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.