Study Guide

Black Boy Society and Class

By Richard Wright

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 "n*****" 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, N****es were stealing. More than once I had been called a "dumb n*****" 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?