Why do you think Wright titled his autobiography Black Boy?
The word “boy” in the title seems logical, on the one hand, because Wright’s autobiography is clearly the story of his childhood. On the other hand, the use of “boy” is ironic, as the story covers a time period extending far beyond the stage in life when males are considered boys. Wright’s story ends with an important realization about his identification as an artist. In this context, he may be using the title to imply that, though he goes through adolescence and attains physical adulthood earlier in the novel, he is emotionally still a boy until he reaches this awareness at the end of the narrative. Prior to this final realization, Richard is still young, inexperienced, and unable to come to terms with his place in the world around him. As such, the title highlights the ironic fact that, despite his precocious tendencies to educate himself, Richard remains inexperienced until he finally makes his key realization as an adult. In drawing attention to his slow growth into manhood, Wright implies that the world in which he grew up—both the white and the black communities—failed to educate him properly and provide him with adequate opportunities to gain confidence in his individuality and identity.
Wright’s choice of title also casts his autobiography as a commentary on racism in America. He does not simply use the word “boy,” but qualifies it with the word “black,” indicating that his childhood and growth are inseparable from the influences of racism in America. Wright must identify himself as “black” in the title because that is how his childhood environment forces him to think of himself—not as a person, but always as a black person.
Additionally, the word “boy” has racist resonances; it is especially associated with Southern whites who wish to degrade black men by implying that they are incapable of growing into real men. Throughout his autobiography, Richard is commonly addressed as “boy”—especially in the South, but even in the North. Yet we see that Richard grows into his manhood and identity with a maturity that surpasses that of the people around him. Seen this way, Wright’s use of “boy” in the title may be ironic. In any case, despite its two-word simplicity, the title is open to different interpretations and can define his autobiography in many ways. The second edition of the novel contains an alternative title or subtitle, American Hunger, indicating that Wright wishes to emphasize the theme of literal and figurative hunger as much the theme of racism.
Why does Richard’s family treat him so harshly? How does this treatment affect our impression of the family?
In part, Richard’s family treats him harshly simply because he truly offends them. Most of his family members ascribe to rigid and arbitrary sets of principles of one sort of another. When they demand that Richard adhere to these principles, he often refuses to submit, leaving him to face the consequences. Another reason for the family’s harsh treatment of Richard is that his actions sometimes pose a genuine threat to them. In the novel’s environment, the Jim Crow South, many whites have no qualms about punishing black insubordination with severe violence or even death. Moreover, many whites have no qualms about extending such violence to relatives and other blacks close to the offending party. We see the genuine nature of this threat of punishment-by-association when Richard and his family flee after the murder of Uncle Hoskins. They have to flee because the whites who murdered Hoskins have also threatened to kill his family. Given such dire threats, an insubordinate boy such as Richard, who could easily provoke the whites’ hostility, is indeed a grave liability.
These two possible explanations for the family’s harsh treatment of Richard evoke markedly different sympathies in us as readers. The idea that Richard’s family is merely forcing him to conform to their personal beliefs evokes sympathy for Richard only, as it depicts him as a hapless victim of dictatorial whims. The second explanation—that Richard poses a threat to the family’s safety—is quite tragic, as the threat of violence from outside drives the family to do violence to itself. This explanation evokes sympathy for the entire family—indeed, for the entire black community. Whether Wright himself wishes to sympathize with his family is, of course, a matter of interpretation, but he implicitly criticizes the black community for failing to strengthen itself so that it can nurture its more undisciplined members rather than beat them. This is not to say that Wright fails to recognize that it is the insidious effect of racism that breeds violence in his family—indeed, he recognizes this relationship undeniably. However, Wright also implies that all people, including the black community, must face the difficult task of overcoming such injustice, rather than succumbing to it by resorting to weakness.
Discuss the role of art in Richard’s life. How does Richard talk about art? Does he value art? What significance do Richard’s feelings about art have for an overall interpretation of Black Boy?
Richard’s relationship with art begins when he hears Ella the schoolteacher’s telling of the plot of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives, an event that elicits what Richard calls his first “total emotional response.” When Granny rushes out and interrupts this moment, she symbolically brings religion into conflict with art. From that point forward, Richard’s relationship with art, which is manifest in his desire to read, develops in contrast to his relationship with religion, which he sees as an inferior opposing force. Art in effect becomes Richard’s religion, his only spiritual outlet. He often speaks of art with language normally associated with religious experience, further suggesting that Richard regards art as a substitute for religion—that is, as an alternate mode of redemption. Such a belief accords with his view that meaning comes only from an attempt to make meaning. To redeem oneself is to create—through art, in Richard’s case—as much order and meaning in one’s life as possible. Perhaps the ultimate achievement along these lines is to write one’s autobiography and impose order upon the whole of one’s experience. In this sense, we might attribute the very existence of Black Boy itself to Richard’s deep sensitivity to the meaning of art.
1. Describe the evolution of Richard’s attitude toward white people. At what points do we detect a shift in his attitude?
2. In what ways does Wright, as an adult writing his autobiography in retrospect, color the description of events and experiences as they unfold?
3. Discuss Richard’s thoughts on stealing. How does he justify it? Does his justification of stealing imply a justification for the violent way his family treats him as a child?
4. Richard’s mature character is formed both by the kind of knowledge only gained through experience in the world and by the kind of knowledge only gained through reading books. With respect to Richard, does one of these types of knowledge seem more important than the other? Why or why not?
5. What role does hunger play in the autobiography? How does Richard view hunger at the end of the novel? Has his attitude changed?