Study Guide

Black Boy Quotes

  • Race

    It might have been that my tardiness in learning to sense white people as "white" people came from the fact that many of my relatives were "white"-looking people. My grandmother, who was white as any "white" person, had never looked "white" to me. (1.1.256)

    Richard doesn’t get it. If she looks white, isn’t that enough to make Granny be white? What else does she need? Maybe she didn’t get her Certified White Person card?

    I had begun to notice that my mother became irritated when I questioned her about whites and blacks, and I could not quite understand it. (1.2.121)

    It’s true that Richard is seriously annoying, but, come on. Most parents avoid "The Talk" for as long as possible—only here "The Talk" is about race, not reproduction.

    "Granny didn’t become colored," my mother said angrily. "She was born the color she is now." Again I was being shut out of the secret, the thing, the reality I felt somewhere beneath all the words and silences.


    "Why don’t you want to talk to me?" I asked. She slapped me and I cried. Later, grudgingly, she told me that Granny came of Irish, Scotch, and French stock in which Negro blood had somewhere and somehow been infused. (1.2.142)

    Granny’s family is like a virtual "We Are the World." So if she’s Irish, Scotch, and French, what makes her black? The One Drop Rule?

    "But I can’t milk a cow, ma’am," I said.

    "Where are you from?" she asked incredulously.

    "Here in Jackson," I said.

    "You mean to stand there, nigger, and tell me that you live in Jackson and don’t know how to milk a cow?" she demanded in surprise. (1.6.45)

    Yes, lady, Richard is a black person who can’t milk a cow. He also can’t teach you jazz. Also, no, he doesn’t know that one black person you knew in high school.

    "Why don’t you laugh and talk like the other niggers?" he asked.

    "Well, sir, there’s nothing much to say or smile about," I said, smiling.

    His face was hard, baffled; I knew that I had not convinced him. He whirled from me and went to the front of the store; he came back a moment later, his face red. He tossed a few green bills at me.

    "I don’t like your looks, nigger. Now, get!" he snapped. (1.9.51)

    We guess it’s easier to believe a stereotype if you make sure that everyone around you plays into it. It’s harder to believe that black people are happy being oppressed if that one guy is always moping around. It’s also easier to believe a stereotype than to, you know, try to improve yourself.

    Had a black boy announced that he aspired to be a writer, he would have been unhesitatingly called crazy by his pals. Or had a black boy spoken of yearning to get a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, his friends--in the boy’s own interest--would have reported his odd ambition to the white boss. (1.10.23)

    Ah, good old peer pressure. When are people going to peer pressure each other into good stuff, like eating vegetables?

    Among the topics that southern white men did not like to discuss with Negroes were the following: American white women; the Ku Klux Klan; France, and how Negro soldiers fared while there; Frenchwomen; Jack Johnson; the entire northern part of the United States; the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln; U. S. Grant; General Sherman; Catholics; the Pope; Jews; the Republican party; slavery; social equality; Communism; Socialism; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; or any topic calling for positive knowledge or manly self-assertion on the part of the Negro. The most accepted topics were sex and religion. (1.12.114)

    This is the single funniest part of the whole book. Imagine this as standup comedy, and you’ll get it. The not-so-funny part is that it’s not a joke.

    I looked about to see if there were signs saying: FOR WHITE--FOR COLORED. I saw none. Black people and white people moved about, each seemingly intent upon his private mission. There was no racial fear. Indeed, each person acted as though no one existed but himself. (2.15.3)

    When Richard goes to the North, it is like he has entered a parallel universe where racism and segregation don’t exist. We’d personally like to escape to a universe where work is replaced with waterslides, but that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

    It was not until I had left the delicatessen job that I saw how grossly I had misread the motives and attitudes of Mr. Hoffman and his wife. I had not yet learned anything that would have helped me to thread my way through these perplexing racial relations. (2.15.33)

    Richard is super suspicious of everyone, especially white people, and you can’t really blame him. He sure doesn’t blame himself.

    Before I had left Chicago I had thought of a thousand arguments to present for the retention of the John Reed Clubs, but now the retention of those clubs did not seem important. I stood on the sidewalks of New York with a black skin, practically no money, and I was not absorbed with the burning questions of the left-wing literary movement in the United States, but with the problem of how to get a bath. (2.19.143)

    It’s hard to think about the more difficult questions in life when you are constantly struggling with the most basic problems. Even try to do advanced calculus when you seriously have to pee? Can’t be done.

  • Violence

    "You just stay right where you are," she said in a deadly tone. "I’m going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself."


    "Take this money, this note, and this stick," she said. "Go to the store and buy those groceries. If those boys bother you, then fight." (1.1.206)

    If anyone should understand Richard’s violent tendencies, it’s his mom. She did teach him how to fight, after all.

    Our battles were real and bloody; we threw rocks, cinders, coal, sticks, pieces of iron, and broken bottles, and while we threw them we longed for even deadlier weapons. (1.3.76)

    Like father, like son. Just like little kids playing house, these older boys have already started playing "segregation" and "racism."

    Knowing that if I did not win or make a good showing I would have to fight a new boy each day, I fought tigerishly, trying to leave a scar, seeking to draw blood as proof that I was not a coward, that I could take care of myself. (1.3.185)

    Richard literally has to fight to stay alive. He may be too shy to say a word in the classroom, but he has no problem beating people up at recess.

    "But, mama, she’ll beat me, beat me for nothing," I said. "I’m not going to let her beat me; I don’t care what happens!" (1.4.85)

    Richard is totally serious about this. There may be a lot about his life that he can’t control, but he can sure control his aunt—as long as he’s got a knife in his hand.

    I spent my time playing with the boys and found that the only games they knew were brutal ones. Baseball, marbles, boxing, running were tabooed recreations, the Devil’s work; instead they played a wildcat game called popping-the-whip, a seemingly innocent diversion whose excitement came only in spurts, but spurts that could hurl one to the edge of death itself. (1.4.101)

    Seriously, what is up with this school? For a religious place, it certainly isn’t peaceful. Also, doesn’t everyone love baseball?

    There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good. Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us. (1.5.169)

    Richard’s grandma is more like a drill sergeant, or a tank, than a sweet old granny. Get in her way and she’s takin’ you down.

    I knew that my life was revolving about a world that I had to encounter and fight when I grew up. (1.5.47)

    Imagine knowing that your life will depend on how well you can fight. Not how hard you can work, or what grades you get, or even if you got those cute shoes on sale last week—nope. Just how well you can fight. Would you even bother going to school?

    "Crush that nigger’s nuts, nigger!"

    "Hit that nigger!"

    "Aw, fight, you goddamn niggers!"

    "Sock ’im in his f--k--g piece!"

    "Make ’im bleed!" (1.12.271)

    Whew, that is a lot of cursing. This sort of stuff is bad enough with WWF matches, but Richard and Harrison are actually getting hurt. (We all know WWF is fake, right? Right?)

    "Did you notice that he was injured?"

    "Yes. His head was bandaged."

    "He got that wound from the police in a demonstration," he explained. "That’s proof of revolutionary loyalty." (2.19.56)

    Back to the schoolyard. Just like when he was a kid, Richard has to fight to prove he’s good enough to hang out with the big boys. Only, grown-up Richard doesn’t really feel like playing that game any more.

    I stood recalling how, in my boyhood, I would have fought until blood ran had anyone said anything like that to me. But I was a man now and master of my rage, able to control the surging emotions. I put on my hat and walked to the door. Keep cool, I said to myself. Don’t let this get out of hand. (2.19.376)

    Our little arsonist has grown up! It’s nice that, despite all the violence in his life, Richard has become a well-adjusted young adult.

  • Society and Class

    In shaking hands I was doing something that I was to do countless times in the years to come: acting in conformity with what others expected of me even though, by the very nature and form of my life, I did not and could not share their spirit. (1.2.3)

    Conformity—and he might get cooties.

    We spoke boastfully in bass voices; we used the word "nigger" to prove the tough fiber of our feelings […] and we strove to convince one another that our decisions stemmed from ourselves and ourselves alone. Yet we frantically concealed how dependent we were upon one another. (1.3.2)

    So much for rappers making the n-word popular in black communities. Richard and his friends pretend to be big and bad, but they’re really just scared 11-year-olds who want to fit in.

    This business of saving souls had no ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited. In essence, the tribe was asking us whether we shared its feelings; if we refused to join the church, it was equivalent to saying no, to placing ourselves in the position of moral monsters. (1.6.98)

    Anyone who has been excluded from all the popular cliques could tell you that being part of a group matters. In black southern culture, the church is the popular clique to end all popular cliques.

    Then how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything? (1.7.43)

    Tradition is great when it involves delicious holiday treats, but sometimes it’s not so awesome. For example, when the tradition is that black people are slaves.

    "You’re just a young, hot fool," he said, confident again. "Wake up, boy. Learn the world you’re living in. You’re smart and I know what you’re after. I’ve kept closer track of you than you think. I know your relatives. Now, if you play safe," he smiled and winked, "I’ll help you to go to school, to college."


    I went home, hurt but determined. I had been talking to a "bought" man and he had tried to "buy" me. I felt that I had been dealing with something unclean. (1.8.75)

    It’s a devil’s bargain. Just like Richard’s principal, society offers rewards for good behavior—rewards like popularity, or wealth, or fame. But there’s always a price.

    Yet, all about me, Negroes were stealing. More than once I had been called a "dumb nigger" by black boys who discovered that I had not availed myself of a chance to snatch some petty piece of white property that had been carelessly left within my reach.

    "How in hell you gonna git ahead?" I had been asked when I had said that one ought not steal. (1.10.58)

    Society has two things to say to oppressed people. 1) Stealing is bad. 2) You have to steal to get ahead. Gee, that’s a pickle.

    It was on reputedly disreputable Beale Street in Memphis that I had met the warmest, friendliest person I had ever known, that I discovered that all human beings were not mean and driving, were not bigots like the members of my family. (1.11.37)

    Richard needs to get out more. Seriously.

    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. The words of their souls were the syllables of popular songs. (2.15.90)

    We don’t want to know what would Richard say if he saw the people lining up to watch Twilight or buy the newest i-Thing.

    If I were a member of the class that rules, I would post men in all the neighborhoods of the nation, not to spy upon or club rebellious workers, not to break strikes or disrupt unions; but to ferret out those who no longer respond to the system in which they live. (2.17.6)

    It’s always the quiet ones. Who’s more dangerous: the guy who wants to color inside the lines with markers instead of crayons, or the guy who wants to tear up the coloring book?

    My comrades had known me, my family, my friends; they, God knows, had known my aching poverty. But they had never been able to conquer their fear of the individual way in which I acted and lived, an individuality which life had seared into my blood and bones. (2.19.403)

    Who’s afraid of the big, bad Richard? And what exactly is so scary about individuality?

  • Isolation

    I had already begun to sense that my feelings varied too far from those of the people around me for me to blab about what I felt. (1.3.306)

    From an early age, Richard knew he was a little "different." He’s also smart enough to know that crowds attack people who are too "different" with pitchforks and axes.

    Again and again I vowed that someday I would end this hunger of mine, this apartness, this eternal difference; and I did not suspect that I would never get intimately into their lives, that I was doomed to live with them but not of them, that I had my own strange and separate road, a road which in later years would make them wonder how I had come to tread it. (1.5.51)

    Walking a different path can be lonely, but it’s the only way to do something no one else has done.

    I walked home slowly, asking myself what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility. […] Finding no answer, I told myself that I was a fool to worry about it, that no matter what I did I would be wrong somehow as far as my family was concerned. (1.5.230)

    Richard is such an oddball that even his family can’t handle him. If only there were an AOL chat room for strange, isolated bookworms.

    I had learned to know these people better in five hours than I had learned to know my own family in five years.

    Later, after I had grown to understand the peasant mentality of Bess and her mother, I learned the full degree to which my life at home had cut me off, not only from white people but from Negroes as well. (1.11.110)

    When he gets out from under the thumb of his family, Richard is surprised to see that some people are just—nice. And friendly. And not out to beat him every time he opens his mouth.

    I wanted a life in which there was a constant oneness of feeling with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future.(2.15.170)

    Richard talks a lot about how he has no friends and phooey, who needs ‘em anyway. But, come on, the whole book is about trying to find connection. Your words ring a little hollow, dude.

    And I knew that my words sounded wild and foolish in my environment, where reading was almost unknown, where the highest item of value was a dime or a dollar, an apartment or a job; where, if one aspired at all, it was to be a doctor or a lawyer, a shopkeeper or a politician. […] I never criticized them or praised them, yet they felt in my neutrality a deeper rejection of them than if I had cursed them. (2.15.178)

    Yeah... Richard isn’t judging the people in his environment. He’s just saying they drool. That’s totally not judging.

    The day I begged bread from the city officials was the day that showed me I was not alone in my loneliness, society had cast millions of others with me. (2.17.3)

    You know what they say: misery loves company, and there’s nothing like seeing that millions of other people are sad to make you feel less alone.

    My life as a Negro in America had led me to feel—though my helplessness had made me try to hide it from myself—that the problem of human unity was more important than bread, more important than physical living itself; for I felt that without a common bond uniting men, without a continuous current of shared thought and feeling circulating through the social system, like blood coursing through the body, there could be no living worthy of being called human. (2.18.30)

    What is humanity, for Richard? Can you be human and not be connected to your fellow man? Does it count if we have 538 Facebook friends?

    I had lived so utterly isolated a life that the club filled for me a need that could not be imagined by the white members who were becoming disgusted with it, whose normal living had given them what I was so desperately trying to get. (2.18.86)

    Richard is like a starving man surrounded by a bunch of guys who have just had lunch. He’s never had friendship, and now he wants as much of it as he can get.

    Alone, they said, a man was weak; united with others, he was strong. Therefore, they habitually feared a man who stood alone. Communism spelt the unity of human life, and when a Communist, newly risen from his oppressed isolation and feeling strange and lonely because of it, saw another man seeking seclusion, he became afraid of him. (2.19.379)

    This was kind of obvious, Dick. It’s in the name. Commun-ism. People who believe in community. Of course they think loners are weirdos. Duh.

  • Literature and Writing

    She whispered to me the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me. (1.2.23)

    Literature creates a reality for Richard that is more real than "reality" itself. It’s like the first virtual reality game, and he doesn’t even have to buy a new console.

    The tremendous upheaval that my words had caused made me know that there lay back of them much more than I could figure out, and I resolved that in the future I would learn the meaning of why they had beat and denounced me. (1.2.94)

    This is the first time Richard figures out that words mean something, and that they can actually make things happen. Like making your grandma try to strangle you with a towel, for example.

    "Did you really write that story?" they asked me.



    "Because I wanted to."

    "Where did you get it from?"

    "I made it up."

    "You didn’t. You copied it out of a book." (1.7.85)

    Even before people could spend their time doing exciting things like looking at YouTube and breading their cats, writing was so boring no one could imagine you did it willingly.

    "Son, you ought to be more serious," she said. "You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?" (1.7.118)

    Only where Richard is from could writing a story be considered a sign that you’re not the brightest crayon in the box.

    Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. (1.13.31)

    Words are very useful for a lot of things. For example, cutting up your enemies. Here, Richard is a young Jedi: scared of his new power, but eager to learn.

    While I crammed my stomach I read Stein’s Three Lives, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, all of which revealed new realms of feeling. But the most important discoveries came when I veered from fiction proper into the field of psychology and sociology. (2.15.167)

    Richard talks about books like he’s outlining his new diet. Sure, he can still read fiction—as long as he balances it with enough fiber to keep things moving along.

    But these self-doubts did not last long; I dulled the sense of loss through reading, reading, writing and more writing. (2.15.186)

    Other people turn to drugs; Richard turns to literature. At least with books you can borrow them from the library.

    "Richard, are you ill?" my mother called.

    "No. I’m reading." (2.18.34)

    We can see how his mom got the two confused. They share a lot of the same symptoms: cold sweats, seeing things that aren’t there, staying up late at night, a lack of interest in eating. We know those symptoms, and it was years before we were cured—er, graduated.

    My writing was my way of seeing, my way of living, my way of feeling; and who could change his sight, his notion of direction, his senses? (2.19.173)

    Is Richard saying that he can experience the world, all from the seat of his writing desk? We’ll leave you with this quote: Butterfly in the sky/I can go twice as high/Take a look/It’s in a book/A Reading Rainbow. Truer words have never been sung.

    Humbly now, with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity, I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal.

    I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human. (2.10.105)

    Bridges, and echoes, and hunger: man, that’s a lot of metaphors. We get it Richard, you want to touch people with your books. No need for the fancy language.

  • Religion

    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)

    Even though preachers are normally associated with the "Heavenly Father," all Richard sees in this guy is his earthly father. He wasn’t quite so saintly, if you know what we mean.

    We did not object, for church was not where we learned of God or His ways, but where we met our school friends and continued our long, rambling talks. (1.3.71)

    For Richard, church is more about hanging out with friends than about God. Hey, even Jesus had friends.

    The elders of her church expounded a gospel clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fire, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dry bones, of the sun burning to ashes, of the moon turning to blood, of stars falling to the earth, of a wooden staff being transformed into a serpent, of voices speaking out of clouds […] dramas thronged with all the billions of human beings who had ever lived or died as God judged the quick and the dead. (1.4.1)

    These weekly sermons rival the most fantastic sci-fi novel. No wonder Richard has such a healthy imagination—and that he’s so scared of sleeping in a dead boy’s bed.

    Many of the religious symbols appealed to my sensibilities and I responded to the dramatic vision of life held by the church, feeling that to live day by day with death as one’s sole thought was to be so compassionately sensitive toward all life as to view all men as slowly dying, and the trembling sense of fate that welled up, sweet and melancholy, from the hymns blended with the sense of fate that I had already caught from life. (1.4.106)

    Even though Richard doesn’t believe in God, he sure gets a kick out of all the things related to worshipping Him. Maybe he would agree (or not) with Gandhi: "I love your Christ, but I dislike your Christianity."

    It was possible that the sweetly sonorous hymns stimulated me sexually, and it might have been that my fleshy fantasies, in turn, having as their foundation my already inflated sensibility, made me love the masochistic prayers. (1.4.107)

    It was bound to come to this, wasn’t it? What’s next, a nun fetish?

    It would have been impossible for me to have told him how I felt about religion. I had not settled in my mind whether I believed in God or not; His existence or nonexistence never worried me. (1.4.157)

    The word for this is "agnostic." Maybe God exists, maybe he doesn’t. Either way, Richard would rather be eating or writing than worrying about it.

    I could not imagine God pausing in His guidance of unimaginably vast worlds to bother with me. (1.4.157)

    God is a busy guy (thinks Richard). He’s got universes to run, floods to schedule, and football games to watch. What does he care about a little boy writing stories in the South?

    In the black Protestant church I entered a new world; prim, brown, puritanical girls who taught in the public schools; black college students who tried to conceal their plantation origin; […] snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing...I liked it and I did not like it; I longed to be among them, yet when with them I looked at them as if I were a million miles away. (1.6.68)

    Notice that none of the words that Richard uses to describe the members of the church are relate to virtues. But Richard is so lonely that even clannishness and gossip are appealing.

    There was no mysticism, no invoking of God, merely a passionate identification of all present with a will to right wrongs. It was a simple, elemental morality. Communism had found a moral code that could control the conduct of men, yet it was a code that stemmed from practical living, and not from the injunctions of the supernatural. (2.19.371)

    Communism doesn’t need religion to make people act morally. It’s got something even more powerful: peer pressure.

    With the exception of the church and its myths and legends, there was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist party. (2.19.373)

    Church never did much for Richard, but for a while Communism seems to be his religion of choice. How ironic.

  • Education

    Yet when school let out that first day I ran joyously home with a brain burdened with racy and daring knowledge, but not a single idea from books. (1.1.266)

    Richard is learning a lot of things at school all right. Too bad they’re not exactly the kind of things tested on the SAT.

    I went to school, feeling that my life depended not so much upon learning as upon getting into another world of people. (1.5.3)

    Ding ding ding! Finally, Richard gets something right. He only makes it to 9th grade, so he can’t get too far on his formal education alone. He needs to find a different way to use his talents.

    Already my personality was lopsided; my knowledge of feeling was far greater than my knowledge of fact. Though I was not aware of it, the next four years were to be the only opportunity for formal study in my life. (1.5.4)

    Richard may not have much book smarts (yet), but he does have a lot of street smarts. Which kind of smarts does Black Boy end up thinking is more important?

    I studied night and day and within two weeks I was promoted to the sixth grade. […] I told the family emphatically that I was going to study medicine, engage in research, make discoveries. Flushed with success, I had not given a second’s thought to how I would pay my way through a medical school. But since I had leaped a grade in two weeks, anything seemed possible, simple, easy.(1.5.46)

    If Doogie Howser did it, why not Richard Wright?

    Though I had never had any assignments from a college professor, I had made much harder and more prolonged attempts at self-expression than any of them. (2.16.5)

    Even though Richard only gets four years of schooling, he tries harder than anyone else to learn and keep learning. We call these kinds of people "perpetual students" or "lifelong learners." They’re the ones sitting at the front of the class raising their hand all the time and ruining the curve for everyone. Remember that if you meet them in the wild.

    "No, I know the masses of Negroes very well," I said. "But I don’t believe that a revolution is pending. Revolutions come through concrete historical processes... "

    "You’re an intellectual," he said, smiling disdainfully. (2.16.190)

    So, apparently "intellectual" means a person who uses reason instead of emotion. How’d that work out for you guys? We’re pretty sure we would have noticed in history class if there’d been a great Communist uprising in America during the Great Depression.

    "If you know too much, boy, your brains might explode," a doctor said one day. (2.17.21)

    First, we think this guy didn’t pay close enough attention during medical school. Second, white people around Richard keep telling him that education is dangerous. Dangerous for whom?

    "Intellectuals don’t fit well into the party, Wright," he said solemnly.

    "But I’m not an intellectual," I protested. "I sweep the streets for a living." I had just been assigned by the relief system to sweep the streets for thirteen dollars a week. (2.19.34)

    Hm, seems like the lady doth protest too much. But what does Richard think an intellectual is? What does his unnamed questioner think about it? It seems like they might both have different definitions for the same word.

    The heritage of free thought,—which no man could escape if he read at all,—the spirit of the Protestant ethic which one suckled, figuratively, with one’s mother’s milk, that self-generating energy that made a man feel, whether he realized it or not, that he had to work and redeem himself through his own acts, all this was forbidden, taboo. (2.19.366)

    If free thought is as natural as a baby sucking milk, why is everyone so against it?

    There had existed in Old Russia millions of poor, ignorant people who were exploited by a few, educated, arrogant noblemen, and it became natural for the Russian Communists to associate betrayal with intellectualism. But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation—as I had been—could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived. And it was these people that the Communists could not understand. (2.19.365)

    Richard is a self-educated man, or, to be fancy, an "autodidact." We get why Russian Communists might be scared of him, but what is up with the American Communists? Didn’t this country practically coin the phrase "self-made man"?

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Anything seemed possible, likely, feasible, because I wanted everything to be possible...Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning. (1.2.568)

    Richard has no agency, which is a fancy way of saying that he’s totally powerless over his world. Instead, he simply imagines magical things happening. Is magic just another form of wishing?

    My spontaneous fantasies lived in my mind because I felt completely helpless in the face of this threat that might come upon me at any time, and because there did not exist to my knowledge any possible course of action which could have saved me if I had ever been confronted with a white mob. My fantasies were a moral bulwark that enabled me to feel I was keeping my emotional integrity whole, a support that enabled my personality to limp through days lived under the threat of violence. (1.2.512 )

    Without his dreams, Richard would deflate just like a balloon. He needs them to stay afloat, even if he knows that they probably won’t come true.

    Often, when there was no food in the house, I would dream of the Government’s sending a letter […] But no letter like that ever came, and Grandpa was so sullen most of the time that I stopped dreaming of him and his hopes. (1.5.187)

    Richard isn’t just content to dream his dreams; he has to dream someone else’s dreams, too.

    "You’ll never amount to anything," he said, shaking his head and blinking his eyes in astonishment.

    "I’m not worried about that," I said. "All I want you to do is keep away from me, now and always..."

    "You’ll end on the gallows," he predicted.

    "If I do, you’ll have nothing to do with it," I said.


    "Somebody will yet break your spirit," he said.

    "It won’t be you!"

    "You’ll get yours someday!"

    "You won’t be the one to give it to me!" (1.6.42-57)

    Uncle Tom tells Richard what lots of people want to tell him: he’s no big shot, and he’s going to fail soon enough. But if Uncle Tom thinks he’s going to be the one keeping Richard down, he’s got another thing coming. Richard has way bigger fish to fry—or knife.

    I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness; I was acting on impulses that southern senators in the nation’s capital had striven to keep out of Negro life; I was beginning to dream the dreams that the state had said were wrong, that the schools had said were taboo. (1.7.123)

    Sounds like a conspiracy, doesn’t it? We wish this actually were some kind of Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster sort of stuff, but it’s the real deal. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

    Somewhere in the dead of the southern night my life had switched onto the wrong track and, without my knowing it, the locomotive of my heart was rushing down a dangerously steep slope, heading for a collision, heedless of the warning red lights that blinked all about me, the sirens and the bells and the screams that filled the air. (1.7.126)

    Why is it so dangerous for Richard to dream? Why could it end in death? Could it be because Richard has no idea how to conduct a train?

    "Wake up there, boy!" Mr. Olin said one day.

    "Sir!" I answered for the lack of a better word.

    "You act like you’ve stolen something," he said. (1.13.77)

    This scene rocks, because Mr. Olin gets it without even realizing that he’s got it. Richard did steal something: a little bit of the American Dream.

    Yet I knew—with that part of my mind that the whites had given me—that none of my dreams was possible. Then I would hate myself for allowing my mind to dwell upon the unattainable. Thus the circle would complete itself. (2.15.39)

    Now that Richard is getting older, he doesn’t want to dream about unattainable stuff anymore. Evidently wanting to be awesome is little kid stuff.

    To solve this tangle of balked emotion, I loaded the empty part of the ship of my personality with fantasies of ambition to keep it from toppling over into the sea of senselessness. Like any other American, I dreamed of going into business and making money; I dreamed of working for a firm that would allow me to advance until I reached an important position; I even dreamed of organizing secret groups of blacks to fight all whites […]" (2.15.39)

    "When I grow up I want to be a doctor, and a ballerina, and an astronaut, and a chef, and a truck driver... "

    Slowly I began to forge in the depths of my mind a mechanism that repressed all the dreams and desires that the Chicago streets, the newspapers, the movies were evoking in me. I was going through a second childhood; a new sense of the limit of the possible was being born in me. (2.15.40)

    Somehow, Richard isn’t quite as cute during this second childhood. We liked him better when he was all young and naïve—except when he was running around getting drunk at six years old. That wasn’t too cool.