Now, we over here at Shmoop are pretty peaceful people. We get our yoga on, we meditate, and in general we’re pretty zenned out. That’s why we’re shocked to see how violent Richard is from the moment we meet him. The first things we see Richard do are burn his house down and kill a cat (1.1.19, 1.1.99). Not too promising for our young narrator.
From these not-so-great beginnings, Richard goes on to bigger and better things, if by bigger and better you mean that he starts fighting other people instead of innocent little kittens. At school, Richard is quick to throw down, and he gets into fights with the other boys on the first day, "knowing that if [he] did not win or make a good showing [he] would have to fight a new boy each day" (1.13.185). Richard is also not afraid to fight with his own family members. He would never hurt his mom, but his aunt or his uncle? That’s fair game.
But check out the way he talks about it. He doesn’t fight because he wants to, exactly. He kills the kitten because he’s trying to show up his dad’s abuse; he fights the school boys because he knows they’ll keep pounding him if he doesn’t stand up for himself. Also, his mom is the one who told him that he has to fight. After he gets jumped a few times on the way to buy groceries, she hands him a stick—literally—and tells him, "I’m going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself" (1.1.206).
Plus, Richard learned all this violence somewhere. His earliest memories seem to be of the fear of being beaten. When he sets his house on fire, his mom beats him so badly that he seems to almost die. Sure, voluntarily setting your house on fire probably deserves some kind of punishment—but maybe not brutal whipping. Maybe.
Even at his religious grandmother’s house, family members constantly argue and fight with one another. "There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home," he says, "than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute" (1.5.169). We can’t exactly approve of Richard’s violence—but we can’t exactly blame him, either.
Richard might as well just put on the tinfoil hat now, because the number of things that scare him stiff make him seem like a street-corner conspiracy theorist. Look, we’re obviously not implying that racism is a conspiracy. It’s a real problem that we’re still grappling with. But, really, you can’t sell your dog to a white lady because you might be playing into the great white ploy to keep the man down? Maybe you should just sell the dog and buy some food, Dick.
Richard even admits that he is way more afraid of racism and white people than he has specific reason to be. He says,
Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew. The actual experience would have let me see the realistic outlines of what was really happening, but as long as it remained something terrible and yet remote, something whose horror and blood might descend upon me at any moment, I was compelled to give my entire imagination over to it. (1.8.32)
Um, okay. Maybe that didn’t clear things up. Let us translate:
If I’d had more experience with racism, I wouldn’t have been so afraid of it. But as long as it was something that was only a rumor, like a bogeyman, I was afraid of it all the time.
Got it? Every time he hears about a lynching, or a black man getting beaten up, or someone getting arrested, he feels like white people are just waiting around the corner to catch him in their clutches. Of course, we’d be scared too if our uncle was killed, and our friend’s brother was killed, and someone threw a bottle in our face for not calling them "sir." But, sure, let’s just keep calling Richard paranoid.
The thing is, Richard isn’t just afraid of racism. He’s afraid of almost everything. When he hears that a boy died in his bed, he’s so scared that he leaves a home where he could have had plenty of food and a good education. Even though he acts big and bad on the street, in front of people or in the classroom Richard is so shy that he can’t even say his name. This happens not once, but every time he goes to a new school.
What does it all mean? Well, it means Richard might be a big, bad boy on the schoolyard, but he’s not so tough in the classroom. By the time we get to the end of the book—spoiler alert—it’s going to be the other way around.
P.S. For more on other people who are out to get Richard, check out "Communism" in the "Settings" section.
By the end of the book, Richard has changed quite a bit. Just like the computer nerds who grow up to be multibillionaire philanthropists, Richard has turned many of his faults into qualities that will make him an award-winning, world-famous author.
First, the new and improved Richard 2.0 is a master of calm. Even when he is dealing with the infuriatingly ridiculous Communist Party, Richard resists the urge to settle his problems with some old-fashioned fisticuffs. Instead of fighting, he wants to "try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside" (2.10.105). Big dreams, Richard.
Oh yeah, and remember how he was super scared of everything and everyone? Well, that overactive imagination of his is put to better use when Richard grows up. He still thinks about racism a lot, but more about how to help his fellow man by fixing it than about how he might die because he talked to a white lady. He also uses his fears to write stories that try to explain what it is like growing up under Jim Crow, to connect to other black and even white people.
After you get past the violence, the paranoia, and the paralyzing fear, the thing that really starts to matter about Richard is his love affair with words.
He figures out pretty early on that words can be a way to connect with other people. In the bar, he says, "I ran from person to person, laughing, hiccoughing, spewing out filth that made them bend double with glee" (1.1.238). But he doesn’t figure out the real power of words until he uses the wrong ones with his Granny, and she basically tries to kill him: "The tremendous upheaval that my words had caused made me know that there lay back of them much more than I could figure out […]" (1.2.94).
Lesson number one about literature: words mean things.
He gets a slightly nicer lesson about literature when he hears a story for the first time. Granny’s boarder, Ella, tells him the fairy tale of Bluebeard, and Richard "ceas[es] to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything" (1.2.23).
Lesson number two about literature: it can trick you into thinking that your life doesn’t seriously stink.
This fascination with reading and writing inspires Richard with the desire to become a writer. Even though nearly everyone around him thinks that it’s basically the stupidest idea he could have, Richard brushes off his haters and keeps on writing.
Writing serves two purposes for Richard. When he was a child, writing stories was a way to have power over something in a world that he had little or no control over anything. As a grownup, writing becomes a way to communicate with people all over the world. Talking is hard for Richard, because he sometimes gets too scared to speak. But when he writes, the whole world—or at least America in 1945—listens.
At the end of all this, we have two questions for Richard. The first: is everyone in his life really so awful? The second: is Richard really as oblivious as he claims to be, or is he actually a stuck-up, stubborn, intellectual brat?
Let us explain.
Through the whole first section of Black Boy, everyone that Richard meets is horrible. Well, except Ella. But of course he likes her; she reads books. (Plus, she’s pretty and probably smells good, too.) One person after another seems to hate Richard or cause him harm for no reason at all. For, like, 200 pages. It just seems unbelievable.
At that point, you gotta look at the common denominator. If everyone hates you, maybe the problem is you, and not everyone else. The thing is, we can’t really know. Since Richard is telling the story, he’s probably not going to rat himself out as the bad guy.
Okay, sure. Richard 1) claims to be nonjudgmental and 2) doesn’t get why people dislike him. But notice that he spends paragraphs and paragraphs talking about how disgusting most black people are and how his coworkers think about nothing but money—how black communities are full of "snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing" (1.6.68). Or that "their constant outward-looking, their mania for radios, cars, and a thousand other trinkets made them dream and fix their eyes upon the trash of life, made it impossible for them to learn a language which could have taught them to speak of what was in their or others’ hearts" (2.15.90). That’s maybe—we’re just sayin’—the teensiest bit judgmental.
In the end, Shmooperinos, it’s up to you to decide if he is a total poop-head or just misunderstood. Or, you know, maybe even both.
Possibly you noticed, but Richard is not really good with people. It shows itself in a lot of ways, like how he is constantly offending someone, but you can even make it out in the way the story is written. Richard is the only fully developed character, the only one who is multifaceted and changes as the story continues. Everyone else might as well be cardboard cutouts.Timeline