Richard interviews for a job working in the home of a white family, and his prospective employer asks him outright if he will steal from her. Richard laughs and tells the woman that if he were going to steal from her, he definitely would not tell her. The woman is angered but gives him the job anyway, which pays modestly but includes meals. Richard ends up disliking the job, however, because though the white family eats plentifully, the woman offers Richard only moldy food to eat. Moreover, when the woman asks Richard why he still bothers to attend school and he replies that he wants to be a writer, she rudely mocks him. He quits almost immediately.
Richard’s next job, with another white family, is equally unpleasant. The family members are phenomenally rude and ungrateful both to each other and to him. Richard keeps the job nonetheless, because he is able to steal a considerable amount of food from the family on the side. Though the emotional stress of the job strains him, it enables him to become a full member of the community of his peers. Armed with wages and brimming with tales about his white employers, Richard can now eat lunch with his classmates and swap stories.
Ella’s health improves, and Richard begins attending a Methodist church with her. The church holds a religious revival in which the preacher calls for mothers to persuade their wayward sons to accept God. Singled out by the preacher, Richard and the several other unbelieving youths feel such pressure from the congregation that they allow themselves to be baptized even though they do not truly believe in God. After the baptism, Richard admits to the other baptized boys that he does not feel any different, and they voice similar sentiments.
Soon thereafter, Ella suffers yet another paralytic stroke. Money is running tight, so Granny allows Uncle Tom and his family to move in, in exchange for a small rent. One morning, Tom awakens Richard to ask him what time it is. When Richard tells him the time, his uncle does not believe that it is accurate, but Richard checks again and offhandedly says that the time he had given was close enough. Tom gets incredibly angry and vows to give Richard the whipping of his life for what he perceives as unfathomable insubordination. Richard fights Tom off with two razors, shocking his uncle and breaking his domineering spirit.
During the summer before eighth grade, Richard works as a water boy and brick gatherer in the local brickyard. One afternoon the boss’s dog bites Richard, which worries him because he knows that several other workers have fallen ill after being bitten by the dog. Richard meets with the boss, but he does not take Richard seriously, claiming, “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” Fortunately, though the wound gets inflamed, it heals on its own in a few days.
Richard starts the eighth grade, depressed that his education has furnished him with no skills to help him earn a living. Though he dwells on racism and can only think of it in terms of the large-scale, universal injustice it represents, his classmates limit their discussion of racism to individual, personal wrongs they have experienced.
Richard writes a short story called “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre” and persuades the local black paper to print it. His classmates cannot understand why he has written and published a story simply because he wanted to do so. Richard’s family is likewise unreceptive and hostile—Granny and Addie equate literary fiction with lies, while Ella thinks that Richard’s writing will lead people to think he has a weak mind and thus will not want to hire him. The newspaper editor is literally the only person who encourages him. Wright muses that if he had known then how many obstacles he would eventually have to overcome to become a writer, he would have abandoned his quest.
The following summer, Richard looks for a job at the local sawmill, but leaves after one of the workers demonstrates the danger of sawmill work by showing Richard his right hand, which is missing three fingers. One morning Richard learns that whites have killed the brother of one of his black classmates because they thought he was consorting with a white prostitute in a local hotel where he worked. The killing burdens Richard’s consciousness even further with the grim reality and pervasiveness of white oppression.
Richard learns that Uncle Tom thinks his nephew is such a bad influence on his children that he has instructed his children to avoid Richard around the house. This realization makes Richard’s longing for independence stronger than ever. Alan, Richard’s brother, soon visits the family, and much to Richard’s dismay his brother quickly adopts the family’s critical attitude toward him.
Richard is named valedictorian of his class, but he discovers that the principal will not let him give his own speech at the ceremony. Because white people will be present at the graduation, the principal has written a speech of his own, which he instructs Richard to deliver. The principal threatens to keep Richard from graduating if he insists on giving a different speech. Richard’s family, friends, and classmates all urge him to avoid trouble and just deliver the principal’s speech, but he adamantly refuses.
When the day of graduation arrives, Richard gives his own speech and immediately flees the auditorium, paying no attention to the applause, to the handshakes, to the invitations to parties that he receives. He is disgusted with the community, the event, and with the fact that he lived his life for seventeen years in a baffled state. Wright muses that at this point he finally resolved to put this baffled living behind him and “faced the world in 1925.”
However sassy Uncle Tom may regard Richard’s comments on the accuracy of the clock to be, the violence of Tom’s reaction far exceeds rational bounds and is difficult to comprehend. We might think that Richard should expect this sort of behavior from adult men, given that he has a history of traumatic relationships with nearly every man in his family. The examples are numerous: Richard’s sullen and prickly grandfather, his uncle Hoskins’s disastrous river-crossing prank, his father’s alarmingly remorseless abandonment of the family, the fear of a dead boy’s ghost that pervades his uncle Clark’s house, and the close association of his pseudo-uncle the “Professor”—with whom Maggie goes north—with the murder of a white person. Adding to this problematic series of male family relationships is the fact that the women in Richard’s life are all either ill or fanatically religious. It is understandable, then, that Richard feels so withdrawn and isolated. In this light, it seems extremely fortunate that his spirit is strong enough to champion such independence and adhere to the standards that guide his actions.
Wright’s commentary on his dream of becoming a writer indicates the devastating reality of growing up black in the Jim Crow South. The reaction of Richard’s white boss upon learning that Richard wants to be a writer is predictable—vulgar, brutal, and contemptuous. Obviously, Richard can expect no support from the white community. The black community, however, is practically as unsupportive of Richard’s writing as the white community. Indeed, the black community’s reaction to the publication of Richard’s story is shocking: his friends are uncomprehending, and his family, with the exception of his concerned mother, is scornful.
This parallel between the white and black communities’ reactions to Richard’s aspirations reveals the degree to which the black imagination is oppressed in Richard’s culture. In one sense, Black Boy clearly stands as an indictment of racism in America and its negative effect on blacks. At the same time, however, it is an attempt on Wright’s part to criticize the black community itself for succumbing to the pressures of racism and allowing them to negatively influence their relations with one another. Of course, many black Americans in the South did derive benefits from their community, drawing positive strength from unifying forces such as religion. However, as Wright experienced particularly bad luck by being born into an abusive family that could not tolerate his individuality, he can highlight only the disastrous limitations of growing up in the South. Though only one perspective, Wright’s voice is nonetheless very important, and his point that the oppressed cannot afford to victimize themselves in the face of racism is powerful and salient.
While Richard’s actions at his graduation ceremony may seem like a satisfying moral victory, his disgust implies that it is merely the beginning of an adult life marked by more hardship, social exclusion, and dismal labor. Richard’s negative reaction after the ceremony is complicated but understandable. At first, it is not immediately clear why Richard feels disgust: being named valedictorian is quite an honor in itself, and in addition Richard has given his own speech, triumphing over those who had wanted him to compromise his standards and deliver the principal’s speech instead. Despite these seeming triumphs, Richard is nonetheless discouraged because the triumphs do not outweigh the discouraging facts of his life. Though continuing in the educational system—either as a teacher or as a higher-level student—would appear to be Richard’s best hope for advancement, the principal’s actions reveal how thoroughly corrupt this educational system is. Richard’s core values lead him to defy that corruption, but this defiance earns him only criticism from his community. Finally, with his education bound to end at the ninth grade, Richard knows that the only future jobs he can expect are degrading ones, just like the ones he has already had.
In retrospect, however, Wright indicates that his actions at graduation may have had some positive effects on the community. Though at the time he focused only on the negative aspects of the event, looking back he mentions that some people clapped, tried to shake his hand, and invited him to parties. Indeed, the audience did not shun him; rather, he shunned the audience. Richard’s response seems melodramatic, and we sense that at least part of Wright’s isolation as a youth may stem from such self-isolating actions that he initiates himself. Though his home life and social life are indeed undeniably difficult, Richard’s stubborn personality is another factor that hinders his growth.