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Black Boy | Themes

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Racism

Racism shapes every aspect of Richard Wright's life. In the Jim Crow South, it keeps his family poor, undereducated, underemployed, and constantly fearful. Although he does not interact much with whites in his early years, the black adults in his life are wounded by racism. Wright's father is so broken that he develops no love or loyalty for his own family. Wright's uncle, one of the few financially stable members of the extended family, is murdered by whites. Wright's mother develops a paralyzing illness and cannot recover with the medical treatments available to blacks. These events, along with laws forcing Wright to attend inferior schools and work in menial jobs, make it nearly impossible for a black boy to succeed. Wright feels pressure to submit to racism and accept a life of poverty, hopelessness, and inhuman treatment.

Wright describes racism as a force so strong that it exerts itself not only outside black people, but also within them. Everywhere he goes, Wright meets African Americans who pressure him to act submissively toward whites. At school his peers shun him or act threatened when he reveals high ambitions. His junior high principal tries to force him to read a valedictory speech that whites will find acceptable. Wright refuses to grovel before whites, and when he is repeatedly beaten, threatened, and fired from jobs, black peers like his friend Griggs speak as though Wright is to blame: "Learn how to live in the South," Griggs says. But even after Wright moves north, he continues to meet black people who allow racism to stunt their personal growth. For example, Wright's African American coworkers at a research hospital mock him for showing interest in the experiments there. They suppress curiosity and drown their humanity in alcoholism and petty squabbles. Wright says racism makes black people hate and doubt themselves.

However, Wright ultimately blames racism on the white people who act with cruelty and callousness toward blacks. Sometimes this behavior is psychological. When the teenage Wright admits his dream of becoming a writer to a white woman who knows nothing about him except his skin color, she says, "You'll never be a writer." A similar attitude is prevalent in the North, where white researchers mock Wright for his curiosity, saying, "If you know too much, boy, your brains might explode." But racism is not only psychological; it is also physical. Whites murder Uncle Hoskins. Whites beat Wright and drive him away from jobs. Whites even use violence for fun when they attempt to trick Wright and another black man, Harrison, into killing each other. This violence creates a toxic environment of fear in Wright's life and threatens to warp both his intellect and his soul.

Isolation

In Part 1 of Black Boy Wright lives with a large extended family but has no meaningful relationships. His brutal early childhood experiences make him worldly, foulmouthed, and skeptical of easy answers. He rejects his grandmother's religion and threatens Aunt Addie and Uncle Tom when they try to whip him. As a result, Mrs. Wright blames him for bringing God's wrath on the family. Aunt Addie treats Wright like a stranger, and Uncle Tom mocks him and forbids his children from speaking to him. Meanwhile, at school Wright's excessive poverty makes it impossible for him to bond with other children over lunch, and his grandmother's religious rules prevent him from socializing normally. Thus Wright arrives in adulthood without having "had a single satisfying, sustained relationship with another human being."

Persistent isolation allows Wright the mental space to develop differently than those around him. Unlike the other African American victims of racism in his life, he does not hear society's message that kids like him have no chance to succeed. He does not grow up happy, but he grows up ambitious.

In Part 2 Wright finds a family of sorts in the John Reed Club. Within this Communist-leaning literary organization he forms warm relationships with people who share his desire to understand suffering. He puts his whole heart into this group, and its struggles hurt him deeply. He writes, "I had lived so utterly isolated a life that ... could not be imagined by the white members." In some ways Wright's interactions with the Communist Party are his belated attempts to join a family and be accepted on his own merits. When the Communists reject his ideas and ambitions, he takes the response hard. At the end of the book he finally gives up on being accepted. He embraces his isolation and uses it as a starting point for writing.

Skepticism

Although Wright grows up in a deeply religious family, he rejects religion. His grandmother is a strict Seventh-day Adventist who attempts to control Wright with religious guilt. Whenever anything bad happens to the family, she says God is acting out his wrath because of Wright's unsaved soul. Even Wright's mother, who is a more moderate Methodist, uses guilt and social shame to pressure Wright to convert. These experiences lead Wright to say religion is about power, not comfort or inspiration: "Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife" and attempts by one group to control another.

Wright's early experience with religion and his family soon extends to other systems of authority as well. His principal shows him that educators cannot be trusted. In addition, the entire Jim Crow society of the South demonstrates that the legal system, even in a supposedly democratic society, is obviously biased toward white landowners in ways that are irreconcilable with basic human safety and wellbeing, let alone dignity. He is left at a young and impressionable age with no one to trust except his own instinct that no one can be trusted.

Ultimately for Wright, skepticism becomes the beginning of creativity. By rejecting the experiences of others around him, he is forced to find his own ways of interpreting the world and of making his way through it.

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