You’ve probably run across the word "personification," or giving human characteristics to animals. (No? Check out the definition and get back to us.) Got it? Okay, now we’re going to hijack the term and make a new one: reverse personification.
Okay, okay, so it’s not new, and we didn’t invent it, but it is a characterization tool that gives characteristics of animals or inanimate objects to humans. We see a lot of this in Black Boy.
Wright is constantly comparing black people to nature or to animals. At the time, black people were considered closer to animals and nature because it was assumed that they were more primitive than white people, so Wright is probably playing with this racist idea to make another statement. Instead of comparing black people to animals in order to say that they are primitive, Wright seems to be pointing out that the oppression of black people is inhumane, like chaining or caging animals.
Take Richard’s confused description of the "elephants" walking by his house:
As the strange animals came abreast of me I saw that the legs of the black animals were held together by irons and that their arms were linked with heavy chains that clanked softly and musically as they moved. […] One of the strange, striped animals turned a black face upon me. "What are you doing?" I asked in a whisper, not knowing if one actually spoke to elephants. (1.2.251-1.2.307)
This reverse personification helps Wright show the weird brutality of chaining grown men up like exotic animals—animals that just so happen to be native to Africa. And it helps us see that, even without chains, black people are caged and separated from the "white world" as if they’re some kind of ticking time bomb.
The great thing about physical appearances in Black Boy is that it makes it super easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. The bad guys in Black Boy all have extreme characteristics, just like super villains, so you can guess what kind of person they are. Buddy Nealson has an "ever-ready smile, thick lips, a furtive manner, and a greasy, sweaty look" (2.19.258). "Professor" Matthews isn’t quite as gross, but he’s even more scary: "His lips were thin and his eyelids seemed never to blink" (1.2.377).
Does he sound like the kind of guy who would kill you with no remorse and remove all traces of evidence? Well, that’s exactly what he is.
By the way, this trick works just as well on nice people as bad guys. Take Bess, who is "young, simple, sweet, and brown" (1.11.44). She almost sounds like a delicious piece of candy—and, as Richard gets to know her more, we find out that she basically is: sweet and empty, like cotton candy.
Sometimes, we cringe the minute a character starts talking in Black Boy because something about the way they speak makes us uneasy. It’s sort of the literary equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
Take Richard’s dad. The first time he opens his mouth, he says "Scat!" (1.1.84) to a little kitten. Yeah, we know this guy is bad news. Or when Buddy Nealson opens his mouth to say, "Hello, Wright … I’ve heard about you" (2.19.259). It doesn’t take Wright telling us that he "snorted" (2.19.259) for us to know that there’s something off about this guy.
But also notice that everyone thinks Richard talks way too fancy for a black kid from Jackson. Wright uses his own voice to characterize himself—as someone who is smarter, better educated, and more thoughtful than everyone else around him.