Author, narrator, and protagonist of Black Boy. Richard is an unpredictable bundle of contradictions: he is timid yet assured, tough yet compassionate, enormously intelligent yet ultimately modest. Passive-aggressive as a young boy, Richard either says very little or becomes melodramatic and says too much. Growing up in an abusive family environment in the racially segregated and violent American South, Richard finds his salvation in reading, writing, and thinking. He grows up feeling insecure about his inability to meet anyone’s expectations, particularly his family’s wish that he accept religion. Even though he remains isolated from his environment and peers, at the autobiography’s end Richard has come to accept himself. Black Boy testifies to his gifted observational powers and his ability to reflect upon the psychological struggles facing black Americans.
Richard’s mother. Tough on Richard and certainly unafraid to administer a beating when she believes it is appropriate, Ella nevertheless loves her son and is the person most resembling an advocate in his life. Despite falling into ill health and becoming partially paralyzed, she maintains an optimistic outlook on life.
Richard’s maternal grandmother. Austere and unforgiving, Granny is a very strict Seventh-Day Adventist and runs her household accordingly. She thinks Richard is sinful, has little tolerance for his antics, and is inclined to demonstrate her disapproval with a quick backhanded slap across his mouth. Like her husband, Richard Wilson, Granny is the child of slaves. Due to her partially white ancestry, she looks somewhat white.
Richard’s younger brother. Born Leon Alan Wright, he goes by the name Alan. Alan does not contribute much to the story of Black Boy: a few times, he limply objects to something naughty that Richard is planning to do, like burn straws in a fireplace or hang a kitten. In this sense, he serves as one of Richard’s critics.
One of Ella’s sisters. Addie lives at home with Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. She shares her mother’s spite for Richard and tries not to miss any opportunity to beat or humiliate him. She shares Granny’s intense religious nature and teaches at a religious school that Richard briefly attends.
Richard’s maternal grandfather and a former soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. Sour and remote, Grandpa is forever bitter that a clerical error has deprived him of his war pension. He keeps his distance from the family but is occasionally trotted out to discipline Richard. Grandpa keeps a loaded gun by his bed, as he believes that Civil War hostilities could resurface at any moment.
Richard’s father. Although Nathan is physically intimidating and frequently beats Richard, he abandons the family and proves to be simple, weak, and pathetic.
Ella’s sister. Maggie sporadically lives with Ella, Richard, and his brother, and is Richard’s favorite aunt.
Maggie’s first husband. Uncle Hoskins is a friendly man, but loses Richard’s trust when he pretends to drive his buggy into the river to frighten Richard. Local whites murder Hoskins when they grow jealous of his profitable saloon.
Maggie’s second husband. The “Professor” is an outlaw and, when he begins courting Maggie, he visits only at night. After he apparently kills a white woman, he and Maggie flee to Detroit. Several years after that, he deserts Maggie.
One of Ella’s brothers. Uncle Clark briefly houses Richard after his mother becomes ill. Clark is a just, upright man who seems genuinely concerned for Richard’s welfare, although perhaps a little strict.
Another of Ella’s brothers. Like Aunt Addie, Uncle Tom finds Richard particularly galling and seems to leap at any opportunity to beat or ridicule him.
A young schoolteacher who briefly rents a room in Granny’s house. Bookish and dreamy, she introduces Richard to the imaginative pleasures of fiction by telling him the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Granny, however, views Ella’s stories as sinful and effectively forces Ella to move out.
One of Richard’s boyhood friends. Griggs, like Richard, is intelligent, but he has a sense of when blacks need to abide by the rules—a sense Richard lacks. Griggs displays the compassionate concern of a true friend when he advises Richard on how to survive in the racist white world.
Two white Southerners who run Richard off his job at the optical shop in Jackson, Mississippi. Though technically two characters, Pease and Reynolds are unified in their bestial treatment of Richard and essentially operate as one.
A white Northerner who runs the optical shop where Richard works. Mr. Crane is a fair and unprejudiced man, who is sad to see Richard go when Pease and Reynolds run him off the job.
A white Southerner at Richard’s job at the optical shop in Memphis, Tennessee. Racist and destructive, Olin pretends to be Richard’s friend but then tells lies in an attempt to get Richard and Harrison to kill each other.
A young black man who works at a rival optical shop in Memphis. The fight between Richard and Harrison demonstrates that racism’s power to instill fear in blacks is so great that it can lead two black men who truly like each other to fight each other viciously.
White Jewish shopkeepers who employ Richard in Chicago. The Hoffmans treat Richard with genuine respect and care, but Richard assumes that because they are white they will act just like most Southern whites. The Hoffmans help Richard begin his journey toward accepting some well-meaning white people, even though he treats them poorly at the time.
The black elevator man in the building in Memphis where Richard works. Shorty is witty, intelligent, and has a sense of pride in his race. However, much to Richard’s horror, Shorty engages in supremely demeaning behavior to earn money.
A white Irish Catholic worker at the optical shop in Memphis. In stark counterpoint to Olin, Falk does not explicitly profess to be Richard’s friend, but he proves to be a genuine friend by letting Richard borrow his library card to obtain books from the whites-only library. When Falk learns that Richard is moving to Chicago, the quick smile he flashes suggests that he is pleased Richard is moving on to a better life.
An escapee from a mental institution who suddenly appears at a meeting of the John Reed Club, a revolutionary artists’ organization Richard joins in Chicago. Comrade Young illustrates the vulnerability of the Communist Party to fraudulent acts by individuals.
A black Communist whom Richard wishes to profile for his series of biographical sketches. Ross is somewhat uneasy around Richard, fearing Richard’s deviations from Party doctrine.
A high-ranking black Communist suspicious of Richard’s interviews with Ross. Green’s rough, peremptory, and authoritative manner alienates Richard.