Study Guide

Black Boy Violence

By Richard Wright


"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 n*****’s nuts, n*****!"

"Hit that n*****!"

"Aw, fight, you goddamn n*****s!"

"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.