Division and Seperation

From the title of ‘‘Black Boy’’ to the final scene in Kay Boyle’s short story, the reader is conscious that this is a story about prejudice. But Boyle creates this tale of prejudice not by harping on the evils of racism but by building images of separation and division in every scene in her story. With her careful creation of metaphor and allusion, she subtly weaves her theme into her descriptions of nature and the mannerisms and thoughts of her characters. She sets both her characters and her readers on a collision course with that invisible dividing wall between white people and African Americans that exists in the narrator’s world. Through a closer reading of Boyle’s story, readers can appreciate not only the impact of that collision but also the artistic ability of the author in creating the setting around the conflict.

Beginning with the first sentence of ‘‘Black Boy,’’ Boyle places in the mind of the reader the concept that this is the story of divisions: ‘‘At that time, it was the forsaken part, it was the other end of the city.’’ It is to this forsaken part of the city that the narrator heads, taking the reader with her as she rises early in the morning before most of her neighbors crowd the sidewalks and the beach. The forsaken beach becomes a sanctuary for the narrator, separating her from the noise and busyness of city life. But it is only the first of many separations. The beach itself is divided. There is the hard-packed sand close to the water where the narrator can enjoy a fast ride on her horse. There is also the softer ‘‘drifts of dry sand’’ where the narrator must retreat when the tide and the wind are high. The softer sand makes the narrator slow her pace, and even when she does this, the dry sand, driven by the wind, blows into her face and stings her. The distinction between the two types of beach environment is clearly marked not only with their various characteristics but also with the narrator’s preference.

Further division of the beach is apparent when the narrator describes the wooden promenade, or boardwalk, that runs the length of the beach. It is to this promenade that most of the city people head, including the narrator’s grandfather. The grandfather has no patience with the sandy nature of the beach. This difference in character separates him from his granddaughter who loves the more natural setting. The grandfather prefers the man-made, wooden structure overhead, where, in the narrator’s words, ‘‘some other kind of life [was] in progress.’’ Here it is clear that the typical city person—women wearing high heels and the narrator’s grandfather in his ‘‘pearl fedora,’’—come out only in fair weather with their minds and heads turned toward the shops on the promenade rather than toward the ocean and the open horizon. The boardwalk separates them from nature to the point that there is very little awareness that the beach even exists.

The next division is very obvious. The white people are on one side of the transparent socioeconomic wall, wearing their hats and dresses and eyeing the most suitable drivers of the boardwalk’s wheeled chairs. The black boys, of course, are on the other side. The wall of division is so thick at this encounter between the two groups of people that the grandfather looks at the young African-American men as if they were horses: ‘‘There’s a nice skinny boy.... He looks as though he might put some action into it.’’ Boyle’s depiction of this scene is reminiscent of slave owners eyeing new arrivals at an auction, belittling the human aspects of the slaves to justify their own inflated sense of selfworth. Further examples of this attitude are seen when the grandfather addresses the young man who is pushing the chair by making up names for him.

It can also be deduced from the reading that the division between the world of his granddaughter and the young man, in the grandfather’s mind, is so wide that he has no consciousness that his granddaughter might know the young man, which she does, although she does not admit it. The fact that she does not admit it signifies that there is also a division within her. Not only does she not tell her grandfather that she prefers the world that exists under the boardwalk on the beach, she also does not convey her attraction to the young man. She is aware of the wall that separates her world from the world of the young man, but she does not attempt to plow through it, at least not in the presence of her grandfather.

Although the narrator is aware of the divisions that separate her life from that of the young African- American man, she is not totally aware of how deeply those divisions cut into her. She describes the young man in terms of a ‘‘shadow’’ and ‘‘a dark heavy flower’’; and in another passage, he becomes ‘‘black as a bat’s wing’’ with ‘‘his face dripping down like tar,’’ while his fingers are ‘‘like the blue feet of a bird.’’ Readers might question if these nonhuman features are descriptive phrases that the narrator would use in depicting someone from her white world. Or is the narrator seeing the young man as the...

(The entire section is 2115 words.)

Personalities Reflected Through Words

(Short Stories for Students)

In the early 1930s, Kay Boyle was producing short stories at an astonishing rate. Over the course of that decade she published three short...

(The entire section is 1633 words.)

Multiple Contradictions

(Short Stories for Students)

Boyle’s concern in ‘‘Black Boy’’ is with social justice and the contradictions inherent in American society. She addresses these...

(The entire section is 1367 words.)