Prejudice and Tolerance
Race and Racism
Racism is not as much a theme in this novel as it is an environmental condition—an integral part of the setting. The novel tries to expose the ethical effect which the Jim Crow system had on its subjects, both black and white. Black Boy is a novel about individual positions within a racist mind-set. That is, the world in which Richard must live is racist, and within that world prejudice against blacks is all-pervasive. However, Richard occasionally meets with tolerant persons. Furthermore, Richard himself must be tolerant with those around him who do not have the intellect to see the world like he does. He must also endure the Jim Crow system until he has enough money to escape or else he will be killed.
Richard, having realized that his options are either to play along by being dumb or to be tolerant and escape, chooses the route of escape. However, while awaiting the chance, he spends his time trying to figure out Jim Crow in his own head at least. The novel is his retrospective exploration of the way in which he learned the values and drawbacks which constitute both prejudice and tolerance. Richard may find the coping mechanism of Shorty and Griggs repulsive but in his role as passive observer he only amounts to a chronicler of the facts of Jim Crow. To be sure, to have done more than balk at the easy manner with which a girl handles sexual harassment by a constable would have found Richard strung up like the cat or Uncle Silas. It is worth noting, therefore, that young Richard comes to understand prejudices as opinions which each of us hold no matter how incorrect they are and tolerance as that degree of openness we have to a world which does not accord with our opinions.
Richard never learns the lesson of how to be "black." Part of this is due to the confusion aroused early in Richard's consciousness by his grandmother. Her white appearance implicates that the different treatment of blacks is a treatment based on something other than color. With this hint, Richard decides that blackness is a social decision, not a real fact. For the same reason, he decides that whiteness is not a reality—just an invisible fright like a ghost or bogey. After Uncle Silas is lynched, Richard has evidence of the consequences of being seen as black, but he has not witnessed it himself. Therefore, it was not until he himself is run off a job that Richard understands that whites can be...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)