Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Analysis

Richard Wright

Form and Content

Richard Wright, a prominent black American writer, tells his story of growing up in the Jim Crow South during the early decades of the twentieth century. Written in the form of a novel, Black Boy describes the ordeal of being black in a world dominated by Southern whites; it also portrays the emotional turmoil of a child struggling for personal identity among domineering adults. Wright’s struggle to become a self-reliant individual and writer was a battle fought on two fronts: against the cultural barrenness of his own race, and against the tyranny of Southern whites.

Black Boy narrates the events of Richard Wright’s formative years chronologically. Beginning with his accidentally setting his house on fire at age four, this autobiography first tells how young Richard acquired an education from the streets, drinking at the age of six and fighting with others for autonomy. Expectations to conform, however, oppressed Richard throughout his life. Family members exacted slavish obedience to their arbitrary demands. The church attempted to coerce him into religious conviction. And whites, whenever he encountered them, demanded that he know, and keep, his “place.”

Richard first attempted to control his world by striking out against it, but fighting and confrontation proved to be ineffectual. “Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world,” he noted, “I made things happen within.” Reading and writing began to evoke within him a deep emotional response, giving shape and meaning to an otherwise meaningless life.

Events described in Black Boy capture Richard’s early impression of life’s meaninglessness. The incomprehensibility of a distant war, the terrifying lynching of a friend, the exploitation of women, chain gangs, and the inexplicability of his mother’s suffering, all served to confirm his sense of living in an unpredictable world. By the age of twelve, he recalled, he had developed “a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.”

Richard’s quest to discover how to “live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything” uncovered no positive role models. Instead, he found himself surrounded by countless examples of how he should not live: an emotionally exploitative grandmother obsessed by her religion, a father who had abandoned his responsibility, uncles and aunts who beat him and behaved childishly, girls who made love indiscriminately, classmates who accepted abuse to get ahead, workers who stole without conscience, and white employers who preferred that he conform to their own demeaning stereotypes. The cumulative effect of such an environment filled Richard with despair and a keen awareness of his separateness. In turn, Richard was rejected by those people for his persistent individualism and determination to live with integrity.

From childhood (on the opening page he is commanded to “hush up”), Richard was surrounded by people who were determined to control him and to keep him quiet. Disciplined for an ignorant use of profanity, harassed by the school principal for wanting to give his own speech, and ridiculed for writing a story, Richard grew up silent and reserved, unable to act out the roles his society thought he should meekly play. He found himself forced from several jobs and eventually forced to steal. He witnessed constant oppression and lamented the apparent passivity of Southern blacks.

Richard at last found affirmation through his writing. Having completed his first story, he realized, “I had made something, no matter how bad it was; and it was mine.” Later he recalled that the only encouragement he ever received as a boy was from the editor who published that first story.

Richard came to a turning point with the recognition that he would never alter his relationship with his environment. Determined, then, to change his environment, he left his home, convinced that he was beginning to run toward, rather than away from, some goals. In 1925, at the age of seventeen, Richard moved to Memphis, destined eventually for Chicago. His rediscovery of books in Memphis at last awakened in him a hope for life’s possibilities. Words, he discovered, could be used as weapons to effect change.

Black Boy, subtitled A Record of Childhood and Youth, reads like a novel. It could be the story of any precocious black boy growing up in the South, for Wright makes no reference to his later success as a writer. He simply presents the experience of his growing up, uncluttered by the sorts of historical facts and data one might expect from an autobiography. The chapters remain untitled and conclude with Wright’s decision to head north toward Chicago.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Presented as a chronological narrative of fourteen chapters, Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, already contains in its opening chapter the major theme of his work as a whole: the trauma of alienation and the need for personal emancipation. As a four-year-old, Wright succeeded in setting fire to the white curtains in the house of his forbidding grandmother, who appeared to him to be white. Wright’s mischievous rebel child charts out his defiance of the order of silence and submission imposed on him by family and culture. Although he is subsequently punished for his incendiary efforts, he continues to act as an “ethical criminal,” a phrase from one of his later works.

The narrator usually finds a way to justify his actions as an expression of his need for authenticity and freedom. He defies the authority of his schoolteacher, Aunt Addie, by refusing to inform on a schoolmate, thus taking the punishment himself. He also learns to defend himself against the personal attacks and physical assaults of his uncle, Tom Wilson. He turns down his principal’s offer to read a prepared text and instead chooses to compose and deliver his own valedictory graduation speech. Yet Wright also learns that, in the segregated South, the privileged action of open defiance can be practiced only against members of his own family and race.

It is in his confrontations with his religious fundamentalist grandmother that Wright first learns to substitute the art of subterfuge for his instinctive impulses toward open, childish defiance and rebellion. Because his grandmother not only looks white but also, like real white people, possesses the resources to impose obedience, Wright concludes that she must be deceived as if she were white. Because his addiction to the reading and ultimately the writing of fictional works cannot be admitted openly in a household in which every work of the imagination (except for the Bible) is considered to be a “work of the devil,” Wright earns the privilege of privacy in his room by pretending to practice religious study and prayer.

Later, he applied the same art of deception by displaying tacit submission to white authority, agreeing to fill his predetermined role in segregated society. By pretending to be illiterate and obtuse, he succeeded in hiding his true identity, his forbidden aspirations and tastes. In the end, through deception, he gained access to many volumes of forbidden literature from the local library and obtained the blessing of his white bosses for his departure for the North.

Historical Context

World War II
World War II was coming to an end when Black Boy was published in 1945. In fact, as the novel topped the...

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Literary Style

Taking liberty with his own life's story, Richard Wright created a masterpiece in the story of Black Boy, a...

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Literary Techniques

Taking liberty with his own life's story, Wright created a masterpiece in Black Boy, a first person narrative about a boy growing up...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

Wright's Black Boy is a novel about individual positions within a racist mind-set.

1. Read a novel by Ann Petry or another...

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Social Concerns

When Richard Wright wrote his masterful autobiographical novel Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, he created a new genre of...

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Compare and Contrast

1940s: Race relations were tense, at best, with Jim Crowism sanctioned in several states of the union as well as being practiced by...

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Topics for Further Study

Read a novel by Ann Petty or any other member of the "Wright School" (Chester Himes, Willard Savoy, Philip B. Kaye etc.) and compare with...

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Literary Precedents

Wright's works have been associated with those of Chicago Realists Nelson Algren (1909-1981) and James T. Farrell (1904-1979) who wrote...

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Related Titles

Wright's first success was Native Son (1940). It is the tragic tale of Bigger Thomas and explores many of the same themes as Black...

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An audio recording of Black Boy by Brock Peters was issued in 1989 by Caedmon/ New York.

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Media Adaptations

A recording of Black Boy was made by Brock Peters. It was made available in 1989 by Caedmon/New York.

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What Do I Read Next?

Wright's first success was Native Son (1940). It is the tragic tale of Bigger Thomas and explores many of the same themes as Black...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974. Essays on slave narratives and other influences upon black autobiography as well as essays on specific writers including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglass.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. Rev. ed. New York: William Morrow, 1973. A significant, and probably the definitive, biography, with much useful information about Wright’s literary works, including Black Boy.

Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A useful overview of the author and his works.

Gibson, Donald B. “Richard Wright’s Black Boy and the Trauma of Autobiographical Rebirth,” in Callaloo. IX (Summer, 1986), pp. 492-498.

Howland, Jacob. “Black Boy: A Story of Soul-Making and a Quest for the Real,” in Phylon. XLVII (June, 1986), pp. 117-127.

Mack, Richard, and Frank E. Moorer. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. A collection of essays examining the writer and his works, including a chronology of important dates in Wright’s life.

Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A general study, including a brief discussion of Black Boy as a film documentary.

Porter, Horace A. “The Horror and the Glory: Richard Wright’s Portrait of the Artist in Black Boy and American Hunger,” in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1984. Edited by Frank E. Moorer.

Stepto, Robert T. Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Thaddeus, Janice. “The Metamorphosis of Richard Wright’s Black Boy,” in American Literature. LVII (May, 1985), pp. 199-214.

Wright, Richard. Conversations with Richard Wright. Edited by Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Robert A Bone, The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp 141-52.


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