Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Big Boy Leaves Home” is the first story in Richard Wright’s 1938 volume Uncle Tom’s Children. In his autobiography he says that this story poses a question: “What quality of will must a Negro possess to live and die in a country that denied his humanity?” His story’s sympathetic, omniscient narrator focuses on the imagined threat of black manhood to white people, the irrational violence with which white people confront their fears, and the trap into which a black man matures. From the beginning of the story, the boys know that they will be lynched if they are discovered on the white man’s property: Buck says that the no-trespassing sign means that there “ain no dogs n niggers erllowed.” The dog parallel continues as Big Boy pulls off his clothes and calls out, “Las one ins a ol dead dog!” The white man kills Big Boy’s friends just as Big Boy later kills the barking dog.

The boys’ joking about the impotence of old man Harvey, the landowner, indicates that they also instinctively know that their threat to the white man is related to white perceptions of black virility. The white woman who inadvertently happens on them does not stop to think that she is standing between them and their clothes; she is so much a product of her own social conditioning that she cannot control her own ignorant and unfounded fear. Even though her husband, Jim Harvey, stands behind the authority of his army officer uniform and holds a rifle in his hand, he is so helpless when Big Boy and Bobo confront him that he loses every pretense of rationality and reverts to fear and violence.

The only characters who take the time to think things through are Big Boy, his loving, prayerful family, and their supportive brethren. However, they all know that his situation is hopeless and that his only alternatives are flight, emasculation, or death.