During a sermon one day at church, Richard whispers to Granny that he would believe in God if he saw an angel. Granny hears him incorrectly and thinks that he has said that he has seen an angel. She elatedly informs the church elder and the rest of the congregation. Richard, already mortified at Granny’s misunderstanding, makes things worse by embarrassing her, correcting her error in front of everyone present at the church. Granny is furious.
To appease Granny’s anger, Richard promises to pray every day, but he is unable to do so. The act of prayer even makes him laugh. To kill time during his daily prayer hour, he decides to write a story about an Indian maiden who drowns herself. In his excitement to share the story with someone, Richard reads it aloud to the young woman who lives next door. She seems astonished that anyone would write a story simply out of the desire to write, but Richard takes satisfaction from her puzzled bewilderment.
Wright’s description of his interactions with the boys in Arkansas reveals the pain and futility he and these boys feel as black boys in a racist white society. The boys try to express defiance and seeming self-confidence through frequent anti-white declarations. However, as this defiance stems from the pain of constant oppression by whites, and because white oppression is far too massive for one person to stop alone, that air of confidence is fraught with insecurity. Wright indicates that the boys “frantically concealed how dependent we were upon one another.” Like their parents’ anxious conversations about race relations, the boys’ fights accomplish nothing significant or lasting. Rather, they afford only the temporary emotional release gained by fighting over a boundary that will soon be violated once again. Though we see the boys’ violent interracial fighting as pointless, we realize that the need to feel some sense of control, however fleeting, often expresses itself in irrational ways.
Richard’s conflicts with Addie are intimately related to his problem with God and religion. Addie expects submission and meekness that, from Richard’s perspective, goes beyond what she deserves. When she beats him in the classroom, he is very angry, but he can rationalize it to a degree because he knows that he appears guilty. At home, after Richard tells Addie who had really eaten the walnuts, she still wants to beat him, manufacturing the excuse that he was sinfully lying to her as a justification. But, as Richard’s armed resistance demonstrates, the idea of abstract guilt does not strike a chord with him. Wright says that he has always had a notion of the suffering involved in life, but that it has never been tied to religion: “I simply could not feel weak and lost in a cosmic manner.” He implies that the weakness that the concept of original sin—the idea of mankind’s fundamental sinfulness, an essential doctrine of the Christian church—makes people feel is the only thing that makes them seek God. Thus, Wright’s inability to feel fundamentally flawed and in need of correction makes him unable to submit not only to Addie, but to God as well. Rather, Wright feels lost in the sea change of his own life. The events of these chapters give dramatic testimony to the unpredictability of Richard’s life, making it easy for us to understand Richard’s difficulty in believing in any doctrine of cosmic order.
For Wright, the meaning of life lies in the very act of striving to find the meaning of life. This idea is essential to existentialism, a school of twentieth-century philosophical thought to which Wright ascribed later in his life. Existentialism asserts that many of the most important choices we need to make in life—such as whether to believe in God or whether to believe in love—have no rational or objective basis. Such notions of rationality and objectivity are merely the inventions of humankind. The only thing that humans can ever know is that which they can observe directly. Existentialist thought also holds that we can make life meaningful through individual creativity and through the active acceptance of our own self-created values. In Black Boy, Wright claims that “no education could ever alter” his conclusion that the meaning of life is discernible “only when one [is] struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.” Wright wrote Black Boy during 1943–1944, but came into contact with existentialism late in 1947, when he moved to Paris. After meeting two of its major proponents, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Wright came to embrace existentialism. He did so not because it was fashionable—although, at the time, it was very fashionable indeed—but because it resonated with beliefs he had always held.