Richard’s most essential characteristic is 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. Though Richard shows signs of insecurity, inferiority, and shame around some whites, his self-assurance seems largely invulnerable, and his punishing childhood only serves to convince him of his own right to succeed in the world. Moreover, Richard’s difficult and isolating experiences as a child fuel his intensely powerful imagination, his love of reading and writing, and his will to make his life feel meaningful through writing about his environment.
Wright paints himself in several different shades throughout the course of Black Boy. As a young boy, Richard is simply unable to believe the publicly accepted notions that his blackness, lack of religion, and intellectual curiosity make him inherently flawed. Rather, we find in Richard a character determined to live according to his own principles and willing to live with the consequences. This strong-willed nature, however, contrasts with Richard’s powerless position in society—the low social status that comes with being black and poor. Starting off removed from society and his family, Richard must learn to educate himself. Much of this education stems from his experiences—in the homes of sharecroppers, as a black in the Jim Crow South, as a resident of the cramped apartments of Depression-era Chicago. There are clearly negative aspects to the character Richard develops, as we see him lie, steal, and turn violent numerous times in the book. In a sense, he is a victim of his poor upbringing—in both the black and white communities in the South; as a victim, he becomes contaminated by the oppressive forces working against him.
Despite his flaws, Richard remains intensely concerned with humanity, both in a universal sense and in the context of his concern for the individual people he meets on his journey. In this way, Richard overcomes the negative, debilitating, isolating aspects of his environment and channels them into a love for other people. He is an outsider who feels little connection to other people, yet who cares for these people nonetheless. Richard’s traits do not exist in perfect harmony: at certain points, one trait will seem to dominate, only to give way to other traits at other times. However, because the character of Richard Wright so convincingly contains all these traits, albeit in imbalance, he has a self-contradictory appeal that transcends the simple biographical facts of his life.
Richard’s contentious relationship with his mother may be traced back to his early childhood, when Ella administers a beating that nearly kills him. This strife continues throughout Richard’s early years, as he commits endless punishable offenses in a setting where his mother is often the only authority figure around to deliver punishment. Despite her sometimes brutal discipline, Ella is devoted to her children and is fiercely determined to raise them successfully after her husband abandons the family.
Ella shows a special tolerance and affection for Richard that we do not see in any of the other major characters. When Richard publishes “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” for example, the rest of the family attacks him, but Ella shows compassion through her concern that Richard’s writing might make it hard for him to get a job. Similarly, Ella walks on her weak legs to give Richard a hug when she learns that he will get a job in defiance of Granny’s and Addie’s wishes, suggesting that she takes genuine delight in her son’s success.
Much of the meaning of Ella’s character lies in her illness, as she symbolizes those elements of life that are at once unpredictable, overwhelming, and unfair. In Chapter 3, Ella’s suffering effectively becomes a symbol of everything wrong with the world for Richard. In a just universe, he concludes, the unfriendly and harmful people would be sick, and Ella would enjoy vigorous health, unimpeded in going about the business of raising her sons and earning a living. However, the reality is, of course, that Ella is constantly sick and suffering. In light of the seemingly cruel fate his mother endures, Richard finds it difficult to deny that the universe is unjust. The injustice he sees afflicting his mother mirrors the injustices he himself faces: poverty, hunger, a severely abridged education, and the mere fact of being black in the Jim Crow South. Taken together, these accidents of life constitute a major obstacle that Richard must overcome in order to live the life that he wants.
This list of supporting characters—a list that could easily be extended—may seem inconsistent. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons why black family members of Richard’s do not belong in a list with white racists like Pease and Reynolds, and why city-dwelling black Communists like Ed Green and Buddy Nealson do not belong with the other characters either. With respect to Richard, though, all of these characters are part of the same group: they all 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.” Taken together, these characters represent the multitude of ways in which society “is in conspiracy against” Richard.