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Black Boy is a novel written by Richard Wright.

Plot

Required to remain quiet while his grandmother lies ill in bed, four-year-old Richard Wright becomes bored and begins playing with fire near the curtains, leading to his accidentally burning down the family home in Natchez, Mississippi. In fear, Richard hides under the burning house. His father, Nathan, retrieves him from his hiding place. Then, his mother, Ella, beats him so severely that he loses consciousness and falls ill. Nathan abandons the family to live with another woman while Richard and his brother, Alan, are still very young. Without Nathan's financial support, the Wrights fall into poverty and perpetual hunger. Richard closely associates his family's hardship—and particularly their hunger—with his father and therefore grows bitter toward him. For the next few years, Ella struggles to raise her children in Memphis, Tennessee. Her long hours of work leave her little time to supervise Richard and his brother. Not surprisingly, Richard gets into all sorts of trouble, spying on people in outhouses and becoming a regular at the local saloon—and an alcoholic—by the age of six. Ella's worsening health prevents her from raising two children by herself and often leaves her unable to work. During these times, Richard does whatever odd jobs a child can do to bring in some money for the family. School is hardly an option for him. At one point, the family's troubles are so severe that Ella must place her children in an orphanage for a few weeks. Life improves when Ella moves to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with her sister, Maggie, and her sister's husband, Hoskins. Hoskins runs a successful saloon, so there is always plenty of food to eat, a condition that Richard greatly appreciates but to which he cannot accustom himself. Soon, however, white jealousy of Hoskins's business success reaches a peak, as local white men kill Hoskins and threaten the rest of his family. Ella and Maggie flee with the two boys to West Helena, Arkansas. There, the two sisters' combined wages make life easier than it had been in Memphis. After only a short time, however, Maggie flees to Detroit with her lover, Professor Matthews, leaving Ella the sole support of the family. Hard economic times return. Times become even harder when a paralytic stroke severely incapacitates Ella. Richard's grandmother brings Ella, Richard, and Alan to her home in Jackson, Mississippi. Ella's numerous siblings convene in Jackson to decide how to care for their ailing sister and her two boys. The aunts and uncles decide that Alan, Richard's brother, will live with Maggie in Detroit. Ella will remain at home in Jackson. Richard, given the freedom to choose which aunt or uncle to live with, decides to take up residence with Uncle Clark, as Clark lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, not far from Jackson. Soon after he arrives at Clark's house, Richard learns from a neighbor that a young boy had died years ago in the same bedroom Richard now occupies. Too terrified to sleep, Richard successfully pleads to be returned to his grandmother's home. Back at Granny's, Richard once again faces the familiar problem of hunger. He also faces a new problem: Granny's incredibly strict religious regimen. Granny, a Seventh-Day Adventist, sees her strong-willed, dreamy, and bookish grandson as terribly sinful, and she struggles mightily to reform him. Another of Richard's aunts, Addie, soon joins the struggle against Richard's defiance. Richard's obsession with reading and his lack of interest in religion make his home life an endless conflict. Granny forces him to attend the religious school where Aunt Addie teaches. One day in class, Aunt Addie beats Richard for eating walnuts, though it was actually the student sitting in front of Richard who had been eating the nuts, not Richard. When Addie tries to beat Richard again after school that day, he fends her off with a knife. Similar scenes recur with frustrating frequency over the following months and years. One time, Richard dodges one of Granny's backhand slaps, causing her to lose her balance and injure herself in a fall off the porch. Addie tries to beat Richard for this incident, but he again fends her off with a knife. Later, another of Richard's uncles, Tom, comes to live with the family. One morning, Tom asks Richard what time it is and thinks Richard responds in a sassy manner. He tries to beat Richard for his supposed insolence, but the boy fends him off with razor blades. Meanwhile, Richard picks his way through school. He delights in his studies—particularly reading and writing—despite a home climate hostile to such pursuits. To the bafflement and scorn of everyone, he writes and publishes in a local black newspaper a story titled “The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre.” He graduates from the ninth grade as valedictorian, giving his own speech despite the -insistence of his principal, friends, and family that he give a school-sanctioned speech to appease the white audience. As Richard enters the adult working world in Jackson, he suffers many frightening, often violent encounters with racism. In the most demoralizing of these encounters, two white Southerners, Pease and Reynolds, run Richard off his job at an optical shop, claiming that such skilled work is not meant for blacks. Richard is upset because the white Northerner who runs the company, Mr. Crane, has hired Richard specifically for the purpose of teaching a black man the optical trade, but then does little to actually help defend Richard against his racist employees. As his despair grows, Richard resolves to leave for the North as soon as possible. He becomes willing to steal in order to raise the cash necessary for the trip. After swindling his boss at a movie -theater, selling stolen fruit preserves, and pawning a stolen gun, Richard moves to Memphis, where the atmosphere is safer and where he can make his final preparations to move to Chicago. In Memphis, Richard has the seeming good fortune of finding a kind, generous landlady, Mrs. Moss, who determines that he must marry her daughter, Bess. Richard does not take to Bess, so his living situation is awkward until Mrs. Moss comes to terms with the fact that her daughter will never be Richard's wife. Richard takes a job at another optical shop, where Olin, a seemingly benevolent white coworker, plays mind games with Richard and Harrison, another young black worker, in an attempt to get them to kill each other. These strategies culminate in a grotesque boxing match between Richard and Harrison. Another white coworker in the optical shop, Falk, is genuinely benevolent and lets Richard use his library card to check out books that otherwise would be unavailable to him. Richard begins reading obsessively and grows more determined to write. His mother, brother, and Maggie soon join him in Memphis. They all decide that Richard and Maggie will go to Chicago immediately and that the other two will follow in a few months. In Chicago, Richard continues to struggle with racism, segregation, poverty, and with his own need to cut corners and lie to protect himself and get ahead. He suppresses his own morals, forcing himself to work at a corrupt insurance agency that takes advantage of poor blacks. He also works in a café and for a couple of well-meaning Jewish storeowners, the Hoffmans, in a whites-only neighborhood. Irresponsibly, Richard soon quits to try to get a job in the post office. As the Great Depression forces him and millions of others out of work, Richard begins to find Communism appealing, especially its emphasis on protecting the oppressed. He becomes a Communist Party member because he thinks that he can help the Party cause with his writing, finding the language that can promote the Party's cause to common people. Meanwhile, Richard works various jobs through federal relief programs. When he begins writing for leftist publications, he takes positions with federal theater companies and with the Federal Writers' Project. To his mounting dismay, he finds that, like any other group, the Communist Party is beset with human fears and foibles that constantly frustrate its own ends. Richard's desire to write biographical sketches of Communists and his tendency to criticize Party pronouncements earn him distrust, along with the titles “intellectual” and “Trotskyite.” After a great deal of political strife and slander that culminates in his being physically assaulted during a May Day parade, Richard leaves the Party. Unfazed by the failure of his high hopes, he remains determined to make writing his link to the world.

Characters

  • Richard Wright - Author, narrator, and protagonist of Black Boy. Richard is an unpredictable bundle of contradictions: he is timid yet assured, tough yet compassionate, enormously intelligent yet ultimately modest. Passive-aggressive as a young boy, Richard either says very little or becomes melodramatic and says too much. 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. Black Boy testifies to his gifted observational powers and his ability to reflect upon the psychological struggles facing black Americans.
  • Ella Wright - Richard's mother. Tough on Richard and certainly unafraid to administer a beating when she believes it is appropriate, Ella nevertheless loves her son and is the person most resembling an advocate in his life. Despite falling into ill health and becoming partially paralyzed, she maintains an optimistic outlook on life.
  • Granny - Richard's maternal grandmother. Austere and unforgiving, Granny is a very strict Seventh-Day Adventist and runs her household accordingly. She thinks Richard is sinful, has little tolerance for his antics, and is inclined to demonstrate her disapproval with a quick backhanded slap across his mouth. Like her husband, Richard Wilson, Granny is the child of slaves. Due to her partially white ancestry, she looks somewhat white.
  • Alan - Richard's younger brother. Born Leon Alan Wright, he goes by the name Alan. Alan does not contribute much to the story of Black Boy: a few times, he limply objects to something naughty that Richard is planning to do, like burn straws in a fireplace or hang a kitten. In this sense, he serves as one of Richard's critics.
  • Aunt Addie - One of Ella's sisters. Addie lives at home with Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. She shares her mother's spite for Richard and tries not to miss any opportunity to beat or humiliate him. She shares Granny's intense religious nature and teaches at a religious school that Richard briefly attends.
  • Grandpa - Richard's maternal grandfather and a former soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. Sour and remote, Grandpa is forever bitter that a clerical error has deprived him of his war pension. He keeps his distance from the family but is occasionally trotted out to discipline Richard. Grandpa keeps a loaded gun by his bed, as he believes that Civil War hostilities could resurface at any moment.
  • Nathan Wright - Richard's father. Although Nathan is physically intimidating and frequently beats Richard, he abandons the family and proves to be simple, weak, and pathetic.
  • Aunt Maggie - Ella's sister. Maggie sporadically lives with Ella, Richard, and his brother, and is Richard's favorite aunt.
  • Uncle Hoskins - Maggie's first husband. Uncle Hoskins is a friendly man, but loses Richard's trust when he pretends to drive his buggy into the river to frighten Richard. Local whites murder Hoskins when they grow jealous of his profitable saloon.
  • “Professor” Matthews - Maggie's second husband. The “Professor” is an outlaw and, when he begins courting Maggie, he visits only at night. After he apparently kills a white woman, he and Maggie flee to Detroit. Several years after that, he deserts Maggie.
  • Uncle Clark - One of Ella's brothers. Uncle Clark briefly houses Richard after his mother becomes ill. Clark is a just, upright man who seems genuinely concerned for Richard's welfare, although perhaps a little strict.
  • Uncle Tom - Another of Ella's brothers. Like Aunt Addie, Uncle Tom finds Richard particularly galling and seems to leap at any opportunity to beat or ridicule him.
  • Ella, the schoolteacher - A young schoolteacher who briefly rents a room in Granny's house. Bookish and dreamy, she introduces Richard to the imaginative pleasures of fiction by telling him the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Granny, however, views Ella's stories as sinful and effectively forces Ella to move out.
  • Griggs - One of Richard's boyhood friends. Griggs, like Richard, is intelligent, but he has a sense of when blacks need to abide by the rules—a sense Richard lacks. Griggs displays the compassionate concern of a true friend when he advises Richard on how to survive in the racist white world.
  • Pease and Reynolds - Two white Southerners who run Richard off his job at the optical shop in Jackson, Mississippi. Though technically two characters, Pease and Reynolds are unified in their bestial treatment of Richard and essentially operate as one.
  • Mr. Crane - A white Northerner who runs the optical shop where Richard works. Mr. Crane is a fair and unprejudiced man, who is sad to see Richard go when Pease and Reynolds run him off the job.
  • Olin - A white Southerner at Richard's job at the optical shop in Memphis, Tennessee. Racist and destructive, Olin pretends to be Richard's friend but then tells lies in an attempt to get Richard and Harrison to kill each other.
  • Harrison - A young black man who works at a rival optical shop in Memphis. The fight between Richard and Harrison demonstrates that racism's power to instill fear in blacks is so great that it can lead two black men who truly like each other to fight each other viciously.
  • The Hoffmans - White Jewish shopkeepers who employ Richard in Chicago. The Hoffmans treat Richard with genuine respect and care, but Richard assumes that because they are white they will act just like most Southern whites. The Hoffmans help Richard begin his journey toward accepting some well-meaning white people, even though he treats them poorly at the time.
  • Shorty - The black elevator man in the building in Memphis where Richard works. Shorty is witty, intelligent, and has a sense of pride in his race. However, much to Richard's horror, Shorty engages in supremely demeaning behavior to earn money.
  • Falk - A white Irish Catholic worker at the optical shop in Memphis. In stark counterpoint to Olin, Falk does not explicitly profess to be Richard's friend, but he proves to be a genuine friend by letting Richard borrow his library card to obtain books from the whites-only library. When Falk learns that Richard is moving to Chicago, the quick smile he flashes suggests that he is pleased Richard is moving on to a better life.
  • Comrade Young - An escapee from a mental institution who suddenly appears at a meeting of the John Reed Club, a revolutionary artists' organization Richard joins in Chicago. Comrade Young illustrates the vulnerability of the Communist Party to fraudulent acts by individuals.
  • Ross - A black Communist whom Richard wishes to profile for his series of biographical sketches. Ross is somewhat uneasy around Richard, fearing Richard's deviations from Party doctrine.
  • Ed Green - A high-ranking black Communist suspicious of Richard's interviews with Ross. Green's rough, peremptory, and authoritative manner alienates Richard.

Symbolism

The North
Richard, living through the early 1900s, faces lots of troubles. One of these being the most common is racism. While Richard lives in the South most of his life, he hears stories from others of the North. This is an idea that shows Richard has become one of the most driving forces of his life. For him, the North is sanctuary, a protection from racism. With this idea in his head, Richard decides to do whatever it takes to put racism behind him, therefore, heading North in search of peace.

Ella's Infirmity

In Renaissance and Gothic literature, a deformity or some other physical impairment often serves as an outward sign of an unhealthy or evil soul. This kind of symbolism implies that the universe is a sensible place, as an evil soul is rewarded with a mangled body. In Black Boy, however, the opposite is true. Richard's mother, Ella, is one of the few people in the novel—and the only person in the entire family—who seems genuinely concerned for Richard's welfare. If anyone in the novel has a truly good, saintlike soul, it is Ella. However, she is beset with incurable ailments and paralytic legs. Other family members, meanwhile, have abundant strength, which they frequently use to beat Richard for trivial offenses. In this context, Ella's infirmity symbolizes for Richard the unfair and random nature of the universe.

The Optical Shop in Memphis

In the microcosm of the optical shop in Memphis, Olin represents the Southern white racists willing to terrorize black people for the sake of amusement, while Falk represents those Southern whites who genuinely sympathize with black people and who are willing to help them. Shorty represents the black workers who pander to whites but inwardly retain their racial and personal pride. The building's unnamed porter, with his daily wail about having to work in the same place day in and day out, represents the more embittered black workers of the South. Several Ku Klux Klan members and Jews also populate the office. As such, the Memphis optical shop is a microcosm of racial stratification in the South. Wright concentrates the racial dynamics of the region in one physical space in order to show that people who think they are different from or better than their peers are actually integrally connected to them.

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