Black Boy

by: Richard Wright

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Ella’s Infirmity

In Renaissance and Gothic literature, a deformity or some other physical impairment often serves as an outward sign of an unhealthy or evil soul. This kind of symbolism implies that the universe is a sensible place, as an evil soul is rewarded with a mangled body. In Black Boy, however, the opposite is true. Richard’s mother, Ella, is one of the few people in the novel—and the only person in the entire family—who seems genuinely concerned for Richard’s welfare. If anyone in the novel has a truly good, saintlike soul, it is Ella. However, she is beset with incurable ailments and paralytic legs. Other family members, meanwhile, have abundant strength, which they frequently use to beat Richard for trivial offenses. In this context, Ella’s infirmity symbolizes for Richard the unfair and random nature of the universe.

The Optical Shop in Memphis

In the microcosm of the optical shop in Memphis, Olin represents the Southern white racists willing to terrorize black people for the sake of amusement, while Falk represents those Southern whites who genuinely sympathize with black people and who are willing to help them. Shorty represents the black workers who pander to whites but inwardly retain their racial and personal pride. The building’s unnamed porter, with his daily wail about having to work in the same place day in and day out, represents the more embittered black workers of the South. Several Ku Klux Klan members and Jews also populate the office. As such, the Memphis optical shop is a microcosm of racial stratification in the South. Wright concentrates the racial dynamics of the region in one physical space in order to show that people who think they are different from or better than their peers are actually integrally connected to them.