Study Guide

Black Boy Themes

  • Race

    What is race? Why does everyone care about it so much? How can we learn to overcome racism? Who keeps racism going? These are the questions that Richard asks as soon as he is old enough to ask them. (For comparison, here are some of the questions we were asking ourselves at the same age: do I really have to learn algebra? How can I get a bigger allowance without having to do more chores? Will my friends laugh at me if I wear the same jeans twice in one week?) He’s an observant kid, and he can see even the North doesn’t let him escape his race. What can we do about it? Well, that’s just the answer Black Boy tries to find.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why is Granny black instead of white? Could anything make a person who looks black be considered white?
    2. How does racism affect relationships between Richard and white people in the South? What about in the North? How are the relationships different?
    3. If Richard had been born today, would he have still written Black Boy?
    4. Are "positive stereotypes" (Asian people are good at math, black people are good at sports, etc.) harmless? Consider the old stereotype that black people are always happy, which Richard gets in trouble for not upholding. Why do you think his boss needs to have that stereotype confirmed? What’s in it for him?

    Chew on This

    Wright presents race as hereditary, but not in a genetic way. It has to do with what family you’re born into rather than appearance or ethnicity.

    Both white and black people perpetuate racism in Black Boy. Black people like Harrison and Shorty do as much to keep the system going as the white people do.

  • Violence

    In Black Boy, fighting is just a part of Richard’s life. He fights at home. He fights at school. That’s just how it is, and it seems like that’s how it’s always going to be. But Richard manages to break free. When he grows up, Richard tries to leave behind his violent lifestyle—even when his new friends wants him to fight. It’s almost as though Wright thinks that a society based around race is always going to be violent—that violence is built into a system in which people are differentiated based on the color of their skin.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Does the adult Wright think that young Richard was justified in threatening his family? Does he criticize adults like Aunt Addie and Uncle Tom for their use of force?
    2. How do children begin a career of violence? Is it natural, or is it taught? If it is taught, who teaches it?
    3. Why does Richard have to fight at each new school he attends? What would happen if he didn’t fight? Why doesn’t he fight at the religious school?

    Chew on This

    In Black Boy, violence is an everyday part of life that will never go away.

    In Black Boy, pacifism is an invitation to let other people beat you up. The only way to survive is to fight back.

  • Society and Class

    Peer pressure. In Black Boy—just like middle school—it’s what makes the world go round. It can make you join a church, make you steal, even make you fight when you don’t even want to. In Black Boy, society is practically a personified enemy that steals your dreams and crushes your spirit. Richard’s autobiography is the story of his fight for the independence of his mind and soul. It’s a brutal journey—but it’s worth it in the end. Right?

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is Richard expected to do in order to get along with people? Does he ever succeed in fitting in with other people’s rules?
    2. How does Black Boy show people pressuring Richard to fit into his little piece of society? Does he ever learn the rules to acting black?
    3. Different groups try to force Richard to be part of them and play by their rules, but Richard rejects them all. How does he manage to retain his individuality? How might anyone maintain his or her identity in the face of pressure to conform?

    Chew on This

    Richard believes that it’s better to be alone than to give into society’s unreasonable demands.

    Even if he tries, Richard can never totally reject society’s rules.

  • Isolation

    In Black Boy, isolation is way more complicated than it seems. It even has stages. At first, Richard is forced into isolation. He doesn’t want to be alone, but everyone rejects him. Then, Richard accepts his isolation. Who wants to be friends with people who are so much less awesome than he is? Finally, Richard admits that all he ever wanted was to feel accepted. So here’s the question: is isolation good or bad? Well, as Richard finds out, it can be both.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is it possible to be an extraordinary person and not be isolated?
    2. A long time ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that men (and presumably also women) are social animals, and they always want to connect with other people. What might Richard say to this argument?
    3. Why does Richard have no friends? Is something wrong with him, or with other people? Is it just bum luck?

    Chew on This

    Even for Richard, being alone is difficult. No matter how much he wishes it weren’t true, he comes to realize that everyone needs friends.

    Richard is proof that loneliness and isolation are sometimes necessary in order to achieve remarkable dreams.

  • Literature and Writing

    Literature is the Swiss Army tool of life. It can be used as a weapon, or as food, or drink, or even as eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It seems like Black Boy thinks literature can do pretty much everything as well as the quote-unquote real world. No wonder Richard loves it. His real world is the worst, but he can ignore all that when he’s nose deep into some serious writing. As he figures out by the end of the book, writing might be the magic wand that can help him change the world.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why do you think Richard is so into writing, despite everyone else around him? Is Richard special?
    2. Why does everyone else have a problem with Richard’s reading? Does anyone encourage Richard’s habit?
    3. What words does Richard use when he talks about books and writing? Does he see the process as wholly positive, or are there negative aspects to it, also?
    4. How does Richard learn how to write? What difficulties does he encounter as he learns?

    Chew on This

    Words have power in Black Boy. They’re the only way for Richard to gain any control over his life.

    In Black Boy’sSouth, reading and writing are actually detrimental. Not only do they not help you get anywhere in life, they also just make everyone think you are weird.

  • Religion

    Church is like a big party. All your friends are there, the music is awesome, and everyone’s wearing their best clothes. Richard is down with all of this, right up until you ask him to actually, you know, believe anything. In Black Boy, religion’s most important aspect is that it allows Richard to mingle. He could care less about all the God and Jesus stuff. You could say that religion is just as much about being in the in-crowd as it is about spirituality.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why do you think Richard isn’t worried about whether or not God exists? Why does everyone else seem to worry so much about what he thinks?
    2. What functions does religion serve in Black Boy? Is religion the only thing that can provide these functions? What else can replace it, if anything?
    3. Compare and contrast the Communist Party and Christianity as they appear in the book. How are they different? How are they the same?

    Chew on This

    The most important part of church in Black Boy is not worshiping but socializing with other people in the community.

    For Richard, Communism serves the role that religion played in his grandmother’s life.

  • Education

    Life is a classroom, or at least that’s what Black Boy wants us to think. Even though people brand him as an "intellectual," Richard actually has very little formal training. The lessons he picks up are from the streets, at home, at his jobs, and in church. Yet, somehow, he ends up seeming even smarter than college graduates. And it doesn’t look like Richard is planning to stop learning any time soon.

    Questions About Education

    1. Why do the white people around Richard say that learning is dangerous? Is it dangerous for Richard? How or how not? Is it dangerous for them? How or how not?
    2. Wright becomes an award-winning author with only a few ears of formal schooling under his belt. What in his background seemed to lead to his success (if anything)? What does he suggest was most important to forming his writing style?
    3. Who talks most about intellectuals in Black Boy? What do they seem to mean by "intellectual"? What does Richard mean? Is Richard an intellectual by his own definition?

    Chew on This

    Formal education is not important in Black Boy. What you teach yourself matters more.

    Richard gains many different kinds of knowledge throughout the book, and all are important to be a well-educated person.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Dreams. Hopes. Prayers. Wishes. Richard has tons of these. He’s got them to spare. Even though there isn’t much hope to go around in the world of Black Boy, Richard manages to hold on to the little bit of a dream that takes him out of the South and into the North. He clutches his dreams even though everyone tells him he’s being daft. Dreams hold Richard’s life together when everything else is falling apart, and even when they’re the thing that’s ripping his life apart. Sure, his life might have been easier without such big dreams—but it certainly would have been less interesting.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How do Richard’s dreams change over the course of the novel? Does he ever achieve them?
    2. Why is dreaming dangerous for a black man in the South? Does anyone beside Richard dream? If so, what are their dreams?
    3. Why do you think Richard wants to stop dreaming when he gets older? Does he succeed?
    4. What purpose do dreams serve, if any? Is life more tolerable with or without dreams?

    Chew on This

    Wright suggests that dreams are dangerous. Over and over, they lead Richard to heartbreak.

    In Black Boy, dreams are the only thing that Richard possesses.