Wright’s commentary on his dream of becoming a writer indicates the devastating reality of growing up black in the Jim Crow South. The reaction of Richard’s white boss upon learning that Richard wants to be a writer is predictable—vulgar, brutal, and contemptuous. Obviously, Richard can expect no support from the white community. The black community, however, is practically as unsupportive of Richard’s writing as the white community. Indeed, the black community’s reaction to the publication of Richard’s story is shocking: his friends are uncomprehending, and his family, with the exception of his concerned mother, is scornful.
This parallel between the white and black communities’ reactions to Richard’s aspirations reveals the degree to which the black imagination is oppressed in Richard’s culture. In one sense, Black Boy clearly stands as an indictment of racism in America and its negative effect on blacks. At the same time, however, it is an attempt on Wright’s part to criticize the black community itself for succumbing to the pressures of racism and allowing them to negatively influence their relations with one another. Of course, many black Americans in the South did derive benefits from their community, drawing positive strength from unifying forces such as religion. However, as Wright experienced particularly bad luck by being born into an abusive family that could not tolerate his individuality, he can highlight only the disastrous limitations of growing up in the South. Though only one perspective, Wright’s voice is nonetheless very important, and his point that the oppressed cannot afford to victimize themselves in the face of racism is powerful and salient.
While Richard’s actions at his graduation ceremony may seem like a satisfying moral victory, his disgust implies that it is merely the beginning of an adult life marked by more hardship, social exclusion, and dismal labor. Richard’s negative reaction after the ceremony is complicated but understandable. At first, it is not immediately clear why Richard feels disgust: being named valedictorian is quite an honor in itself, and in addition Richard has given his own speech, triumphing over those who had wanted him to compromise his standards and deliver the principal’s speech instead. Despite these seeming triumphs, Richard is nonetheless discouraged because the triumphs do not outweigh the discouraging facts of his life. Though continuing in the educational system—either as a teacher or as a higher-level student—would appear to be Richard’s best hope for advancement, the principal’s actions reveal how thoroughly corrupt this educational system is. Richard’s core values lead him to defy that corruption, but this defiance earns him only criticism from his community. Finally, with his education bound to end at the ninth grade, Richard knows that the only future jobs he can expect are degrading ones, just like the ones he has already had.
In retrospect, however, Wright indicates that his actions at graduation may have had some positive effects on the community. Though at the time he focused only on the negative aspects of the event, looking back he mentions that some people clapped, tried to shake his hand, and invited him to parties. Indeed, the audience did not shun him; rather, he shunned the audience. Richard’s response seems melodramatic, and we sense that at least part of Wright’s isolation as a youth may stem from such self-isolating actions that he initiates himself. Though his home life and social life are indeed undeniably difficult, Richard’s stubborn personality is another factor that hinders his growth.