Autobiography, Coming-of-Age, Comedy
These are the Days of Our Lives…
Let’s get the basics out of the way. Black Boy is a story about Richard Wright, written by Richard Wright. Richard narrates it, and it follows his life from childhood to adulthood. There, Black Boy meets the minimum requirements of autobiography.
In fact, it does more. Since the story is about Richard becoming a writer, it actually meets the minimum requirements of a little thing called the künstlerroman, a fancy German word for a novel (often vaguely autobiographical in nature) that shows us how a kid grows into an artist. (Check out the Learning Guide on James Joyce’s "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" for a really famous example of the künstlerroman.)
So much for fancy German words. Now things are going to get a little bit more complicated.
Autobiographies are usually considered to be basically true. Sure, the writer might have Photoshopped the edges a little bit to make themselves look good, but more or less everything happened the way they said it did.
The thing is, no one thinks that Black Boy is true in that kind of way. It’s sort of his life, but it’s mostly fiction. So then, why is it Autobiography and not just Literary Fiction? Because it feels true. It could have happened. It’s sort of what happened. So, good enough.
Not the Ha-ha Kind of Comedy, the Other Kind
We all know the basic definition of Comedy. It’s Looney Tunes, it’s Family Guy, it’s anything with Jack Black in it. It’s obviously not Black Boy… or is it?
There are funny moments—like a bunch of grown men racing around trying to get guinea pigs back in their cages—but Black Boy is a different kind of comedy, the kind that is about overcoming constant adversity. It’s about getting everything but the kitchen sink thrown at you (and maybe even that), but still coming out the other side as a functioning human being.
This is exactly what happens to Richard. Like Wile E. Coyote, or Tom from Tom and Jerry, Richard is goal oriented. He wants that piece of cheese, if by cheese you mean "to get out of the South and figure out this racism business."
But every time he tries, something happens. He runs off a cliff, Jerry puts some dynamite in his pants, or the Great Depression takes his job away. Still, just like Wile E. or Tom, Richard manages to survive, and this book is the proof.