Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth by Richard Wright

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How did Jim Crow laws affect Richard?

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Mary Sutton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Wright depicts how black people, particularly black men, learn to debase themselves in order to survive. For example, the elevator operator, Shorty, is willing to play to racist stereotypes about black people to get extra tips. Wright criticizes Shorty but neglects to realize that this is a game that black people have played since the antebellum years as a means of gaining some benefits within an oppressive system. Those who asserted their power in the segregated South, such as Uncle Hoskins, are murdered due to white envy and resentment of a successful black man. Wright describes how Jim Crow made it impossible for black people (it's important to note that Wright maintained a focus on the plight of black men throughout his writing career) to exist in the South without placing themselves in either physical or psychological danger.

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As with all African Americans at the time, Richard is negatively impacted by the Jim Crow laws and the deep racial prejudice they represent. He's effectively a second-class citizen in white Southern society, and the Jim Crow laws are there to remind him of that uncomfortable fact at every single turn.

What's particularly notable in Richard's case is the extraordinary violence that mars his life, and which is either directly or indirectly the product of Jim Crow. Legalized segregation doesn't just keep the races apart; it keeps them in a state of mutual hatred and ignorance. All too often, the only interaction that occurs between the races is through acts of physical violence. Richard's mother gives him a thick stick with which to defend himself against the white boys in the neighborhood, always looking to take any chance they can get to beat him up.

Due to his experiences of Jim Crow, Richard internalizes violence, seeing it as the only way he can gain any kind of control over his life. The injustices of the Jim Crow laws provide him with what he thinks is a justification for the use of violence. When he and his friends throw rocks and other small objects, Richard imagines that he's using much more lethal weapons. He starts to engage in acts of violence that are completely mindless and have nothing whatsoever to do with self-defense. These include acts of animal cruelty and arson. The message is clear: the Jim Crow laws don't simply oppress African Americans; they corrupt their very souls.

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merehughes eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Throughout the entire novel, the young boy is confronted by the harsh realities of a black boy growing up in the south. Jim Crow laws affected him in several ways.

Firstly, he sees the men and women in his family and community being forced to humiliate themselves in front of whites as a result of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws. He also learns that this behavior is not something he or anyone can easily escape. He becomes aware of the patterns that are set up for every black boy in the south as a result of Jim Crow Laws. As he grows up and realizes he is different and his inability to be subservient causes him to defy the traditional ways of behavior that the black community was forced to adopt as a result of living with Jim Crow laws.

Finally, his 'fate' is sealed as it becomes clear that in order for him to live and become a writer, he must leave the south and move north to Chicago where, while racism also existed there, it was not as extreme as in the south. He is also motivated by the idea that if he can become successful in the north then he has somehow gotten revenge on the system in the south of discrimination which was set up to destroy him and keep him in his place.

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