Richard Wright is the author, narrator, and protagonist of Black Boy. Growing up in an abusive family environment in the racially segregated and violent American South, Richard finds his salvation in reading, writing, and thinking. He grows up feeling insecure about his inability to meet anyone's expectations, particularly his family's wish that he accept religion. Even though he remains isolated from his environment and peers, at the autobiography's end Richard has come to accept himself.
The book literally throbs with the passionate expression of a young boy who lived through hell and agony, through trauma after trauma, who escaped into books and continually sought to know the meaning of his life. [...] He is seeking most of all to find and know himself – his true identity (Walker 190).
Charles T. Davis identifies three themes in Black Boy. The first is survival, the second theme is the making of the artist and the third theme is didacticism characterized by social purposefulness (432).
Richard Wright’s most essential characteristic may be his tremendous belief in his own worth and capabilities. This belief frequently renders him willful, stubborn, and disrespectful of authority, putting him at odds with his family and with those who expect him to accept his degraded position in society. Because almost everyone in Richard's life thinks this way, he finds himself constantly punished for his nonconformity with varying degrees of physical violence and emotional isolation. Richard Wright continually faces a world that relies on force, rather than sound judgment and truth. Richard is cursed, beaten, or slapped every time he stands up to Granny, Addie, or other elders, regardless of how justified he may be in doing so. Robert Felgar argues that the book’s entire plot is about “self-proclaimed innocence meet[ing] with a brutal response at nearly every turn” (63). According to him, Richard lives in world that “readily substitutes emotion for thought”, making Black Boy “a plea for rationality over physicality” (73).
When whites believe Richard is behaving unacceptably in their presence, they also berate, slap, or manipulate him. When Richard acts out of line with the Communist Party, they denounce him and attempt to sabotage his career. Clearly, then, violence – which here means all the abuse, physical or mental, that Richard suffers—is a constant presence in Black Boy. Violence looms as an almost inevitable consequence when Richard asserts himself, both in the family and in society.
However, violence also takes over Richard's mind as well. Richard learns that he must demonstrate his violent power in order to gain respect and acceptance at school. Additionally, he reacts to his family's violent, overbearing treatment with violence of his own, wielding a knife against Addie, burning down the house, and so on.
Granny, Addie, Tom, Pease, Reynolds, Olin, Ed Green, Buddy Nealson are all characters who ascribe to inflexible attitudes and beliefs that do not accommodate differing opinions from independently minded people like Richard. In the cases of Granny and Addie, strict religious faith drives them to attack Richard at every turn because he fails to act like a good Seventh-Day Adventist. Tom's belief that young people should unthinkingly obey their elders rouses him to fury whenever Richard takes a justified stand against him. Pease, Reynolds, and Olin believe that black people exist merely for the service and sport of white people, leading them to treat Richard with shocking inhumanity. Finally, Ed Green and Buddy Nealson, who maintain that Communists should quietly march in step with the Party, vilify Richard as soon as he seems to be marching to a different drummer.
In short, these characters all deny Richard's worth as an individual. The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance that “[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” in that the “base doctrine of the majority of voices usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul” (4). Taken together, these characters represent the multitude of ways in which society “is in conspiracy against” Richard.
Both parts of the book turn on the confrontation between the young Richard Wright and a world that is often indifferent at best and murderously hostile at worst. “It is Wright against the world in Black Boy, with the world unremittingly cruel and much more powerful but with Wright never surrendering, never letting the world around him gain a complete and final victory” (Felgar 71). Richard is fiercely individual and constantly expresses a desire to join society on his own terms rather than be forced into one of the categories that society wishes him to fill. In this regard, Richard struggles against a dominant white culture – both in the South and in the North – and even against his own black culture. Neither white nor black culture knows how to handle a brilliant, strong-willed, self-respecting black man. Richard perceives that his options are either to conform or to wilt. Needless to say, neither option satisfies him, so he forges his own middle path.
Richard defies these two unsatisfactory options in different ways throughout the novel. He defies them in Granny's home, where he lives without embracing its barren, mandatory spirituality. He defies these options at school, where the principal asserts that Richard must read an official speech or not graduate. He defies them in Chicago, where the Communist Party asserts that he will either act as they tell him to act or be expelled. Richard negates this final choice by leaving the Party of his own accord.
As we see, Richard always rejects the call to conform. This rejection creates strife and difficulty, however – not because Richard thinks cynically about people and refuses to have anything more to do with them, but precisely because he does not take this approach. Though Richard wishes to remain an individual, he feels connected to the rest of humanity on a spiritual level. Therefore, as an artist, he must struggle to show compassion for communities that say they do not want him. Felgar agrees that “in his encounters with the world, [Richard] refuses to sacrifice his integrity to suit either people or convenience” (65).
Our too-young and too-new America [...] insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; [...] It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character (Wright 272-3)!
This passage appears in the middle of Chapter 15, as Richard sketches some of the faults he finds in America. His greatest complaint is that his country is superficial and self-deceptive, qualities that result in intolerance and exclusion. When Richard admits that he shares “these faults of character,” however, he compares America to a person like himself, growing up and working through the growing pains of adolescence. Indeed, Wright refers to the “too-young” America, and immediately after this passage calls America “adolescent and cocksure.” Richard discerns these traits in America because he knows what it is like to be cocksure and adolescent himself. In his view, the problem of racism does not lie entirely in such private places as peoples' minds. Rather, it is a function of problems deeply embedded in American culture that will take time to change.
- Quote paper
- Anonymous, 2003, Black Boy: A character analysis of Richard Wright, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/23490