Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

Prejudice and Tolerance
Race and Racism

Racism is not as much a theme in this novel as it is an environmental condition—an integral part of the setting. The novel tries to expose the ethical effect which the Jim Crow system had on its subjects, both black and white. Black Boy is a novel about individual positions within a racist mind-set. That is, the world in which Richard must live is racist, and within that world prejudice against blacks is all-pervasive. However, Richard occasionally meets with tolerant persons. Furthermore, Richard himself must be tolerant with those around him who do not have the intellect to see the world like he does. He must also endure the Jim Crow system until he has enough money to escape or else he will be killed.

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Richard, having realized that his options are either to play along by being dumb or to be tolerant and escape, chooses the route of escape. However, while awaiting the chance, he spends his time trying to figure out Jim Crow in his own head at least. The novel is his retrospective exploration of the way in which he learned the values and drawbacks which constitute both prejudice and tolerance. Richard may find the coping mechanism of Shorty and Griggs repulsive but in his role as passive observer he only amounts to a chronicler of the facts of Jim Crow. To be sure, to have done more than balk at the easy manner with which a girl handles sexual harassment by a constable would have found Richard strung up like the cat or Uncle Silas. It is worth noting, therefore, that young Richard comes to understand prejudices as opinions which each of us hold no matter how incorrect they are and tolerance as that degree of openness we have to a world which does not accord with our opinions.

Richard never learns the lesson of how to be "black." Part of this is due to the confusion aroused early in Richard's consciousness by his grandmother. Her white appearance implicates that the different treatment of blacks is a treatment based on something other than color. With this hint, Richard decides that blackness is a social decision, not a real fact. For the same reason, he decides that whiteness is not a reality—just an invisible fright like a ghost or bogey. After Uncle Silas is lynched, Richard has evidence of the consequences of being seen as black, but he has not witnessed it himself. Therefore, it was not until he himself is run off a job that Richard understands that whites can be oppressors.

Even after the incident with Pease and Reynolds, Richard fails to understand racism. He doesn't begin to gain an understanding of prejudice and tolerance until he begins to play the system by borrowing Mr. Falk's library card. To use it, he writes the note in which he calls himself a nigger. The librarian questions him but he claims to be illiterate. Having fooled her, he checks out H. L. Mencken who viewed the South as "hell" on earth. The title of Mencken's work was Prejudices and this causes Richard to pause and wonder if he hadn't made a mistake in reading Mencken. Certainly, Richard thought to himself "a man who had prejudices must be wrong." However, he discovers that prejudice is a word for a category of thought, rather than simply another word for racism. That is, racism is but one of many prejudices.

For Richard the mind-blocks of prejudice and tolerance are also applicable to religion. This discovery brings him a great deal of grief with family members who are prejudiced towards a certain way of understanding and refuse to budge. An example comes as soon as the start of the fourth chapter where Richard listens to a fire and brimstone sermon which Granny, for one, believes. However, when Richard leaves the church and feels "the throbbing of life" then the sermon inside the church is placed in perspective—it is but one of many ways of seeing the world but a way of seeing best left inside the church. As for the Jim Crow system, Richard would like to leave it in the South.

Meaning of Life
Individualism

For Richard, a life's meaning is in the independence of the individual. That means that Richard sees life as a quest for truth. He stubbornly seeks answers where none—or no satisfactory ones—are given. Richard wants answers which will stand up to argument. Time and again, Richard finds himself at odds with the world: people beat him without justification; he has to be servile to whites; his love of words and stories, which lead him to dream of writing, brings him ridicule. Then there is religion which reveals to him how people give themselves up to groups driven by dogma— they give up, as in the case of Granny or Aunt Addie, their human rights in return for a heavenly inheritance.

Instead of certainty brought about by these beliefs, Richard finds he has something else by the end of the third chapter: "I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, 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." Richard goes on in the next paragraph to explain that this made him a good listener to any who would talk to him and it also made him the keen observer he needed to be in order to become the famous writer he would be. Armed with observations and experience, he relates the reality he has found in the form of words, and thus his identity is entwined with his search for the reason that people behave the way they do, especially why they behave so inhumanely. His conclusions are his novels.

Themes

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

Racism is not so much a theme of this novel as it is an environmental condition—- an integral part of the setting. The novel tries to expose the ethical effect that the Jim Crow system had on its subjects—both black and white. Black Boy is a novel about individual positions within a racist mind-set. That is, the world in which Richard must live is racist, and within that world prejudice against blacks is all-pervasive, although Richard occasionally meets tolerant people. Furthermore, Richard himself must be tolerant of those around him who do not have the intellect to see the world as he does. It is also important that he endure the Jim Crow system until he has enough money to escape, otherwise he will be killed.

Richard, having realized that his options are either to play dumb and play along or to escape, chooses the route of escape. While awaiting the chance, he tries to figure out Jim Crow, at least in his own head. The novel is his retrospective exploration of the way he learns the values and drawbacks that constitute both prejudice and tolerance. Richard may find the servile coping techniques of Shorty and Griggs repulsive, but in his role as passive observer he can only chronicle the facts of Jim Crow. To be sure, if he had done more than balk at the easy manner with which a girl handles sexual harassment by a constable, he would have been lynched like Uncle Silas. It is worth noting, therefore, that young Richard comes to understand prejudices as opinions that each of us holds, no matter how incorrect, and tolerance as that degree of openness we have to a world that does not agree with our opinions.

Richard never learns the lesson of how to be "black." Part of this is because of the confusion his grandmother arouses early in Richard's consciousness. Her white appearance implies that blacks are treated differently based on something other than their color. This observation convinces Richard that blackness is a social decision, not a real fact. For the same reason, he decides that whiteness is not a reality—just an invisible fright, like a ghost or bogey. After Uncle Silas is lynched, Richard has evidence of the consequences of being seen as black, but he has not experienced it himself. Therefore, it is not until he himself is scared away from a job that he understands oppression by whites.

Richard does not begin to gain an understanding of prejudice and tolerance until he begins to play the system by borrowing Mr. Falk's library card. To use it, he writes a note calling himself a nigger. The librarian questions him, but he claims to be illiterate. Having fooled her, he checks out a book by H. L. Mencken, who viewed the South as "hell on earth." The title of the book is Prejudices, and this causes Richard to wonder if he has made a mistake in choosing Mencken. Certainly, Richard thinks "a man who had prejudices must be wrong," but, he discovers that prejudice is a category of thought, rather than simply another word for racism, that racism is but one of many prejudices.

Richard understands that the mind-blocks of prejudice and tolerance can be applied to religion. This discovery brings him to grief with family members who are prejudiced toward one way of understanding and refuse to accept the validity of other points of view. An example of this is at the beginning of the fourth chapter in which Richard listens to a fire and brimstone sermon that makes life seem wrong. When Richard leaves the church, he feels "the throbbing of life." This leads him to believe that the sermon is just one of many ways of seeing the world, a way of seeing best left inside the church. As for the Jim Crow system, Richard would like to leave it in the South.

For Richard, life's meaning is in the independence of the individual. He sees life as a quest for truth, and he stubbornly seeks answers where none—or none that are satisfactory— are given. Richard wants answers that will stand up to argument. Time and again, he finds himself at odds with the world: he is beaten without justification; he has to be servile to whites; his love of words and stories, which leads him to dream of writing, brings him ridicule. Then there is his experience of religion that reveals to him how people amalgamate into groups driven by dogma, and, like Granny and Aunt Addie, they give up their human rights in return for a heavenly inheritance.

Instead of certainty brought about by these beliefs, Richard finds he has acquired something else by the end of the third chapter: "I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, 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."

Richard explains in the next paragraph that this made him a good listener to any who would talk to him, and the keen observer he needs to be to become the famous writer he is. Armed with observations and experience, he relates the reality he has found in the form of words, and thus is his identity entwined with his search for the reason that people behave the way they do, especially their inhumanity. His conclusions are his novels.

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