Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 8 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 8 : Southern Night | Summary

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Summary

Summer arrives, and, as usual, Wright needs work. One day while job hunting, he sees a friend named Ned Greenley, who says his brother Bob is dead. "They killed him," Ned says, and Wright immediately knows "they" are white people. Ned says the white people accused Bob of sleeping with a white prostitute. Wright takes this death hard and falls into a depression. He writes, "The penalty of death awaited me if I made a false move and I wondered if it was worth-while to make any move at all." Reflecting back from a later moment, Wright says such violence was "a more effective control of my behavior" than violence he experienced directly.

On the streets Wright learns all his school acquaintances have jobs, but none of them thought to share opportunities with him. At home he discovers with shock that his cousin Maggie, Uncle Tom's daughter, is forbidden to speak to him. Realizing his family considers him "brutal and desperate," he decides to save money and leave home as soon as possible. He returns to a part-time servant job and plans for the future.

Wright enters ninth grade at the top of his class and learns he may have a chance to become a teacher if he finishes the year well. He works hard and is named valedictorian, which means he gets to speak at graduation. Wright writes a speech, but his principal calls him to the school office and hands him a different speech. When Wright insists on reading his own words, the principal calls him a "hotheaded fool" and threatens him. Later, the principal arranges for other students, including a classmate named Griggs, whom Wright respects, to change Wright's mind. But Wright refuses to back down.

At graduation Wright reads his own speech quickly, without caring whether people like it or not. When it is over, Wright walks out, angry and ready to leave school behind.

Analysis

Wright has grown up in an environment shaped by the threat of white violence, but when a young man just like himself is brutally murdered by white people, Wright is shocked. He realizes with sudden clarity that he could die the same way. This is a defining moment for Wright, who is shedding his fuzzy, childlike view of the world and beginning to understand his circumstances with the clarity of an adult. He finally realizes that his spirit of rebellion and independence might have consequences outside of his immediate family.

It might seem strange that Wright reacts so strongly to Bob Greenley's death after all the other brutality he has experienced. Wright did not, for example, fall into a depression after being bitten by a white boss's dog or being insulted by racists. Commenting on this, Wright reflects that it is sometimes worse to hear about violence than to experience it firsthand. Not knowing the details of Bob Greenley's death, Wright is "compelled to give [his] entire imagination over to it."

Wright gains a more adult outlook on his relationships with his peers and family. He realizes his classmates do not treat him the same way they treat each other. This is probably because his grandmother's religious beliefs, his extreme poverty, and his unusual life goals set him apart. At home Wright is surprised to learn Uncle Tom's children are forbidden to talk to him. This is remarkable partly because Wright has been living with them for months and has never before noticed it. Clearly, Wright is very accustomed to his isolation.

The revelation about Uncle Tom's children also shows Wright is beginning to understand how other people see him. Months ago, when he threatened his Uncle Tom with razor blades to avoid a whipping, he apparently thought only of defending himself. Now he is surprised to realize his family considers him "brutal and desperate." Notably, he does not try to explain himself. He assumes his family relationships are unsalvageable and resolves to separate himself further by moving away.

In spite of all his hardships Wright graduates junior high at the top of his class. His educational experience has been designed to make him fear self-expression and idealism—but it has failed. His principal writes Wright's valedictory speech for him to ensure he does not say anything offensive to the whites in the audience. Wright's good grades and ninth grade diploma are good enough to earn him a teaching job in his city's black schools—but only if he proves he is willing to uphold the racial status quo. In other words agreeing to read the speech would secure Wright a decent paycheck and a measure of respect, at least among other black people. It would also give him an easier life than he has ever known. The principal is astonished, then angry, when Wright refuses to read the speech. As usual, everyone finds out about Wright's decision, and everyone regards him as a fool.

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