Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Like Singing the Blues, Contemplative, Serious
Sing it, Daddio
Guitars, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, or Louis Armstrong. Guys with deep gravely voices and sad songs. Black Boy.
Yeah, seriously. Black Boy is basically a blues song stretched out to 400-odd pages and without a catchy tune. You know how these songs go: your lover left you, your money is gone, your dog ran away, and now you’re singing about it for all the world to hear. In the same way, Richard unashamedly hangs his dirty laundry out to dry. Yes, he was hungry, yes he watched people pooping, yes he played in sewage, and yes he was alone.
At the same time, the blues celebrates the good things in life. That’s why we get passages like this: "There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning" (1.1.4). And this: "Granny’s home in Jackson […] made me feel that surely there was no finer house in all the round world" (1.2.6).
Passages like this keep us from feeling sorry for Richard. The blues isn’t a complaint: it’s a way of expressing both the bad and the good, and bringing other people into your life. Just like Black Boy.
Racism and child abuse are serious business. Moments that any halfway decent comedian would have had a field day with don’t even get a chuckle in the hands of Wright.
Like the scene when Richard tells his granny to kiss his behind. This could be comedy gold, but there's not one thing funny about the way he sets it up: "I stooped and she scrubbed my anus. My mind was in a sort of daze, midway between daydreaming and thinking. Then, before I knew it, words—words whose meaning I did not fully know—had slipped out of my mouth. 'When you get through, kiss back there,' I said, the words rolling softly but unpremeditatedly" (1.2.47-48).
Are you laughing? Knowing what comes next, neither are we.
Think Before You Speak
This is no stream-of-consciousness project. The text is littered with little parenthetical asides that seem to be Wright’s interjections into the scenes of Richard’s life. He basically comes on stage holding a glass of wine, going on and on about something that seems only tangentially related to the action.
Take this stunning bit: "Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion" (2.15.89). "Therefore," "confines," "purge," and "spasm": does this even sound like the same author saying that Granny’s home "made me feel that surely there was no finer house in all the round world" (1.2.6)?
So, the asides are a little jarring. They’re supposed to be. By pressing the pause button, Wright gives us a little more time to think about what is happening to Richard—and he even gives us a little guidance on just what to think.