Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Racism as a problem among individuals is a familiar topic in literature. Black Boy, however, explores racism not only as an odious belief held by odious people but also as an insidious problem knit into the very fabric of society as a whole. Wright portrays characters such as Olin and Pease as evil people, but also—and more chillingly—as bit players in a vast drama of hatred, fear, and oppression. For Richard, the true problem of racism is not simply that it exists, but that its roots in American culture are so deep it is doubtful whether these roots can be destroyed without destroying the culture itself.
More than simply an autobiography, Black Boy represents the culmination of Wright’s passionate desire to observe and reflect upon the racist world around him. Throughout the work, we see Richard observe the deleterious effects of racism not only as it affects relations between whites and blacks, but also relations among blacks themselves. Wright entitles his work Black Boy primarily for the emphasis on the word “black”: this is a story of childhood, but at every moment we are acutely aware of the color of Wright’s skin. In America, he is not merely growing up; he is growing up black. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for Richard to grow up without the label of “black boy” constantly being applied to him.
Whites in the novel generally treat Richard poorly due to the color of his skin. Even more important, racism is so insidious that it prevents Richard from interacting normally even with the whites who do treat him with a semblance of respect (such as the Hoffmans or Mr. Crane) or with fellow blacks (such as Harrison). Perhaps the most important factor in Wright’s specifically “black” upbringing, however, is the fact that he grows up among black people who are unable or unwilling to accept his individual personality and his gifts. Wright’s critique of racism in America includes a critique of the black community itself—specifically the black folk community that is unable or unwilling to educate him properly. The fact that he has been kept apart from such education becomes clear to Richard when he recognizes his love of literature at a late age.
Richard is fiercely individual and constantly expresses a desire to join society on his own terms rather than be forced into one of the categories that society wishes him to fill. In this regard, Richard struggles against a dominant white culture—both in the South and in the North—and even against his own black culture. Neither white nor black culture knows how to handle a brilliant, strong-willed, self-respecting black man. Richard perceives that his options are either to conform or to wilt. Needless to say, neither option satisfies him, so he forges his own middle path.
Richard defies these two unsatisfactory options in different ways throughout the novel. He defies them in Granny’s home, where he lives without embracing its barren, mandatory spirituality. He defies these options at school, where the principal asserts that Richard must read an official speech or not graduate. He defies them in Chicago, where the Communist Party asserts that he will either act as they tell him to act or be expelled. Richard negates this final choice by leaving the Party of his own accord. As we see, Richard always rejects the call to conform. This rejection creates strife and difficulty, however—not because Richard thinks cynically about people and refuses to have anything more to do with them, but precisely because he does not take this approach. Though Richard wishes to remain an individual, he feels connected to the rest of humanity on a spiritual level. Therefore, as an artist, he must struggle to show compassion for communities that say they do not want him. It is a difficult task, but one that he learns to accept at the end of the novel.
When Ella the schoolteacher furtively whispers to Richard the plot of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives, Richard becomes transfixed; he says that the story evokes his first “total emotional response.” This trend continues throughout the novel, as a number of experiences in Richard’s life prove eye-opening in the best sense, enabling him to become excited about his life and to feel that his life has texture, meaning, and purpose. Such eye-opening experiences include Richard’s hearing of the Bluebeard story, his reading of science-fiction and horror magazines, his penning of the story of the Indian maiden, his discovery of H. L. Mencken, his writing of “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” and his decision that he can use his writing to advance the cause of the Communist Party. These experiences all involve reading or some other use of his imaginative faculties, and all bolster his idea that life becomes meaningful through creative attempts to make sense of it. This is a core idea in the history of philosophy, first articulated by Schopenhauer, refined by Nietzsche, and then taken up by the existentialists, with whom Wright grew fascinated. Indeed, the writing of Black Boy itself, when seen as Wright’s attempt to order the experiences of his life, is closely tied to this idea of the redemptive power of creativity.