The protagonist, narrator, and author of the autobiographical novel. Black Boy traces Wright's childhood growing up in the brutal and racist environment of the South where Jim Crow laws were enforced and prejudice was everywhere. As a young child, Richard had no sense of the tension between blacks and whites. He learns to be independent at a young age because of poverty; abandoned by his father, his mother is the sole supporter of the family. Richard is the victim of his own hunger, both physically and intellectually. His ability to write and yearning for an education separate him from his peers, and Richard sense an isolation from the entire black community. Maturing into an adult, Richard becomes aware of the social situation in the South and realizes that he must leave the South to achieve his goal of becoming a writer. He leaves for Chicago and becomes an active member in the Communist Party, where he learns that ignorance is not limited to race. In the end, Richard learns to rely on the power of the written word.
Ella Wright (Mother)
Richard's mother who, abandoned by Richard's father, is left to support Richard and his younger brother, Leon. Ella is a strict mother and tries her hardest to discipline Richard. But her need to change locations leaves Richard without a stable home or education. Ella suffers from strokes that leave her bed-ridden and paralyzed. She is somewhat encouraging of Richard's rebellious attitude toward his grandmother but also persuades Richard to being baptized in her own Methodist Church.
Richard's maternal grandmother and Ella Wright's mother. A strict Seventh Day Adventist, Granny is strict and religiously moralistic when she raises Richard and his brother during periods when Ells is too ill to take care of the boys herself. She has no faith in Richard's abilities, and instead disciplines him through physical punishment.
Richard's uncle; Aunt Maggie's husband. Hoskins owns a successful saloon in Elaine. He scares Richard one day by taking him on a buggy ride and threatening to drive the buggy into the middle of the Mississippi River. White men who covet his financial success murder Hoskins.
Richard's maternal aunt; Ella's younger sister. White men who were jealous of his liquor business killed her first husband Hoskins -. After his murder, Maggie fled with Richard's family to escape being killed by the same men. She later marries Professor Matthews, with whom she flees to the North after he murders a white woman. When Ella relapses in her illness, Maggie takes Leon to the North to raise him. Eventually, Aunt Maggie and Richard leave the South for Chicago at the end of Part I.
Aunt Maggie's second husband, whom she meets in West Helena. Richard refers to Prof. Matthew as "'uncle'" and distrusts him by his cold and remote appearance. Richard sees Matthew sneak in and out of the house at night to visit Maggie, and he is never allowed to speak of "uncle." Matthews and Aunt Maggie are forced to flee when "uncle" kills a white woman by setting fire to her house and beating her.
Richard's religious aunt. Addie lives with Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. It is her first year teaching at the religious school when Richard is enrolled in her class and she makes him into an example of a sinner. Addie beats Richard in school for something he is not guilty of, sparking their antagonistic relationship. Richard defends himself against Addie's beatings at home by carrying a large kitchen knife.
Richard's cousin; Ella's brother. Richard chooses to live with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood when his mother falls ill because they are the relatives that live closest to Jackson. At Uncle Clark's house, Richard refuses to sleep in his bed because he learns that a boy, now dead, used to sleep in the same bed. Uncle Clark refuses to let Richard sleep elsewhere. Eventually, Richard requests that he be sent back to Jackson to live with his mother.
Richard's aunt; Uncle Clark's wife. Jody and Clark take in Richard after Ella relapses into illness with another stroke of paralysis. Jody overhears Richard using foul language and informs Clark, who proceeds to beat him.
Richard's uncle. Uncle Tom and his family are invited to move in upstairs with Granny once money becomes tight around the household. Uncle Tom and Richard immediately clash. Uncle Tom threatens to beat Richard for disliking the tone of his voice. To defend himself, he threatens to fight Tom back while holding razorblades in each hand. From then on, Tom warns his children against interacting and conversing with Richard.
Richard's younger brother. While Richard is the scapegoat of the family, Leon seems to be the more favored child. Richard resents that his entire family treats Leon with more love and respect than they treat him. Leon is sent with Aunt Maggie to live in the North when Ells falls extremely ill. Leon and his mother eventually move with Richard to Chicago.
An insurance agent who offers Richard a job selling insurance policies to poor, illiterate plantation families.
Richard rents a room from Mrs. Moss when he moves to Memphis. He describes Mrs. Moss and her daughter, Bess, as simple and loving people. However, he feels pressure from Mrs. Moss to form a relationship with Bess because she constantly suggests that the two get married. But for the first time, Richard realizes that "all human beings were not mean and driving, were not bigots like the members of my family."
Mrs. Moss's daughter. Bess throws herself at Richard, hoping that he will grow to lover her. But Richard sees Bess as simple and uneducated; he doesn't understand how a person can be so naïve and simplistic. Bess's sole goal in life is to find a husband and settle down with a family. "Love is the important thing," she tells Richard.
Richard's acquaintance. An Irish Catholic man who does not fit into the category of "anti Negro." Mr. Falk agrees to lend Richard his library card, allowing him to explore a new world of literature. With this opportunity, he becomes influenced by writers such as H.L. Mencken.
Richard's old classmate who works for a Capitol Street jeweler. Griggs helps Richard find a job at the optical shop in Jackson. He criticizes Richard for his inability to act "properly" in the presence of white people. Griggs tells Richard that he needs to act "black" by acting invisible.
One of the more "colorful of the Negro boys on the job" who looks to Richard like he is Chinese. Shorty is proud of his race, yet in the presence of whites, he plays the role of a clown of "the most debased and degraded type." Needing a quarter one day, Shorty allows a white man to kick him in the behind for a coin.
The immediate foreman under whom Richard works at the optical shop in Detroit. Mr. Olin and Richard have a normal "southern" relationship until he begins to provoke Richard into physical violence. Olin, along with other white men at the optical trade shop, attempt to provoke Richard into killing Harrison another young black worker across the street by telling him that Harrison is going to kill him first. Mr. Olin gives Richard a knife to defend himself. Richard finds out that Olin is lying, but gives in to his requests by boxing Harrison for money.
Another black boy Richard's age who works at the rival optical house in Jackson. Mr. Olin and the other white men provoke Harrison and Richard into fighting each other. Finally, the two young men fight each other for five dollars. Afterwards, Richard feels that he has done something wrong and unclean for which he could "never properly atone."
One of Richard's classmates. Ned's brother is killed by a group of white men who disapproved of his activities with a white prostitute. Richard eventually takes a job at the same hotel that Ned's brother worked at.
Richard's white employer with whom he inquires about a job at the sawmill.
A Yankee businessman who owns an optical shop in Jackson. Griggs helps Richard find a job with Mr. Crane, who is looking to train a black boy in the optical trade. When Richard is being harassed to leave his job, Mr. Crane is understanding and is regretful that Richard has chosen to leave.
Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Pease
Two white men who work in Mr. Crane optical shop. Pease and Reynolds harass Richard into leaving his job by threatening him with physical violence.
The Jewish couple who owns a delicatessen in Chicago. Richard works for the Hoffmans as a porter and is not used to new relationship he must form with whites in the North. When he needs to take a day off, he lies to the Hoffmans instead of telling them the truth. However, the Hoffmans realize that Richard is scared to tell them the truth and pity him. Richard is surprised when he realizes that the Hoffmans are sincerely worried about him.
The Finnish cook who works in the café where Richard is a dishwasher. Richard observes Tillie spitting into the food she is cooking and is too afraid to tell the boss lady. When Tillie is fired, it reminds him of when he was fired from his job in the South.
Richard's aunt with whom he stays in Chicago with.
A black boy Richard's age who works in the medical research institute with him. He suspects that Bill is either very sleepy or drunk. Richard is surprised at Bill's simplistic and brutal mind.
Brand and Cooke
Two of the older black workers who work in the medical institute with Richard in Chicago. Brand and Cooke constantly quarrel with each other. One day during lunch, the two start a fight that disrupts the laboratory. When the animal pens are opened, the black workers must randomly place the animals back in the cages.
A Jewish friend of Richard's who encourages him to attend a meeting for the John Reed Club to help his writing.
An escaped mental patient who poses as a Central Committee Communist member from Detroit. He manages to fool the entire John Reed Club in Chicago, including Richard, into believing his false identity. Comrade Young impresses the best artists in the club with his work and earns the respect of his peers. When he accuses Comrade Swann of being a "collaborator" and a Trotskyite, nobody question him.
A young artist in the John Reed Club who holds much promise. Comrade Young accuses him of being a traitor to the party. Swann protests the charges and demands that they be dropped. Richard eventually offers an official apology to Swann when Young turns out to be an escaped mental patient.
A member of the South Side section of Communists, Ross is being charged with "inciting to riot," and is under watch. Richard decides to write a series of biographical sketches, in an attempt to humanize the goals of the Communist Party, and interviews Ross as part of his research. When the party leaders decide to crack down on "Trotskyite" traitors, they put Ross on trial and invite Richard to watch. Ross breaks down when confronted with the accusations, asking for the party's forgiveness and admitting to the charges.
A member of the Central Committee of Communists who is a representative of the International Labor Defense for the South Side. Green is suspicious of both Ross and Richard, questioning Richard about his project.
A member of the Communist International who arrives in Chicago to assume charge of the black Communist movement after the John Reed Clubs are dissolved. Nealson starts a campaign to rid the party of all "Negro Trotskyite elements." Eventually, Richard confronts Nealson about his relationship with the Party.
Black Boy Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Black Boy is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Richard starts the house on fire by accident out of boredom, a four-year-old's foolishness, and curiosity. He wanted to see what the curtains would look like if he lit burning straws beneath them.... this curiosity resulted in a blazing fire.