The autobiography, Black Boy, follows the life of Richard Wright and his experiences as a young African American teenager facing racism in the South. Throughout the novel, Wright focuses on the oppression society inflicts upon him. He finds difficulty in remaining employed because he does not act “black” or submissive enough. He is physically and emotionally attacked for being African American as the majority of the South contains an extremely racist culture. Wright does not even have his family to rely on for support because they criticize and beat him as well. Differences within his family along with incidences of violent attacks and disrespectful language plague Wright and try to deplete his confidence and identity.
However, Wright simultaneously finds measures within these aspects to gain back his individuality and happiness. He fights back through violence to uphold his right of walking safely in Memphis; he uses all of his ability to avoid beatings from his family, and he finds joy and sense of worth when he writes stories. Ultimately, Wright struggles to keep his sense of identity in a society that degrades his persona, but manages to obtain his individuality in the end.
Through violence, Wright begins to understand that society is laying out a persona for him to accept that is not initially his. In the South, he learns he must accept the role as the meek and respectful “nigger.” Wright experiences violence one day that teaches him how whites expect him to act in the South. Wright recounts, “The car stopped and the white men piled out and stood over me. ‘Nigger, ain’t you learned no better sense’n that yet?’ asked the man who hit me. ‘Ain’t you learned to say sir to a white man yet?’” (181). Wright is smashed between the eyes with a glass bottle when he does not answer a white man by “sir”.
The repetition of questions from the white man illustrates the authority the white man feels over Wright. The white man questions Wright as if he is an uneducated child. His word choice of “sense” portrays that saying “sir” to a white man should be common sense. After this incident, Wright “[learns] rapidly how to watch white people, to observe their every move, every fleeting expression, how to interpret what was said and what left unsaid” (181). He treats and studies white people delicately to ensure that he does not upset the balance between the higher citizen and lower citizen, and thus does not have to suffer their brutal consequences.
As Wright learns he is unable to act naturally, society gradually shapes him into what it thinks he should be. Wright recalls, “all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions” (83). Wright’s utilization of the “h” alliteration in “hate” and “hostility” emphasizes a heavy “h” sound to reinforce the thickness and greatness of their conflict, that their differences were not just on the surface, but blood deep. The “s” alliteration in the word, “seeped,” “surroundings,” and “surface” creates a low, rattling “s” sound to create a sense of savagery in their actions. As Wright grows, he begins to experience the segregation between white and black. He also begins to accept the role of an angry African American that society casts him to play. He learns that he must act as a quiet and obedient “nigger” as he is constantly beaten whenever he acts otherwise.
Wright’s family also takes away his freedom to be himself as they consistently beat him. In one incidence, he tells of the time his Uncle Tom was infuriated with the way he speaks. His uncle says, “I never heard a sassier black imp than you in all my life” (157). Wright does not understand what he said or what he did wrong; yet his uncle is persistent in beating him, believing that Wright does not know how to live with people. Wright asks “How long was I going to be beaten for trifles and less than trifles?” (158). Wright’s questioning of time illustrates the weariness he feels toward his family. He cannot endure any more beatings over trivial matters. Because of his family members, Wright is trapped in his grandmother’s home. He is unable to speak freely as his family members find him impolite. The one place that Richard Wright should feel comfortable, if nowhere else, is his own home, but he is so alienated by his family that he cannot. Wright feels that the only way he can escape his mental imprisonment is by moving to the North, thus creating the North as a symbol of hope.
Language functions as a powerful device that portrays white women attacking Wright’s individuality. When Wright searches for jobs and interacts with white people for the first time, he experiences a double consciousness: how he views himself and how the white women view him. The language that white interviewers use is insulting and depicts how unintelligent they perceive him. After a few interviews Wright “quickly [learns] the reality- a Negro’s reality- of the white world” (148) as being thought of as dumb witted. The first woman illogically asks Wright if he steals to that white he thinks, “Only an idiot would have answered: Yes ma’am. I steal” (146). When Wright answers. “Lady, if I was a thief, I’d never tell anybody,” the lady bluntly states, “Now, look, we don’t want a sassy nigger around here” (145). The first interviewer seems to believe that black people do not have enough sense to lie about stealing, even when they are being interviewed for a job position. She considers a black person with common sense as a “sassy nigger.”
The last interviewer finds it appalling that Wright cannot milk a cow as she mentions, “You mean to stand there, nigger, and tell me that you live in Jackson and don’t know how to milk a cow?” (149). She places Wright in the stereotype that all black boys from Jackson know how to milk a cow. The fact that she demanded an answer in surprise illustrates the disbelief she feels in finding one black person that cannot milk a cow. The white women stereotype Richard as an uneducated black boy with no level of intelligence and skill.
They insult his knowledge and strip him of his individuality believing that all black boys are the same. The white women demean him causing him to leave every interview. The portrayal of the white women labeling Richard Wright as another dumb “nigger” illustrates how narrow-minded and similar they are to each other. Within Black Boy, language illustrates the racial resentment that the white women feel towards Wright for the color of his skin. Language acts as a device seizing Richard’s individuality and personal respect he obtains for himself.
Although Richard Wright’s relationship with violence, family and language teach him that he was no power as an individual, Wright rebels and utilizes these same aspects in an effort to seek some sort of control. Wright’s mother is the first to offer him power through violence. Wright recalls, “I was baffled. My mother was telling me to fight, a thing that she had never done before” (17). After Wright fights off a group of boys with a stick and delivers his mother’s groceries he says, “on my way back I kept my stick poised for instant use, but there was not a single boy in sight. That night I won the right to the streets of Memphis” (18). Although violence acts as a method to teach him of his lower social stance in society, he is able to gain personal power though this same violence. After bearing those boys, he is able to walk freely by himself in peace.
In addition, Wright gains power within his family as he refuses to be whipped. After his Aunt Addie whips him in class for walnuts that another boy had left he says, “I was sure of one thing: I would not be beaten by her again” (107). Many times throughout the novel Richard’s family relatives endeavor to beat him, but he refuses and with that gains power over them and individuality because he will not let them lay a single hand upon him. Wright recalls, “Aunt Addie took her defeat hard […] I was conscious that she had descended to my own emotional level in her effort to rule me, and my respect for her sank” (110). After Aunt Addie tried to beat him for a fault he did not commit and fails, he begins to feel that he is on the same level of an adult.
Furthermore, Wright is able to obtain power and individuality again through language. When Richard is younger he writes a passage about an Indian girl; he says, “I had never in my life done anything like it; I had made something, no matter how bad it was; and it was mine” (120). Afterwards, Richard shows his written passage to his neighbor and “her inability to grasp what [he] had done or was trying to somehow gratified [him]” (121). Being able to write gives Richard a strong sense of individuality since it is his creation. Writing the passage also gives Wright a surge of empowerment, as his neighbor cannot fathom why or how he did it.
Throughout Black Boy, Richard Wright is inhibited as a person. He is expected to act as a subservient African American. He is insulted and degraded for merely possessing a different color of skin. Wright is restrained by society and learns this oppression when he is violently beaten by white people as well as his family. Wright quickly learns how white people view him as inferior when they insult his intelligence and stereotype him as a person that will never amount to anything. Richard Wright is constantly belittled as a person, but he uses these same aspects to gain back his power as an individual. He fights a range of people, from a gang of kids trying to take his money to his own family relatives, in order to keep his sense of power. He writes short stories that bring him happiness and confidence and respect. Black Boy offers the life story of Richard Wright’s battle against violence, family differences, and insulting language to uphold his individuality and freedom to be himself against all forces.