Study Guide

Black Boy Religion

By Richard Wright


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.