One of Wright’s central concerns in Black Boy is the insidious nature of racism in the United States—insidious because its roots and effects are very subtle. At first glance, Chapter 1 may not seem to explore this idea of racism very much at all. Though Richard resents the well-fed white family that employs his mother and fears the white policeman who returns him to the orphanage, these situations contain nothing that resembles outright racial conflict. Similarly, Richard’s failed attempt to learn why a white man beats a black boy does not say anything overt about racism itself; it only seems to prove that Richard is interested in learning about race but is having difficulty doing so. Yet Wright strives to portray the subtle, sometimes even invisible workings of racism, and the events in Chapter 1 do contribute to this portrayal. In his encounters with the white family and the white policeman, Richard is already beginning to display a strong association between white people and the injustices of the world. This association is itself harmful because the young Richard already sees it as natural.
The fact that no one will answer Richard’s questions about race relations reveals that Richard lives not only in a society of racist whites, but also in an environment that blacks themselves make worse for him. In a racist society, the oppressors fear curiosity among the oppressed, as curiosity eventually uncovers the lies that form the foundation of that oppression. The oppressors therefore use any means necessary to discourage such curiosity. Under the worst conditions of oppression, the oppressed even do the oppressors’ dirty work for them by discouraging curiosity among their own ranks. Indeed, we see that Richard’s family discourages his curiosity concerning racial matters. More broadly, blacks often try to discourage anyone who could cause trouble for the rest of the group by speaking out against injustice.
Richard’s actions in Chapter 1 reveal a pattern of unpredictable—either passive-aggressive or over-reactive—behavior that hinders his ability to peacefully adapt to his surroundings. For example, when his parents force him to be silent, Richard burns down the house, resulting in a thorough beating. He rebels against his father’s overbearing demeanor by killing a kitten, only angering his parents further. Richard overcomes his profound fear of the gang of boys by fiercely attacking them and threatening their parents. His quiet fascination with the saloon quickly burgeons into disgraceful alcoholism. At school, Richard fails to express any enthusiasm for knowledge, but later channels that enthusiasm into overexpression, proclaiming all his new, forbidden knowledge on the neighborhood windows. These behavioral swings demonstrate Richard’s inability to interact with his family, friends, and society in a way consistent with their expectations. In response, his family, friends, and society punish him. In some ways, we can see this punishment by Richard’s peers as similar to their lack of interest in engaging his curiosity about racism. Like curiosity, unpredictable behavior is a dangerous trait for a subordinate to show in a racist society.
Richard’s acquisition of reading and counting skills are impressive intellectual feats. He accomplishes these feats with relative ease and speed, needing, for instance, only one hour to learn how to count to one hundred. More significant, Richard acquires these skills of his own free will—because he wants to, not because he is forced to. As such, Richard’s feats of learning reveal his potential for powerful intelligence and intellectual curiosity, foreshadowing the quest for knowledge that will shape his life so decisively.