Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
Richard Wright, the narrator of the autobiography and the black boy who is the subject of the story. Richard begins his narrative when he is four years old, describing an incident in which he attempts to set his house on fire out of boredom and frustration with his restricted life within his family. He traces his life from that point on, describing numerous adventures and challenges that mark his journey to young adulthood. These challenges include physical ones, including the hunger that the poverty-stricken Wrights experience when Mr. Wright abandons his wife and two sons, and spiritual ones, including the search for himself within an environment that is racially charged and hostile to a young black boy growing up in America. Ultimately, Wright goes to Chicago, Illinois, where he joins the Communist Party before learning that his calling in life is to be a solitary individual, not a member of an organized group, and to be a writer whose weapons will be the words he uses.
Ella Wright, Richard’s mother, whose physical weakness makes it difficult for her to care for and even love her sons Richard and Leon. She moves her sons from place to place, temporarily housing them in an orphanage, as she tries to survive and provide for the boys, whom her husband abandoned when he left her and them for another woman.
Nathan Wright, Richard’s father, who abandons his family to poverty and a hunger that stalks Richard throughout his life. He ends his life as a sharecropper in Mississippi, working the land of a white plantation owner.
Granny Wilson, Richard’s grandmother, whose religious fanaticism and intolerance of what she sees as the frivolity of literature frustrate her grandson, who is both rebelling against religion and seeking the joys of reading and writing.
Aunt Maggie and
Uncle Hoskins, Ella Wright’s sister and her husband. These relatives provide a welcome refuge for Ella and her sons after they are abandoned by Nathan Wright and after their brief, unhappy stay with Granny Wilson. For the first time in his life, Richard experiences security and is given all the food and love that had been deprived him earlier. Aunt Maggie is a supportive relative, and Uncle Hoskins, a saloon owner, is a tolerant man, unflappable even when his noisy nephews seem to take over the house. Uncle Hoskins is murdered by whites who want his saloon, abruptly terminating the Wrights’ brief sojourn with their caring relatives.
Aunt Jody and
Uncle Clark, Richard’s other aunt and uncle. Unlike Maggie and Hoskins, Jody and Clark, with whom Richard lives for a short time, are neither understanding nor supportive of their nephew. Clark beats Richard, ostensibly for Richard’s bad language, and he and his wife cannot live up to Richard’s hope that they will be surrogate parents for him.
Ross, a member of the Communist Party in Chicago. He is tried as a traitor, and his indictment becomes a symbol of the unqualified loyalty to the party that Richard is unable to give.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1916
Richard is the protagonist of the story— the "black boy." He sees himself as a victim of his surroundings, an existentialist view of limited choice in every circumstance. The only thing he is ever sure of, that which drives him to leave the South and tell his story, is the idea that his conception of the world is unique, and that this makes him different. He is certain of this by the age of twelve when, as he says at the end of Chapter 3, he has a "notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering." In contrast to his father, a peasant who is struggling to wrest a living out of the soil, Richard is aware of words, aware of the world, and insistent that the world can be different, even if the difference is only that he does not need to mop up after white people.
The novel opens with the white, ill, face of Grandma Bolden Wilson. Her face disturbs young Richard because he cannot understand how a person with such white skin can be considered "black." Richard's most important conflict with Grandma, however, is summed up at the start of Chapter 4: "Granny was an ardent member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and I was compelled to make a pretense of worshipping her God, which was her exaction for my keep." Ardent is not a strong enough word. Grandma is consumed by her belief in religion and its promise to reward her in the hereafter for the sufferings brought about by the Jim Crow laws. Her zealotry, Richard claims, also means ruining his life. Grandma will not let him get a job that requires him to work on Saturday, their Sabbath, and thus Richard cannot buy food, clothes, and other things necessary for children his age. Grandma also prevents him from reading as he chooses or even from hearing non-Biblical stories, like Bluebeard. Indirectly, this teaches Richard about pretension and hypocrisy. A more direct result of these restrictions comes from a deal he makes with Grandma to pray every day; he writes his first short story when he is expected to be praying quietly in his room. Thereafter he begins to harbor the idea of being a writer. Grandma sets the pace of the family, as well as establishing its treatment of Richard. She tries to orchestrate his religious conversion, but finally gives up, concluding that his inability to accept her religious viewpoint, the established viewpoint, will him lead to his doom. For his questioning and intolerance of the status quo, he is punished or ignored.
Grandpa Richard Wilson is a strong male influence in Richard's life whose primary lesson is that "manliness" is impossible for black men in the Jim Crow South. Grandpa fought in the Civil War and was wounded for his country, but the army pays him neither the respect nor the disability pension he has earned. Wounded while fighting for the Union Army, he asked a white officer for assistance in filling out the paperwork necessary to receive a disability pension, and the officer misspelled his name as Richard Vinson. Unaware of the mistake because of his illiteracy, Grandpa returned home, but when he received no pension payments, he applied to the War Department. It had no trace of him. Even after the mistake is discovered, the War Department continues to demanded proof that Grandpa deserves his pension, and Grandpa spends the rest of his life trying to convince the government he is who he says he is. Grandpa, says Richard, is just like "K" in the Kafka novel, The Castle. He desperately tries to persuade the authorities of his true identity up to the day of his death, and fails. At home Richard is also taught that men are powerless: despite the fact that Grandma calls Grandpa in to administer punishment, it is she, not he, who rules the house.
As his name implies, Uncle Tom Wilson is an assimilationist who seeks to get along with racist white society. He views Richard as a fool, implying that because Richard is unwilling to assume a "proper" manner, he will end up at the mercy of a white mob or a victim of the Ku Klux Klan. Richard refuses to accept this point of view.
Richard's mother, Ellen ("Ella") Wilson Wright, tries her best to raise Richard after his father deserts the family. Unfortunately she falls ill, and Grandma must care for her and the boys. Ella's illness forces the family to separate the boys, but Richard eventually returns to Grandma's house to be near his mother. Her relationship with him is difficult since she is ill. At the end of the novel, she goes north when Richard sends for her.
Leon Wright, Richard's brother, plays a minor role in Black Boy. He is a tag-along sibling when Richard sets fire to the house in the opening scene of the book, a witness when Richard hangs a cat, and an observer when the rest of the family shuns Richard on his return to Grandma's house. At the close of the novel, Leon comes north with their mother.
Richard's father, Nathan Wright, is his lawgiver and exemplar. Nathan is the only character in the novel whom Richard shows in the present. By showing his father's future, Richard also shows his current status as a writer. At the end of Chapter One, Richard defines both his father and his conception of himself. Twenty-five years after his father deserted the family, Richard says of him: "I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city—that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing." Richard's father left the plantation hoping for a better life for his family, but having failed in the city, he deserted his family, left them destitute, and fled back to the plantation. Richard is ultimately able to accomplish what his father failed to do and leave the plantation behind.
Ella is a boarder at Grandma's house and a school teacher with a "remote and dreamy and silent" manner. Richard is attracted to her mystery, although afraid. She is always reading, and Richard is curious about her fascination with books. After increasing antagonism from Grandma, Ella is blamed for Richard's swearing and is asked to leave. This clash of characters sums up the essence of Richard's emerging consciousness— the struggle between personal expression, in narrative and storytelling, and strict adherence to religious and cultural expectations.
Griggs is Richard's friend. He repeatedly tries to convince Richard to take the "easier" route of conforming his behavior to white expectations. To Richard, Griggs represents the self-enslaving nature of so many of his contemporaries whose example he can never follow.
Harrison is a shop boy who works across the street from Richard. He and Richard are both beset by rumors that each wants to fight the other. They finally agree to fight, not because they believe the rumors, but because Harrison wants the $5 offered to him if he will fight Richard. They fight once. In this episode, Wright sums up the ease with which blacks allow themselves to be pitted against each other for the entertainment of white society.
Mr. Olin is Richard's foreman at the Memphis Optical Company. He wants to see Richard fight Harrison, and pretends to be Richard's friend by telling him that Harrison wants to fight him. Richard is suspicious of Mr. Olin, so he talks to Harrison and finds out the truth. Mr. Olin eventually gets his fight by paying for it.
Shorty, one of the black men that Richard meets working in Memphis, operates the elevator. Shorty is an intelligent man who would escape to the North if he could save enough money. Richard thinks highly of Shorty because of his awareness that racism is an environmental condition. One day Shorty says, "Just watch me get a quarter from the first white man I see," and gets it by letting the white man kick him. Richard is repulsed because Shorty knows the system too well and has allowed himself to be beaten by it.
Granny Wilson's youngest daughter, Addie, returns from her Seventh-Day Adventist religious school and immediately tries to convert Richard. First, she persuades Granny and Richard's mother that Richard should live by religious guidance if he wants to remain in the house. He is enrolled in the new Seventh-Day Adventist school, in which Addie is the only teacher. When Addie administers a beating to him in front of the class, Richard refuses to submit to the pain. When they fight again after school, Richard holds her off with a knife. Addie, like her mother, is in conflict with Richard because she wants to control his mind.
Clarke Wilson is Richard's uncle, with whom he chooses to live when his mother becomes too ill to care for her children. His choice is based solely on Clarke's proximity to Richard's mother. However, Wilson' wife, Aunt Jody, dislikes Richard because he comes from a "broken home." This, plus his fright caused by knowing that a boy died in his bed, forces Richard back to his Grandma's house. Once more, prejudice determines his choices in life.
Mrs. Moss is Richard's landlady who offers him more than shelter. She wants him to marry her daughter, Bess, but Richard does not want to marry her, even if it means inheriting the house. He finds Bess's emotional outlook too simple. In desperation, Richard threatens to leave, and they retreat and leave him alone while he continues to rent his room.
Mr. Crane represents well-meaning liberal whites who are too weak to contest the prevailing racism of society. He is a Yankee businessman who owns an optical company in Jackson, and he has the enlightened idea of hiring a black boy to whom he can teach the trade of optics. Richard shows promise because of his algebraic skill, so Crane hires him as shop boy, saying that he will gradually learn the trade. Unfortunately, Crane's white workers do not want to lose their superiority, and Richard, threatened bodily harm, leaves the job. Mr. Crane wants him to stay and promises protection in the future, but Richard refuses to give him the reason for his departure because he knows there would be repercussions outside of the shop.
Mrs. Bibbs, like most white characters in the novel, represents one facet of the oppressive society confronting Richard from birth. In this case, she articulates the white assumption that blacks are inherently suited to menial labor. When she hires Richard to do chores around her house, she is astounded to learn that he cannot milk a cow.
Richard asks Mr. Falk if he can use his library card. This does not foster an alliance between them, only a light sympathy, but Mr. Falk does give Richard his library card without betraying him. Richard can then make regular trips to the "whites only" library.
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