Kay Boyle drew a great deal of attention from literary stalwarts from her earliest publications in European journals and magazines. Later reprinted in the essay, ‘‘The Somnambulists,’’ in 1929, William Carlos Williams wrote in transition that Boyle’s stories were ‘‘of a high degree of excellence.’’ He also noted that people with a ‘‘comprehensive’’ but ‘‘disturbing view of what takes place in the human understanding at moment of intense living,’’ will not succeed with the American readership.
Boyle’s uniqueness was reflected not only in her style, but also in her subject matter. In the 1920s, Boyle’s cause—aptly reflected by her avant-garde style—was the liberation of art from literary traditions. By the following decade, Boyle was turning away from the text and to the world in which it was perceived. Her best-known works of the 1930s and 1940s concern serious issues, such as racial oppression and Nazism.
The story ‘‘Black Boy,’’ first published in 1932 in the New Yorker, contains a very real social message. At the time of its creation, Boyle says, ‘‘stories were written in protest, and also in faith, and they were not unlike fervent prayers offered up for the salvation of man.’’ Through works such as ‘‘Black Boy,’’ Boyle addresses the issue of racial discrimination in the United States. Yet Boyle makes it succeed on levels that extend beyond that of social fiction.
‘‘Black Boy’’ begins with an unnamed narrator remembering an accident she had when she was about 10 or 12 years old and living with her grandfather in a seaside city. The girl likes to ride her horse along the beach while her Grandfather Puss likes to ride in the chairs along the wooden boardwalk, which are pushed by young black boys. Puss would fetch his granddaughter from the beach and then choose one of the many boys to push him in one of the chairs. He asks the boys their names but isn’t really interested in knowing them.
The girl has developed a friendship with one of the black boys. She often comes down to the beach— where the boy sleeps—early in the morning, and the two of them eat dog biscuits and talk. The boy talks about magical things—kings and camels and the Northern Lights. If he were king, the boy says, he wouldn’t stay around here.
One day, Puss comes to find his granddaughter so they can take a chair to look at an electric sign. He sees her sitting with the black boy. Once Puss and the narrator are up on the boardwalk, he says that he doesn’t think it is a good idea for her to be friends with the boy because the boy might harm her. When she asks how, Puss suggests the boy might steal her money. The girl protests, saying that all they do is sit and talk. When...
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