Study Guide

Black Boy Race

By Richard Wright

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 N**** 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, n*****, 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 n*****s?" 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, n*****. 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 N****es were the following: American white women; the Ku Klux Klan; France, and how N**** 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 N****. 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.