Mr. Wright (Nathaniel Wright)
Check out this first description of Richard’s dad:
He was the lawgiver in our family and I never laughed in his presence. I used to lurk timidly in the kitchen doorway and watch his huge body sitting slumped at the table. I stared at him with awe as he gulped his beer from a tin bucket, as he ate long and heavily, sighed, belched, closed his eyes to nod on a stuffed belly. He was quite fat and his bloated stomach always lapped over his belt. He was always a stranger to me, always somehow alien and remote. (1.1.84)
We learn a lot from this passage, like Mr. Wright rules the family with such an iron fist that Richard is afraid to even laugh in front of him. We also learn that the guy is huge, especially to a four-year old, and that he drinks beer by the bucket. (We’d be scared of that, no matter how old we were.)
Taken all together, this description shows us Mr. Wright as a guy who’s all about the body. It’s not just that his body takes up so much space, but he eats and drinks as though that’s his main purpose in life. Compare this to Richard, who’s going to grow up to be skinny, quiet, and intellectual, and you get a sense of what he’s working against.
Richard also grows up to be a bit of a rule-breaker, so it doesn’t sit too well with him that his dad demands silence and absolute obedience from everyone in the house. And we imagine it doesn’t sit too well with Mr. Wright that Richard pretty early on learns to "[find] a way to throw [his] criticism of him into his face" (1.1.120).
Well, Richard doesn’t have to deal with his dad’s temper for too much longer. Shortly after they get to Memphis, Mr. Wright leaves the family. Richard starts to get hungry.
This is Richard’s dad’s lasting image. He leaves Richard’s mom, and that is the beginning of Richard’s hunger. Every time Richard is hungry during the rest of the story, which is nearly constantly, we remember his father.
Somehow after leaving Richard’s mom, his dad seems to be a totally different person. (Maybe because he’s not afraid that Richard is going to burn the house down any minute.) Suddenly, he’s Mr. Casual. Nothing seems serious to him, not even the fact that his children are literally—like, actually literally, not fake-literally—starving.
Nice guy, right? Richard is a little more forgiving than we are. Twenty-five years later, Richard tells us, he goes to visit his dad in Mississippi. Richard is a famous author, and his dad is a sharecropper, "clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe" (1.1.350). At this point, Richard realizes that it’s really not his dad’s fault. He’s just a product of centuries of Southern oppression.
Richard sees "how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body…" (1.1.350).
Remember how Richard first saw his dad as a huge mountain of eating and drinking flesh? Mr. Wright’s experiences have limited his life to nothing more than the animal impulses of food, shelter, and sex. He just can’t feel joy, or true happiness—and it’s something to mourn.
There are not a lot of ladies in Richard’s life. If you exclude the ones that are related to him, the number falls to the single digits. What we’re trying to say is, it’s a man’s world in Black Boy. One man specifically. Richard’s dad.
Nearly every man that we meet after Richard’s dad flees the coop is a pretty close copy of either Strict Dad or Deadbeat Dad. At first, Richard tells us explicitly that men are just like his father. When the pastor comes, Richard says that he is just like Strict Dad: "But no sooner had the preacher arrived than I began to resent him, for I learned at once that he, like my father, was used to having his own way" (1.1.269). Richard also compares Uncle Hoskins to his dad: "Like my father, he slept in the daytime, but noise never seemed to bother Uncle Hoskins" (1.2.233).
Comments like this make us think that, even though Richard is quick to say that he is so over his dad, he might not be telling the truth. Consciously or unconsciously, Richard sees his dad wherever he goes. Keep a lookout for these traces, because they’re everywhere.