Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Racism as a problem among individuals is a familiar topic in literature. Black Boy, however, explores racism not only as an odious belief held by odious people but also as an insidious problem knit into the very fabric of society as a whole. Wright portrays characters such as Olin and Pease as evil people, but also—and more chillingly—as bit players in a vast drama of hatred, fear, and oppression. For Richard, the true problem of racism is not simply that it exists, but that its roots in American culture are so deep it is doubtful whether these roots can be destroyed without destroying the culture itself.
More than simply an autobiography, Black Boy represents the culmination of Wright’s passionate desire to observe and reflect upon the racist world around him. Throughout the work, we see Richard observe the deleterious effects of racism not only as it affects relations between whites and blacks, but also relations among blacks themselves. Wright entitles his work Black Boy primarily for the emphasis on the word “black”: this is a story of childhood, but at every moment we are acutely aware of the color of Wright’s skin. In America, he is not merely growing up; he is growing up black. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for Richard to grow up without the label of “black boy” constantly being applied to him.
Whites in the novel generally treat Richard poorly due to the color of his skin. Even more important, racism is so insidious that it prevents Richard from interacting normally even with the whites who do treat him with a semblance of respect (such as the Hoffmans or Mr. Crane) or with fellow blacks (such as Harrison). Perhaps the most important factor in Wright’s specifically “black” upbringing, however, is the fact that he grows up among black people who are unable or unwilling to accept his individual personality and his gifts. Wright’s critique of racism in America includes a critique of the black community itself—specifically the black folk community that is unable or unwilling to educate him properly. The fact that he has been kept apart from such education becomes clear to Richard when he recognizes his love of literature at a late age.
Richard is fiercely individual and constantly expresses a desire to join society on his own terms rather than be forced into one of the categories that society wishes him to fill. In this regard, Richard struggles against a dominant white culture—both in the South and in the North—and even against his own black culture. Neither white nor black culture knows how to handle a brilliant, strong-willed, self-respecting black man. Richard perceives that his options are either to conform or to wilt. Needless to say, neither option satisfies him, so he forges his own middle path.
Richard defies these two unsatisfactory options in different ways throughout the novel. He defies them in Granny’s home, where he lives without embracing its barren, mandatory spirituality. He defies these options at school, where the principal asserts that Richard must read an official speech or not graduate. He defies them in Chicago, where the Communist Party asserts that he will either act as they tell him to act or be expelled. Richard negates this final choice by leaving the Party of his own accord. As we see, Richard always rejects the call to conform. This rejection creates strife and difficulty, however—not because Richard thinks cynically about people and refuses to have anything more to do with them, but precisely because he does not take this approach. Though Richard wishes to remain an individual, he feels connected to the rest of humanity on a spiritual level. Therefore, as an artist, he must struggle to show compassion for communities that say they do not want him. It is a difficult task, but one that he learns to accept at the end of the novel.
When Ella the schoolteacher furtively whispers to Richard the plot of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives, Richard becomes transfixed; he says that the story evokes his first “total emotional response.” This trend continues throughout the novel, as a number of experiences in Richard’s life prove eye-opening in the best sense, enabling him to become excited about his life and to feel that his life has texture, meaning, and purpose. Such eye-opening experiences include Richard’s hearing of the Bluebeard story, his reading of science-fiction and horror magazines, his penning of the story of the Indian maiden, his discovery of H. L. Mencken, his writing of “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” and his decision that he can use his writing to advance the cause of the Communist Party. These experiences all involve reading or some other use of his imaginative faculties, and all bolster his idea that life becomes meaningful through creative attempts to make sense of it. This is a core idea in the history of philosophy, first articulated by Schopenhauer, refined by Nietzsche, and then taken up by the existentialists, with whom Wright grew fascinated. Indeed, the writing of Black Boy itself, when seen as Wright’s attempt to order the experiences of his life, is closely tied to this idea of the redemptive power of creativity.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
By frequently reminding us of the problem of his physical hunger, Wright emphasizes his hunger for other things as well—for literature, artistic expression, and engagement in social and political issues. Though there are indeed many instances in the novel when Richard does physically hunger for food, he eventually concludes that food is not as important as the other problems facing the world. He asserts that the world needs unity more than it needs to cure physical ills. Both Richard and the world have a more important need: understanding of and connection with one another. Physical hunger is merely a symbol of the larger emptiness Richard’s brutal, inhumane life causes him to feel. Throughout the autobiography he exhibits a strong desire to carve out a richer, more satisfying existence by connecting with the world around him. Just as literal hunger works to undo itself by making a person want to eat, so the motif of hunger works in Black Boy. Richard’s greater emotional and intellectual hunger serves as a sort of literary magnet that pulls us through the story, making us just as anxious to see Richard succeed as he is.
Throughout the text, Richard seeks out reading with a passion that resembles a physical appetite. Indeed, these two sensations—the desire to read and the desire to eat—are closely allied. At times, this alliance breaks down and the two sensations flow together. In Chapter 5, for example, Richard catches the smell of meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen while he is reading. From his bookish daydreams, Richard drifts into a fantasy of having plenty of meat to eat. There is also the image, in Chapter 15, of Richard simultaneously devouring food and Proust’s novel A Remembrance of Things Past, hoping to flesh out his body and his writing. It is as if Proust is part of Richard’s weight-gaining plan. This blurring of literary and physical appetite is most explicit when Richard remarks, “I lived on what I did not eat,” suggesting that, at some level, reading takes the place of food. As such, reading works as a counterpoint to the motif of hunger in the novel. While hunger represents the spiritual and emotional emptiness within Richard, reading represents Richard’s bread and water, giving him the energy he needs to persevere.
Richard is cursed, beaten, or slapped every time he stands up to Granny, Addie, or other elders, regardless of how justified he may be in doing so. When whites believe Richard is behaving unacceptably in their presence, they berate, slap, or manipulate him; in one instance, they smash a whiskey bottle in his face. When Richard acts out of line with the Communist Party, they denounce him and attempt to sabotage his career. Clearly, then, violence—which here means all the abuse, physical or mental, that Richard suffers—is a constant presence in Black Boy. Violence looms as an almost inevitable consequence when Richard asserts himself, both in the family and in society.
However, violence takes over Richard’s mind as well. Richard learns that he must demonstrate his violent power in order to gain respect and acceptance at school. Additionally, he reacts to his family’s violent, overbearing treatment with violence of his own, wielding a knife against Addie, burning down the house, and so on. More broadly, violence infects the black community in general, whether from within or from the white community’s imposed violence.
Perhaps the most important violent sequence in the novel occurs when Olin makes Richard and Harrison suspect each other of murderous intentions. Even though they acknowledge to each other that they mean each other no harm, they cannot escape the reality that the racist culture demands they fight viciously. One root of this violence between Richard and Harrison is Olin’s feigned friendship toward each of the men. Thus, we come to see that violence in a racist world often goes beyond physical attacks.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In Renaissance and Gothic literature, a deformity or some other physical impairment often serves as an outward sign of an unhealthy or evil soul. This kind of symbolism implies that the universe is a sensible place, as an evil soul is rewarded with a mangled body. In Black Boy, however, the opposite is true. Richard’s mother, Ella, is one of the few people in the novel—and the only person in the entire family—who seems genuinely concerned for Richard’s welfare. If anyone in the novel has a truly good, saintlike soul, it is Ella. However, she is beset with incurable ailments and paralytic legs. Other family members, meanwhile, have abundant strength, which they frequently use to beat Richard for trivial offenses. In this context, Ella’s infirmity symbolizes for Richard the unfair and random nature of the universe.
In the microcosm of the optical shop in Memphis, Olin represents the Southern white racists willing to terrorize black people for the sake of amusement, while Falk represents those Southern whites who genuinely sympathize with black people and who are willing to help them. Shorty represents the black workers who pander to whites but inwardly retain their racial and personal pride. The building’s unnamed porter, with his daily wail about having to work in the same place day in and day out, represents the more embittered black workers of the South. Several Ku Klux Klan members and Jews also populate the office. As such, the Memphis optical shop is a microcosm of racial stratification in the South. Wright concentrates the racial dynamics of the region in one physical space in order to show that people who think they are different from or better than their peers are actually integrally connected to them.