Black Boy

Richard Wright's 'Black Boy' is an autobiographical portrait of growing up black in the South during the first part of the 1900s. Wright, whose political and cultural activities placed him at the centre of intellectual life in the United States, gives a vivid and terrifying depiction of the poverty, violence and psychological trauma that marked his life. Wright uses his writing to ask himself what, in his life and in his character, made the difference. Why was he unable to remain in the South, why couldn't he accept what so many people around him viewed as their given lot?

This lesson sequence looks at how Wright positions himself in his own narrative, how the social context is depicted, and how identity is formed. Questions related to Wright's role as writer and social critic are addressed.

Changing narration  

Throughout the text, Wright's narration moves from vivid recollections of the past, placing himself in the position of the child or young man who is trying to make sense of events around him, to recollections and reflections from an adult point of view. This oscillation provides the reader with dramatic moments of tension and a sense of events unfolding - for the narrator as well as the reader - when Wright takes on the point of view of the child. It also allows Wright to draw conclusions about the significance of events in his character formation gradually and throughout the book. 

It may be useful to read the lesson on narrative technique and then comment on the importance of narration, point of view, tense and dialogue in this extract. Consider how changing any one of these stylistic features changes the impact of the piece. A student sample is provided below.

Black Boy
Richard Wright
1945

‘What was Granny’s name before she married Grandpa?’

‘Bolden.’

‘Who gave her that name?’

‘The white man who owned her.’

‘She was a slave?’

‘Yes.’

‘And Bolden was the name of Granny’s father?’

‘Granny doesn’t know who her father was.’

‘So they just gave her any name?’

‘They gave her a name; that’s all I know.’

‘Couldn’t Granny find out who her father was?’

‘For what, silly?’

‘Just to know.’

‘But for what?’

I could not say. I could not get anywhere.

‘Mama, where did Father get his name?’

‘From his father.’

‘And where did the father of my father get his name?’

‘Like Granny got hers. From a white man.’

‘Do they know who he is?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why don’t they find out?’

‘For what?’ my mother demanded harshly.

And I could think of no rational or practical reason why my father should try to find out who his father’s father was.

‘What has Papa got in him?’ I asked.

‘Some white and some red and some black,’ she said.

‘Indian, white, and Negro?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what am I?’

‘They’ll call you a colored man when you grow up,’ she said. Then she turned to me and smiled mockingly and asked: ‘Do you mind, Mr. Wright?’

I was angry and I did not answer. I did not object to being called colored, but I knew that there was something my mother was holding back. She was not concealing facts, but feelings, attitudes, convictions which she did not want me to know; and she became angry when I prodded her. All right, I would find out someday. Just wait. All right, I was colored. It was fine. I did not know enough to be afraid or to anticipate in a concrete manner. True, I had heard that colored people were killed and beaten, but so far it all had seemed remote. There was a kind of vague uneasiness about it all, but I would be able to handle that when I came to it. It would be simple. If anybody tried to kill me, then I would kill them first. 

Sample rewrite of Black Boy

 

I couldn't help but overhear the poor black boy's conversation with his mother on the train that day. He asked her questions that we coloreds have always asked ourselves. He was saying what we were thinking. Oh, to grow up in this strange world of segregation. How strange for this boy to learn that his grandmother was a slave. He asked his mother how she got her family name. "Yes, it was the name of the slave owner. But what does it matter?" his mother insisted. The poor kid only wanted to know where he was coming from, so he could know where he was going in life. He asked his mother what kind of blood flowed through his father's veins. Was it red, white or black? A bit of everything his mother replied. Bless her soul. How tough it must be for a mother to explain to her child that he too is 'colored' and he too will be discriminated against. You could see the anger in the little boy's eyes, when she said, "They'll call you a colored man when you grow up." He knew he was submitting to a life of humiliation and violence, and his mother's coldness was only the tip of the iceberg.

Experimenting with changing narrative point of view, dialogue or description is a useful way of understanding how author's choices relate to their intended purpose. This simple table can be used with any number of texts to illustrate the relationship between style and effect. 

 Changing the narration as downloadable PDF.

  Original Black Boy Rewrite of Black Boy
Point of view
First person
Although this uses first-person point of view, he retells the story of Richard and his mother from an outsider's perspective.
Narration
Indirect and direct narration. Wright indirectly narrates by not commenting on the dialogue as it unfolds. Wright directly narrates by telling us about his anger.
Frame narrator. It's almost as if the narrator is telling an interviewer about Richard Wright, the boy he once knew or overheard. It's as if he's explaining to a white person what it means to be black by telling Richard's story as an anecdote.
Speech
Direct speech
A combination of direct speech and reported speech.
Tense
Past tense
Past tense

Specific Paper 2 type contextual consideration is important here. Richard's questions about names and skin color have deep historical and cultural implications. 

  • What are the social implications of carrying your slave owner's name as your own?
     
  • A discrepancy between Richard's perception of his grandmother's skin color and her identity as 'black' exists. Why might this be?

Personal memory

A moment of creative writing! Consider this classroom activity for students:

Free write your impressions and feelings (not paying attention to grammatical or spelling norms), based on one or more of the following prompts:

1. What is your first memory?

2. What was the most frightening moment in your life?

3. What was the first conversation you had this morning?

4. What event from you past do you now look back on with a new, maturer understanding? 

The purpose of the writing is to help you see a few of the challenges and problems writers face when referring to their own pasts.

For the teacher: you may stimulate conversation by asking questions such as:

  • How much detail were you able to provide?
     
  • How accurate do you think your memory is?
     
  • Are you sure of the actual words that were said? If not, how did you overcome that obstacle? 
     
  • What makes events memorable?

Students may wish to share some of their memories, but their privacy needs to be respected too. 

Richard's first memories

The first chapter of Black Boy presents the readers with a sequence of shocking and violent events. First, Richard almost burns the house down, and then, he is beaten so badly he almost dies. Later, he kills a kitten. These events show violence inflicted on him, and on helpless victims, such as small animals. Neither event shows the writer or his family in a positive light. 

These three questions could be points of discussion, homework write-ups or in-class writing tasks. 

  1. What conclusions can the reader draw about why Richard Wright chose to focus on these events?

  2. How do these events shape Richard's understanding of the world he lives in?

  3. How does Wright's retelling of his first memories compare to yours?

Black Boy

Richard Wright
1945

One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside. All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient. In the next room Granny lay ill and under the day and night care of a doctor and I knew that I would be punished if I did not obey. I crossed restlessly to the window and pushed back the long fluffy white curtains – which I had been forbidden to touch – and looked yearningly out into the empty street. I was dreaming of running and playing and shouting, but the vivid image of Granny’s old, white, wrinkled, grim face, framed by a halo of tumbling black hair, lying upon a huge feather pillow, made me afraid.

The house was quiet. Behind me my brother – a year younger than I - was playing placidly upon the floor with a toy. A bird wheeled past the window and I greeted it with a glad shout.

‘You better hush,’ my brother said.

‘You shut up,’ I said.

My mother stepped briskly into the room and closed the door behind her. She came to me and shook her finger in my face.

‘You stop that yelling, you hear?” she whispered. ‘You know Granny’s sick and you better keep quiet!’

I hung my head and sulked. She left and I ached with boredom.

‘I told you so,’ my brother gloated.

‘You shut up,’ I told him again.

I wandered listlessly about the room. Trying to think of something to do, dreading the return of my mother, resentful of being neglected. The room held nothing of interest except the fire and finally I stood before the shimmering embers, fascinated by the quivering coals. An idea of a new kind of game grew and took root in my mind. Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn? I looked about. There was only my picture book and my mother would beat me if I burned that. Then what? I hunted around until I saw the broom leaning in a closet. That’s it… Who would bother about a few straws if I burned them? I pulled out the broom and tore out a batch of straws and tossed them into the fire and watched them smoke, turn black, blaze, and finally become white wisps of ghosts that vanished. Burning straws was a teasing kind of fun and I took more of them from the broom and cast them into the fire. My brother came to my side, his eyes drawn by the blazing straws.

Compare and contrast

A high school student from New York visited the South in the 1930s and published his observations and conclusions in his high school magazine. A copy of this article can be found here.

  1. Consider the following: audience, purpose, cultural context. 

    The audience is clearly not a southern one. The writer is reporting on his experiences, and what he found surprising or strange. The purpose is informative, but statements about his hopes of finding a progressive south, or how far the tolerance for northerners would take him, show criticism. At the time, legal segregation between blacks and whites was not found in the north of the United States.

  2. What elements of travel writing does this piece contain? 

    First person narration, a focus on what was surprising or different, anecdotal evidence to illustrate a point.

  3. How does the tone of the piece differ from Wright's? What type of information does he provide that Wright doesn't? Why? 

    The way the switching of the dippers is presented is lighthearted. The concern of the southerners is portrayed as comical. This contrasts with the serious and menacing tone in Wright's depictions of exchanges between blacks and whites in work places and public places in his book. Because Wright or his family and friends could suffer physical violence or death for breaking the rules, the weight of segregation was much heavier.

  4. Imagine stepping back in time and visiting one of Richard Wright's schools in 300 words. What would you notice? What tone would you take? 

The Magpie
Emanuel H. Dembey
1936

"Man," shouted one of the salesmen of the Alabama Mercantile Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, "what did you say you did?"

"I just switched the drinking dippers; the one labeled 'White' is on the 'Negro' hook," I replied.

The salesman's face paled. He rushed to the back of the store, where the dippers hung, tripping over some tarpaulins on the way.

"Lord, Emanuel! Haven't you any sense? You know you shouldn't do such things; this isn't a laughing matter!" he lectured as I almost doubled over with laughter.

In less than an hour, everyone who had been at the store earlier in the day knew about the great catastrophe which Abe Berman, herosalesman of the Alabama Mercantile Co., had partially prevented. The southerner then realized that a northerner could be just "dumb" enough to switch the Negro and white dippers.

That was my introduction to the south; one of my hopes for a tolerant, progressive South, to which I had looked forward, when I left New York in June, had been shattered, but there was still a long list of ideals that awaited confirmation . . . or destruction.

My first contact with Southern "tolerance" of "Yankee" ideas came after a heated argument with an Alabama counterpart of the Georgia "Cracker" who had been one of the victims of the dipper prank.

"Boy," he said, "if we didn't like you, you'd be going out of town on a pole."

That, I soon found out, was the general attitude of the southerner.

Walking by the many news stands, I noticed the absence of many popular magazines. Inquiry solved my astonishment. Laws passed in Alabama made reading such liberal magazines as "Common Sense" as illegal as the more radical publications like the "New Masses." I was told by one of Birmingham's more outspoken people that a common way of imprisoning labor leaders, termed "disturbers" by the authorities, is to plant radical journals on the "disturbers'" property and, in due time, by coincidence, a raid occurs.

Here is a partial list of the discriminations against the Negroes as I found them in many Southern states: they are not permitted to ride in the same section or car as white people; they are forced to attend schools that are structurally and technically inferior in most cases to white schools; they cannot attend the same movie houses or drink out of the same fountains; and they are frequently paid less for, in many cases, much harder work.

* * *

With all his faults, the Southerner retains the renowned Southern hospitality. One hot summer morning, I traveled to another part of Birmingham to go swimming at Eastlake, a municipal pool operated on a paying basis.

Dressing myself in tights, I started to walk onto the beach. Suddenly, a shout halted me.

"You can't go swimming without a shirt!"

I turned to face the man whose morals I had offended.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but orders are orders. You can have my shirt, though, if you want it."

Did I want it? I put on the shirt, and, after maneuvering myself into it, spent the rest of the day in cool water. I had to thank that good old Southern hospitality for it.

* * *

But, finally, we left Birmingham and vast stretches of road lay before us. As the car sped across the countryside at fifty miles an hour, the fast disappearing telegraph poles grew monotonous; only the small historical notices by the highways' shoulders, relieved the grind. There's a certain thrill reading these tiny mileposts of history! Every few miles they pop up like white guide marks and reveal the secrets of past generations that would otherwise remain hidden with the dead in the neighborhood graveyard.

We switched from signs to scenes at Chickamauga, Ga., where one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War was fought. As a guide gave a description of the battle, the sudden clearings, wooded lands, and battle-scarred trees suddenly brought back to life. Yankee soldiers running toward the Confederate batteries; soldiers falling as each side poured volleys of bullets at the other. The Civil War lived again for a moment!

Those tiny mileposts of history were popping up again; we were on the road: through Georgia, into South Carolina was only a matter of hours. Once, while stopping for gas in South Carolina, I overheard two Southerners speaking. Said one: "Them 'niggers' kin niver be edjerkated." And yet, there are 248,872 white and 228,003 Negro children amending school in South Carolina, although there are only 4,451 teachers for the Negro children, while there are 8,687 instructors for the white pupils.

We continued through South and North Carolina, passing Gastonia, the great textile center of the South; it was not long before the dome of the Capitol at Washington came into view followed in a few hours by the George Washington Bridge. We were finally home. Southern Journey had come to an end.

Characterization

How is the character 'Richard' established? Even as he grows up and matures, he has certain values that are apparent from a very young age. What are these characteristics and values? What words would you use to define Richard?

Often times it is easier to define one character in contrast to another. By looking for similarities and differences between two people we get to know them better. Below are two passages: one is taken from Black Boy, the other is a poem by Wole Soyinka called 'Telephone Conversation'. Look at the list of adjectives below and state which describe Richard, Wole or both. As you place each adjective in one of the boxes below, justify your answers with evidence from the text.

naive

blunt

honest

violent

ironical

respectful

brave

devious

curious

angry

 Richard and Wole worksheet as downloadable PDF.

Describing characters

Richard both Richard and Wole Wole

naive

brave

curious

violent

respectful

honest

blunt

honest

devious

ironical

Black Boy
Richard Wright
1945

‘What was Granny’s name before she married Grandpa?’

‘Bolden.’

‘Who gave her that name?’

‘The white man who owned her.’

‘She was a slave?’

‘Yes.’

‘And Bolden was the name of Granny’s father?’

‘Granny doesn’t know who her father was.’

‘So they just gave her any name?’

‘They gave her a name; that’s all I know.’

‘Couldn’t Granny find out who her father was?’

‘For what, silly?’

‘Just to know.’

‘But for what?’

I could not say. I could not get anywhere.

‘Mama, where did Father get his name?’

‘From his father.’

‘And where did the father of my father get his name?’

‘Like Granny got hers. From a white man.’

‘Do they know who he is?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why don’t they find out?’

‘For what?’ my mother demanded harshly.

And I could think of no rational or practical reason why my father should try to find out who his father’s father was.

‘What has Papa got in him?’ I asked.

‘Some white and some red and some black,’ she said.

‘Indian, white, and Negro?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what am I?’

‘They’ll call you a colored man when you grow up,’ she said. Then she turned to me and smiled mockingly and asked: ‘Do you mind, Mr. Wright?’

I was angry and I did not answer. I did not object to being called colored, but I knew that there was something my mother was holding back. She was not concealing facts, but feelings, attitudes, convictions which she did not want me to know; and she became angry when I prodded her. All right, I would find out someday. Just wait. All right, I was colored. It was fine. I did not know enough to be afraid or to anticipate in a concrete manner. True, I had heard that colored people were killed and beaten, but so far it all had seemed remote. There was a kind of vague uneasiness about it all, but I would be able to handle that when I came to it. It would be simple. If anybody tried to kill me, then I would kill themfirst.

Telephone Conversation
Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,
"I hate a wasted journey—I am African."
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
"HOW DARK?" . . . I had not misheard . . . "ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?" Button B, Button A.* Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis--
"ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?" Revelation came.
"You mean--like plain or milk chocolate?"
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. "West African sepia"--and as afterthought,
"Down in my passport." Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. "WHAT'S THAT?" conceding
"DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS." "Like brunette."
"THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?" "Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused--
Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black--One moment, madam!"--sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears--"Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?"

Social context: Jim Crow

Text 1: This article, published in 1933 in Virginia, addressed the problem of naming. After determining the main message of the piece, reread the first passage on this page, the exchange between Richard and his mother on the train on the subject of his white-looking grandmother and her socially defined blackness.

How does her life shed light on the final words of the article? You may also wish to refer to the page on naming in Part 1.

What are we to be Called?
The Reflector (Virginia based)
1933

This question was asked me by one who sincerely wanted to know our reaction to our appellation. We are truly American citizens, but for the purpose of distinction a more specific classification is necessary. What we are to be called cannot be decided by printer's ink alone. Similar to all races in every land we have our classes, and I believed the well-informed student of negro history, and the careful observer of present negro life will admit of distinct classes. What we are to be called is not a problem settled by written desire, neither is the answer brought about by verbal showmanship. According to classification we are either negro or colored and a thesis that contends the contrary would be no more effective than a June bug buzzing around the head of an Arkansas plow mule.

So far, we understand that we are to be called precisely what we are. Students of both races, who have concerned themselves with the study of the negro, agree that one possessed of sincere race pride and inwardly anxious for race settlement wants to be called a negro. Blood percentage and physical characteristics cannot be considered, wholly. Such methods would cause complications too dense for even a dream of apprehension. So when the urge is most prevalent to ask for a name, we may safely ignore pen and paper and the cute quotations that such inspire; for what we are to be called is a question to be answered by self, and determined by an entire life.

Text 2: Consider the following article from a weekly newspaper published by the Black community in the 1930s in North Carolina. This lesson may be linked to the Language and Mass Communication part of the course as well. 

  1. How does the author create a tone of moral indignation?

  2. What information is provided about life in Alabama for Blacks?

Alabama's Contribution to Civilization
The Reflector (Virginia based)
1933

Two negroes were mob victims last week in Alabama. A sheriff and several deputies were ordered to hand them over to a growling crowd of savage farmers between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, near the Jefferson county line.

Daniel Pippen was eighteen years of age and the other victim, Albert Harden, was just sixteen. They had been charged with first degree murder. Whispered threats caused Tuscaloosa officials to become uneasy. So Sheriff Shamblin decided to shift the prisoners to Birmingham for safe keeping. Mr. Shamblin and his "force" of two deputies were met by the mob and the riddled bodies of the two negro youths were found on a distant hillside two hours later.

Once upon a time such news would have been shocking, but Black America is no longer alarmed at whatever occurs in Alabama. Afro-Americans and the civilized world may be more or less surprised at any act that is not disgraceful or unjust.

We are powerless to suggest a remedy for this primitive method that Alabama citizens resort to, to correct her social wrongs. So we find consolation in concluding that maybe the high percentage of illiteracy that prevails in that state, and the obvious lack of clean thinking existing there, have much to do with the general backwardness. Perhaps they are to be pitied for, after having centuries upon centuries to advance and achieve, it strikes us as being unusually pathetic, that Alabama remains inferior in all other lines of endeavor save the jungle code, that her citizens uphold, and splashes America's history with details of cowardly lynchings and is seemingly proud that she contributes annually two-thirds of all the lynchings that occur in this country.

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