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Black Boy | Symbols

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Illness

In Wright's mind his mother's misery comes to symbolize "the meaningless pain and the endless suffering" he sees around him. Throughout the memoir Wright draws numerous connections between his mother's illness and other forms of suffering such as poverty, racism, and violence. In the first two chapters, poverty and hunger regularly make his mother ill. In Chapter 3 she suffers a major stroke, and she undergoes surgery and is forced to recover in a boardinghouse because no black hospital facilities are available. Later she rides home in the baggage car of a train because no other option is open to a sick black woman. It is impossible to know whether these indignities cause her symptoms to worsen—but they do worsen, and she never recovers. For Wright this sickness is inextricably connected to all the suffering around him.

As Wright grows into adulthood, he becomes his mother's sole source of income and support. He brings her to live with him in Memphis and then Chicago. Her inability to care for herself is implicitly connected to poverty, hunger, and racism—a literal, physical connection to the relentlessly cruel culture of his childhood.

The North

In Part 1 of Black Boy, the North is a symbol of hope. As Wright grows up in the South, his experiences are dominated by racism, poverty, hunger, and abuse. He knows nothing explicitly about the North, but he knows race relations are different there. In Chapter 7 he writes, "The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed." In some ways it does not matter if his imagined North is not real. It gives him a goal, a reason to continue trying in spite of his constant suffering.

From the first sentence of Part 2 Wright deliberately breaks down this connection between the North and hope. He says the city of Chicago "mocked all my fantasies." He describes the city as a gritty, depressing, and, above all, real place. In this part of the memoir the North ceases to be a symbol and becomes instead another setting for racial conflict, albeit of a different type, to play out against.

Hunger

Wright grows up chronically malnourished, and throughout his childhood he experiences bouts of near-starvation. In Chapter 1 he describes how hunger "baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent." Persistent hunger shapes Wright's personality, and even when food is plentiful, as a child Wright sometimes steals and saves food in case he gets hungry later. Hunger is with him at school, where he is often too dizzy to think, and among his peers, to whom he lies rather than admit he would like to share their lunches. Hunger follows him into adulthood, turning him into a thin young man who, for a time, cannot pass the physical examination for a job at the postal service.

Throughout the book Wright uses painful hunger to represent for his quest for dignity. As he works to earn money for food, Wright is searching with equal urgency to find meaning in his experiences. As an adult, he accepts physical hunger to save money to better his life—but he is always reading and learning, seeking answers to his burning questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of suffering.

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