of the Title
The title was particularly significant to the writer. He changed the title thrice before he settled on this. To him the title summed up all that the book was about. Whites often called colored men “boys” even when they were adults because black people were considered to be immature and stupid. Much of the author’s travails were linked to his color, especially when he started working. To this extent, the emphasis on the word “black” seems relevant.
At the heart of the book, is the way people view the black people based on the color of their skin. They consider black people to be inferior in all ways. Black Boy is the story of a poor boy growing up in an impoverished environment. But overriding that theme is how his skin color affects him. The problem of color is so knit into the American society, it is difficult to root it out completely. As an adult too, he encounters people who exploit the author due to his color. Coloreds are considered incapable of intelligent work. The Jim Crow laws kept them in squalid surroundings where hunger was a constant.
Individual Versus Society
Richard comes into conflict with conformism at all stages in life. It is not just being a misfit in a society dominated by the whites; he has trouble fitting into the black society and into his family. His grandmother and his uncles have their own ideas of how a child has to behave. Richard was fiercely individual; he has to forge his own path hoping it does not ruffle too many feathers at home and in the society.
Art as Redemption
Richard’s life is gloomy; the grinding poverty and desertion by his father robs his life of brightness. It is when he hears the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives that his mind opens to the redemptive powers of literature. No matter how hopeless one’s existence, literature had the power to bring hope and joy into it; this is what Richard learned. He knew that his life’s work had to do with writing.
He is a full of contradictions. He can be timid, violent, self assured, compassionate and confident all in the space of pages. His family expects a lot from him; they want him to take up religion but he is not interested. He struggles psychologically conscious of his inability to come up to their expectations. It is difficult for him to bond with his peers; poverty makes his life a lonely one.
Granny is an austere Southern woman who has God as the center of her life. Her list of sins runs long; most of what her grandson does and gets joy from is in her eyes sinful.
Richard’s mother loves her son and wants him to do well in life but there is nothing much she can do to help him on his way. She believes that a hard slap will discipline him when he does wrong.
The women in Richard’s family are deeply religious but even when he was a very young boy he rejected idea of a god and church that controlled all actions. This brought him into conflict him into them and also with the men who were violent and irresponsible. As he grows older, Richard realizes that racism that is deeply entrenched in the American society will affect him. Though he is intelligent and capable, he is not given opportunities to prove himself and advance in life. His father deserts his family for another woman which means that Richard will have to be passed from uncle to uncle. They expect him to be docile and obey all their commands but Richard is not made that way.
Richard finds the South stifling prompting him to move north. He has no money to finance this move so he resorts to stealing from his boss. Sometime this time he is drawn to the Communist party which he feels holds out hope for the poor. He begins writing for their journal. But he is soon disillusioned by the infighting and mistrust that is rampant in the Communist party. They have a strict code of adherence that Wright finds stifling. The book ends with Wright realizing that emancipation for him has to come from writing alone.
At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had . . . a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering. At the age of twelve I had an attitude toward life that was to . . . make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical . . . that could only keep alive in me that enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life.
Coming at the end of Chapter3, these lines are about Wright’s belief that by itself, life has no meaning unless you struggle against odds and thus invest it with meaning. Later in life, these beliefs that had taken root in him even when he just a boy, drew him to existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. There was plenty to struggle against in his life right from early days – an overly religious family, a father who deserted the family, and his mother’s paralytic attacks.
- I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.
These which come at the end of Chapter Five can be considered to be the climax of the book. Wright had made brief forays into writing but the struggle to get on with life pushed his literary pursuits on the back burner. Now, when he concludes reading H. L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces the conviction that his life’s work dealt with writing comes bubbling up.