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Free Barron's Booknotes-Black Boy by Richard Wright-Free Online Notes
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OTHER ELEMENTS

THEMES / THEME ANALYSIS

1. RACISM

Black Boy attacks the racism of the South during the period Wright was growing up there (1908- 1927). Many of the hardships of Wright's family life are direct or indirect results of racial discrimination. Once Wright enters the world of work, he finds racism pervasive and intolerable. The book concludes with Wright's fleeing the South and the racist conditions he has been forced to endure there.

2. DEVELOPMENT OF A WRITER

Many readers think the central focus of Wright's story is on his development into an artist and intellectual. From this perspective, the book is about the influences that shape Wright's desire to be a writer, the experiences that mold his creative outlook, and the obstacles he must overcome to escape the limited environment in which he is growing up. These readers feel that many of Wright's hardships are those of any sensitive and rebellious individual in a world that doesn't respect those qualities. They see the novel's conclusion less as a flight from racism and more as a move toward a new career and identity as a writer. Which of these two major themes do you think is more central? Or are they given equal weight?


3. OTHER THEMES

Black Boy portrays the deprivation Wright faces growing up. It shows poverty, hunger, lack of emotional support, miserable living conditions, and Richard's response to these difficulties. The book also considers family life. For Richard, home is a place of intense emotional conflict, and his family forces him to fight back constantly in order to be able to pursue his own path. But the family also offers support in times of crisis, for example, when his mother has a stroke. Black Boy also considers Richard's rebellion. Richard's relatives criticize him for not conforming to their standards of proper behavior. Later, some of his friends criticize him for not acting as whites expect him to. But Richard defies all of them and continues on his rebellious course. Another theme is religion. Richard sees religion as meaningless at best and oppressive at worst. But he also finds some religious stories and imagery appealing. Wright also comments on the emotional life of Southern blacks. He is critical of the black community for what he sees as its emotional and cultural bleakness. But he also blames much of this bleakness on racism. Black Boy considers the theme of isolation too. Wright is often alone, and his loneliness is a source of both strength and unhappiness. Finally, Black Boy looks at the differences between urban and rural life. For Wright, the move to the city is liberating, but he seems to look back on country life with some nostalgia too.

4. ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

Black Boy is structured around the education of its central character. It's not a random or a comprehensive record of events. Wright chooses his incidents and structures his autobiography in such a way as to emphasize the gradual progress of Richard's journey toward self-awareness and knowledge of the world around him. Narrated in the first person, the book usually adheres to the point of view of young Richard but occasionally changes to that of the mature author who comments on his past with the knowledge he has gained in the intervening years. Of his style in Black Boy, Wright later said that he wanted to make the reader "forget words and be conscious only of his response," that he even wanted to make words "disappear." In Black Boy Wright seems to be striving to state facts as plainly as possible. Do you think he succeeds? Do you find this goal desirable? Does Wright ever lapse from this goal?

The setting of Black Boy is particularly important. Though the book moves from one Southern city to another, from the Deep South to Memphis, Tennessee, and from almost all-black communities to workplaces dominated by whites, it is entirely set in the South. Wright had originally wanted the book to describe his life in Chicago as well, but his publisher decided only to accept the Southern portion. As a result, the book becomes in part an indictment of the South and of its oppressiveness toward blacks. How different do you think the impact of the book would have been if it had included a discussion of Wright's life in Chicago?

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