Black Boy Summary and Analysis
Part I, Chapters 1-5
Chapter One Summary:
Black Boy, the autobiographical account of Richard Wright, begins with his childhood in Natchez, Mississippi. Richard is four years old, living with his younger brother, his parents, and his grandmother who is bed-ridden. In a fit of mischief and spontaneity, Richard sets fire to some white curtains. The fire escalates, burning down half of the house. Trying to escape punishment, Richard hides underneath the house. When his father finds him, Richard is beaten almost to death and falls into a delirious sickness.
The family moves to Memphis, Tennessee where they live in a tenement. With his father working as a night porter, Richard and his brother are not allowed to make any noise during the day. One day when a stray kitten begins to make noise, his father yells to: "Kill that damn thing!" Richard, wanting to anger his father, kills the kitten by strangling it even though he realizes that his father's words were not meant to be taken literally. But Richard's mother crushes him with "the moral horror involved in taking a life." During the evening, she orders him to bury and pray for the cat. Richard, disgusted and afraid, is able to bury the cat but runs away when his mother forces him to ask for the Lord's forgiveness.
Hunger haunts Richard and his family, living in poverty and without much to eat. His father abandons the family, and Richard begins to associate his pangs of hunger with his father's image. His mother takes a job as a cook for white families. One evening, she tells Richard that he must do the grocery shopping for the household, giving him a list and some money. When he goes past the corner, a gang of boys grabs him, snatch his basket, and take the money. His mother gives him more money, which is again stolen by the same boys. When Richard returns, his mother hand him more money and a large stick, kicking him out of the house until he learns to fight back. Richard blindly beats the gang of boys using the stick as a weapon, finally bringing the groceries home.
While his mother is at work, Richard gets into mischief with other neglected black children, spying on people in the public outhouses. To keep her children out of mischief, Richard's mother sometimes brought the two boys to work. Richard wonders why the white people have food and he was left hungry.
While his mother was at work, he also frequented the local saloon, begging for money, peering under the door, and talking to drunkards. One day, a man drags him into the saloon and orders Richard to drink a whiskey. Soon, Richard is drunk, and for a few drinks and some money, provides entertainment to the bar by shouting obscenities that the men tell him to shout. Everyday, Richard returns to the saloon until he craves alcohol. Not being bale to stand it, his mother finally places him in the care of an old black woman to watch over the boys.
When schoolchildren would leave their books on the sidewalk to go and play, Richard taught himself how to read various words. One day, his mother asks him to wait for the coal deliveryman while she and his younger brother were at work. Upon learning that Richard is unable to count, the deliveryman sit him down and teaches Richard to count to 100. When his mother sees that he can count, she encourages him to read and soon, he is able to read the newspaper. He learns to ask too many questions, and this way, learns about the relationship between blacks and whites. He does not understand how the distinction is made because his grandmother was very white and "never looked white'" to him. When a white man beat the black boy in the neighborhood, Richard becomes bewildered with confusion.
Richard begins school at the Howard Institute and on his first day, is very reluctant to go. Scared and unable to speak from being so nervous, he sits and listens to the other students. At recess, he hangs around a group of older boys and learns new expletives and profanity. When he returns home for the day, he shows off his newfound vocabulary by writing the words he learned in soap on neighborhood windows. When his mother learns of his activities, she forces him to go outside and wash every single word off with water.
Richard's mother becomes very religious, and sometimes drags him to Sunday school. One Sunday evening, the preacher is invited over to their house for dinner: fried chicken. But before he may eat the chicken, Richard's mother tells him that he must finish his soup. The preacher, already finished with his soup, has finished several pieces of chicken. When Richard finally finishes what seems to be his bottomless bowl of soup, he cries: "That preacher's going to eat all the chicken!" Hunger again subsumes him when his mother denies him dinner for his bad manners.
Hunger is with Richard at all times. His mother tries to sue his father for child support, but the judge rules against her favor. When there is no longer enough money to pay the rent, Richard and his brother are put in and orphanage run by Miss Simon. Miss Simon disallows visits from their mother, claiming that she spoils them with attention. She also tries to win Richard's confidence by making him her personal helper. But Richard is unable to do the small task she asks of him, instead standing still and crying. He then runs away from the orphanage, and is brought back by some white policemen.
On his mother's next visit, Richard is given the choice of staying in the orphanage or asking his father for money. He and his mother confront his father for a second time, outside of court. His father has brought another woman with him, who thinks Richard is "cute." Richard leaves that day with the feeling of "something unclean." He describes a meeting with his father twenty-five years later, at a plantation in Mississippi. Older, Richard pities and forgives his father. He sees his father as "a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city," the same city that provides Richard with success and knowledge later in life.
Chapter One Analysis:
Black Boy is written in retrospect, from the viewpoint of grown and matured Richard Wright. The style of Wright's first-person narratives brings two important factors into the story. The first is that the reader is allowed into the insights of the author on his own childhood. Wright is able to make a very powerful commentary regarding the era in which he documents in Black Boy. Second, we must realize that although the accounts are taken as autobiographical, Wright's narrative allows him the freedom to invent rather than recording only the events and facts of his childhood. Wright does, in fact, generalize his own experiences to draw conclusions about the manner in which society functions.
From the accounts of his childhood, we can sense that Richard feels alienated from his family. He is fearful of his mother's intense beatings, careful to avoid his father, and deathly afraid of his grandmother's white image. This theme of alienation is one that continues, both in relation to Richard's family, the black community, as well as the white community. This sense of isolation comes out in rebellion, evidenced by his burning the house down and killing the kitten. Richard kills the kitten out of resentment towards his father and his unwillingness to obey authority. Richard's parents and relatives play a wavering role between subordinators who try to suppress him and authority figures that try to raise with him under strict moral rule. The theme of alienation is well developed later in the novel, when he is introduced into the "white world."
The role of violence in Black Boy is also important in the novel. At a young age, Richard is still unaware of the incredibly violence he is capable of. When he kills the cat, he does so out of anger and fails to realize the moral reprehensibility of his act until looking back in retrospect. The cat can be seen as a symbol of the repressed: innocent, unknowing, and unaware. When Richard ties a makeshift noose, he mimics the hanging of black men, an image prevalent during an era dominated by the Klu Klux Klan and Jim Crow segregation laws. Similarly, Richard is able to earn his way to walk on the street when he learns to fight the gang of boys who had previously assaulted him on his way to the grocery store. This violence is again repeated in the harsh beatings that he receives from his elders. In this way, Wright is able to portray violence as a way to oppress, a tool of the control.
In juxtaposition to the violent imagery, Wright is able to portray a kind of innocence in his childhood years. Richard possesses a mischievous spirit and is not sure of how "the world" works. Asking his mother "why did the white' man whip the black' boy," Richard is still unaware of the social relationship between blacks and whites. "To me [whites] were merely people like other people," he says. Similarly, when Richard traipses around the saloon, he has no idea of the grossness of the words he repeats for the entertainment of the adults.
Throughout chapter one, as well as the rest of the novel, Wright places a special emphasis on the theme of hunger. Growing up in poverty, Richard is always hungry, yearning for food and left with a feeling of emptiness. This image of hunger is also used by Wright to display Richard's thirst for knowledge: he is hungry to learn about the world, to devour knowledge. This hunger for knowledge reflects the growth or want of of Richard as an intellectual and artist.
Another device that that Wright employs in Black Boy is dualism, specifically between black and white. There is a constant play of words off the notion of "black and white:" Richard's white-looking grandmother, the white man who beats the black boy, the darkness of night, the white boat he dreams of, the black-and-white horses he spots. This dualism in imagery is a reflection of the dualism that Richard experiences in society, between the black community and the white community.
Chapter Two Summary:
Richard, his brother, and mother leave town to live with his aunt in Elaine Arkansas, and en route, they stop to visit Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. Granny's house is two-stories, with long hallways and white plastered walls. To support the household, Wright's grandmother boarded a black schoolteacher with whom Richard was half afraid and half infatuated with. One day, Richard asks what Ella is reading and she proceeds to tell him the fairly tale of Bluebeard from 1001 Arabian Nights. When Granny walks in on them, she stops Ella, claiming that the story is "the Devil's work." Never hearing the end of the tale, Richard is filled with a sense of emptiness and hunger.
One day, Granny watches the two boys to make sure they wash themselves properly. When Richard fools around in the bathwater, Granny orders him to bend over and begins to scrub his behind. Without thinking, Richard tells her to "kiss back there" when she is through. Still not realizing the perverseness of his comment, he does not know why he is being punished with severe beatings. Thinking that Ella has taught him "foul practices," Granny forces Ella to move out of the house.
On the train ride to Elaine, Richard realizes that at his grandmother's house he has gained a sharp and lasting impression of the relationship between whites and blacks. During his stay with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins, Richard is always surprised to see so much food on the table; Uncle Hoskins owned a saloon that catered to blacks who worked in the sawmills and experienced a great deal of economic success. Still in disbelief, Richard often steals dinner rolls from the table and hides them in his pockets and around the house. One day Uncle Hoskins takes Richard on a buggy ride. Claiming that he is going to drive the buggy into the middle of the river so that the horse can drink water, Uncle Hoskins drives the buggy into the river until the water level is very high. Frightened, Richard attempts to jump out. Back on land, Richard refuses to listen or speak to him.
Uncle Hoskins always left for work in the evenings to tend to the saloon. One morning, he fails to return. At dinnertime, the family learns that white men who coveted his successful business have shot Uncle Hoskins. Quickly, the family packs their clothes and dishes into a farmer's wagon and, without a funeral, leave for Granny's house.
At Granny's house, Richard sees a line of soldiers as well as a chain gang, mistaking the black men for elephants. After a period of time, his mother moves the family back to West Helena, tired of Granny's strict religious routine. Back in West Helena, Richard and his brother stay at home while Aunt Maggie and his mother works as cooks during the daytime. The neighborhood children often sang racist songs about the Jewish proprietor of the corner grocery store. Wright claims that the distrust and antagonism towards the Jewish was bred in his cultural heritage.
One Saturday afternoon, a young girl mentions to Richard that something is being sold in the flat next door. Curious, Richard stand on a chair and peers through the window, spying on what he does not realize is prostitution. He falls of his chair, startling the landlady's "customers." When his mother returns, the landlady requests that either his mother beat him for spying or the entire family moves out. Indignant, Richard's mother refuses to beat him and the family moves to another house on the same street.
Meanwhile, Aunt Maggie begins having secret visits at night from a man who is introduced to Richard and his brother as "Professor Matthews." The boys are forbidden to tell anybody about Prof. Matthews, who is going to be their new uncle. One night, Aunt Maggie and "uncle" move out in the middle of the night. From the bits of conversation the Richard is able to gather, he realizes that his "uncle" has killed somebody and must flee. Richard's mother warns him never to mention what he has seen and heard; otherwise "the white people would kill [him]."
With Aunt Maggie gone, the household income was reduced significantly and Richard was always hungry. Panning to sell his poodle, Betsy, for a dollar, he washes her and takes her around to the houses in a white neighborhood. On woman tells Richard she does not have a dollar, but can give him 97 cents for the dog and pay him three cents later that evening. Getting nervous and wanting his dog back, he refuses to sell Betsy for less than a dollar. A week later, Betsy is run over by a truck.
Richard spends his days engrossed in his own world of fantasy and superstition. When his mother finally obtains a higher paying job, she sends him to school. Though he is capable of reading and writing, Richard is paralyzed by fright and cannot even write his won name. One day, class is let out early. Whistles and bells pollute the air, and Richard learns the war is over. For the first time, he looks up and sees a plane, mistaking it for a bird.
Christmas comes, and Richard does not go out and play with the other children; given only one orange, he "nurses" it all day, and finally savors eating it just before going to bed.
Chapter Two Analysis:
At the start of the chapter, Wright criticizes the black community for their lack of cultural unity and tradition. This belief seems to stem from Wright's own experiences of alienation from the black community as well as his own family. Wright was always quick to point out that despite the oppressive society created by white men and the Southern tradition, blame was to be held over the black community for allowing themselves to be subordinated. He claims that black life in America was essentially bleak, and that the emotional strength of the community was simply born out of "negative confusions." In chapter two, this portrayal of flight, fear, and confusion is reflected in Richard's own constant moving. Moving from orphanage, to his grandmother's, to his Aunt Maggie's and back to West Helena. Wright also depicts the image of feeling versus fighting when "uncle" and Aunt Maggie leave town to avoid the law.
This constant need to "flee" is manifested in Richard's feelings of alienation with his schoolmates. Before attending school in West Helena, Richard was absorbed in the activities of the other neglected children who roam the street playing pranks. In school, Richard describes himself using the metaphor "as still as stone" because his feeling of isolation almost paralyzes him. Among the other black children there is no sense of friendship or unity. Instead, Richard is mistrusting of the others, hating them as well as himself.
It is this mistrust that characterizes a large portion of Richard's childhood. In chapter two, we see this evidenced in his unwillingness to trust Uncle Hoskins after he drives the buggy into the water. In chapter one, the same paralysis that occurs in school seems to occur with Miss Simon, who attempts to win over Richard's confidence. This distrust is also seen in Richard's aversion to religion. Unlike his extremely religious grandmother, Richard fails to place his faith in any kind of God. In the previous chapter, we see his annoyance with the preacher who eats all the chicken as well his reluctance to say a prayer for the dead cat. In chapter two, Richard describes his obsession with "magic possibilities:" his own made-up superstitions. These superstitions can be construed as a kind of backlash against conventional organized religion. Wright explains these superstitions as the result of believing he "had no power to make things happen outside of [himself] in the objective world." In other words, Richard's own distrust of society, family, and religion causes him to internalize everything: his emotions, thoughts, actions, and beliefs.
In this chapter, we see that Richard begins to understand more about the social relations between blacks and whites. But unlike his mother, his hatred for the white community stems much deeper than racial injustice. Part of Richard's internalization of emotion causes him to place the anger he has built toward his parents and others into his anger towards whites. He describes how upon hearing rumors about racial beatings and murders he began to imagine men against whom he was powerless, giving "meaning to confused defensive feelings that had long been sleeping." White people begin to become symbolic of he general oppressor, representing every fear and authority figure that had once intimated Richard despite the fact that he, himself, had never been abused by whites.
In chapter two, the theme of dualism is emphasized not only in his discussion of blacks versus whites, but also in Wright's use of the war as a background. World War I seems an appropriate setting for the chapter because the war in the background is a macrocosm of the emotional war inside Richard. It also seems to be an important image because of Wright's later involvement with the Communist Party and their agenda for unity.
It is ironic that Wright describes the antagonism displayed by the black community toward Jews as part of their "cultural heritage." For the same reasons that the whites persecute the blacks, the black children persecute the Jews with their tawdry songs and chants: ignorance. There was no reason for their beliefs other than the fact that it was taught to them in home and in Sunday school.
Two important symbols that are introduced at the end of the chapter are the image of the airplane and the orange Richard is given on Christmas Day. The plane, which Richard is not familiar with, can be taken as a symbol of hope. He sees it during a celebration for the end of the war, perhaps making the plane a representation of peace. To Richard, who thinks it is a bird, the idea of man flying is unbelievable. After building a world of possibility and unbelievable superstitions, it seems to bring hope to Richard that something so incredulous could happen. An orange often times symbolize luxury, but for Richard, it seems to mean the exact opposite. It is a meager supplement for his hunger and also promotes his isolation. He watches and guards over it, staying away from the other children. The orange appears to symbolize Richard's reality and the fantasy that is forbidden to him.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Richard is now older, associating with a gang of older Black Boys who share what he describes as his "learned" hostility toward white people and the "degrees of values" assigned to race. He analyzes a typical afternoon with his gang: their conversation, their attitudes, and their ideologies. According to Wright, the gang's dialogue is how "the culture of one black household was thus transmitted to another black household." With the gang, Richard also participates in fights against white boys, throwing rocks and bottles, sometimes needing medical attention afterwards.
One day, Richard and Leon find their mother in a comatose state. After calling the neighbors and a doctor, they find that she has had a stroke and that her entire left side is paralyzed. When his grandmother arrives, they move Ella to Jackson, Mississippi where all of her relatives have gathered. Meanwhile, Richard has stopped eating and sleepwalks. His relatives decide that Richard and his brother will be separated to live with different families. Leon, it has been decided, will move to Detroit with Aunt Maggie to finish his schooling. Richard, however, is given a choice of which he would like to live with. Although jealous of his brother who is moving to the North, Richard chooses to live Uncle Clark in Greenwood, the closest location to Jackson.
After moving, Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody decide to enroll Richard in school immediately. At school, Richard is accepted by his peers after standing his ground during a fight. On his way home, he finds a ring in the street. Taking out the stone and leaving the ring's prongs standing up, the ring becomes a makeshift weapon. The next day at school, no one challenges him to fight after seeing his weapon and Richard knows that he has truly been accepted.
Mr. Burton, the owner and former occupant of Uncle Clark's house stops by one evening. He tells Richard about how his own dead son had once lived in Richard's room and slept in Richard's bed. Frightened by the prospect of ghosts, Richard cannot fall asleep in his won bed, but his uncle and aunt disallow him to sleep elsewhere. He suffers from insomnia and nightmares, and his studies at school are hurt by his lack of sleep.
One evening, Richard takes the water pail to fill outside and drops it in his sleepiness. Wet and tired, he lets out a string of swear words. Aunt Jody hears his foul language and later that night, Uncle Clark whips Richard. Afterwards, Richard tells his uncle that her wishes to return to Jackson. He leaves by train the very next Saturday.
Richard does not return to school in Jackson. Instead, he stays at home and watches his mother grow increasingly sick. After being taken away for an operation in Clarksdale, Richard knows that his mother has gone out of his life. He ceases to react to her: "My feelings were frozen." Wright explains that these experiences with his mother - and all his suffering - acted as motivation for his interest in intellectual activity, the only thing that made him feel alive.
Chapter 3 Analysis:
Wright is often praised for his ability to write profound, psychologically intense novels. Here, we see one method he uses effectively portray his characters and their environments: dialogue. The chapter opens with Richard analyzing line-by-line a typical conversation between himself and the gang. This dissection of conversation is important in understanding Richard's mentality growing up because it analyzes his interaction with his peers. In reading their dialogue, we sense that the conversation skims the surface of an issue that runs deeper. The gang's words and actions revolve around their racial insecurities, confusion, and hatred without really discussing racism. This portrayal of the gang relates to Wright's own criticism of the black community for allowing themselves to be subservient to whites.
In chapter 3, the theme of isolation comes into play. Richard as a Black Boy is isolated from the world of the "white people," but this isolation is felt within his own race as well. Within he black community, he is never able to find a confidant and does not allow himself to reveal his feelings to anyone. When he enters into the gang, he seems to find comrades among his fellow gang members, but their relationship is superficial - based on their similar racial prejudices rather than friendship. The racial tension between blacks and whites is the only common factor that Richard seems to share with those he befriends, which come into play later on in his autobiographical account. In a way, these tensions consume Richard and his attitude; his seemingly violent nature belies the anger and hatred that he stores emotionally. Similarly, when Richard must make friends at the new school in Greenwood, he must fight to gain trust and respect.
His feeling of isolation is not limited to his peers. His hostility toward Uncle Clark and Aunt Maggie is one that is repeated toward his other relatives in later chapters. For Richard, Uncle Clark and Aunt Maggie provide routine and restraint that he is unused to. From the start, we see that Richard is different because of his strong will and insight. In some ways, refusing to sleep in his own bed can be interpreted as a manifestation of his unwillingness to obey authority or to conform.
One source for Richard's isolation is revealed when he claims that after his mother's operation, she becomes dead to him. Constantly sick and in pain, his mother becomes a symbol of the suffering Richard has encountered and will encounter throughout the rest of his life. By disallowing himself any emotional reaction to her pain and sickness, he creates a facade for himself. We see that Richard deals with his pain essentially by building an emotional wall around him.
Chapter 4 Summary:
Now twelve, Richard lives with his grandparents, mother, and Aunt Addie in Jackson. An ardent member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Richard's grandmother forces him into an environment surrounded by religion and prayer. Because of her religious beliefs, Granny rarely serves meat of any kind. Instead, Richard lives off of lard and gravy, again feeling hunger.
Granny believes that one sinful person in a household can bring down the entire family, and tries to persuade Richard to "confess to her God." Richard is thus enrolled in the religious school, where Aunt Addie is the only teacher. Her first experience teaching, animosity instantly springs between her and Richard. Wright describes her as "determined that every student should know... that [he] was a sinner of whom she did not approve." Richard views his fellow pupils as "willess," devoid of emotion.
One afternoon, Aunt Addie reproaches Richard for eating in school, pointing at walnut crumbs on the floor under his desk. Knowing that it was the boy in front of him who had been eating walnuts, Richard denies the accusation. In doing so, he accidentally calls her "Aunt Addie" instead of "Miss Wilson." Richard does not want to "tattle," and withstands Aunt Addie's lashings, realizing that her anger storms more from her own insecurity rather than his wrongdoing. At home, Aunt Addie tries to beat Richard again, but he fights back and grabs a kitchen knife to use for defense.
Richard continues at the religious school, but stops studying. Spending his time paying with the boys, he finds that the only games they know are "brutal ones." Aunt Addie's orders them to play "pop-the-whip," where the boys line up to form a human whip. The only time Richard sees Aunt Addie laugh is when he is "popped" off the end of the line, his head bruised and bleeding.
At home, "granny maintain[s] a hard religious regime," forcing Richard to pray and withstand all-night ritualistic prayer meetings. Wright writes that had his personality not already been shaped and formed by the conditions of his life, he may have found God. Instead, he remains unaffected. Richard is growing and he begins to feel his hormones surge. In church, the only thing he can do is lust for the elder's wife. He even finds that he is sexually stimulated by the "sweet sonorous hymn."
When a religious revival is announced, Richard feels pressure to be "brought to God." One of the neighborhood boys is sent over to "befriend" Richard. Even Granny tries to convince Richard to see God. During one evening sermon, Richard attempts to allay his grandmother's pressures by telling her that if he saw an angel like Jacob, he would believe in God. But she mishears him and thinking that Richard has actually seen an angel, proceeds to tell the entire congregation. The incident causes Granny a great embarrassment and, out of guilt, Richard promises to pray for an hour each day.
During his daily hour, Richard finds new ways of wasting time. One day, he decides to write a story about an Indian girl who commits suicide by drowning herself. After reading the story to a young woman next door, Richard experiences a strange feeling of gratification.
Chapter 4 Analysis:
Under his grandmother's religious supervision, Richard once again feels hunger, both physically and intellectually. For Richard, religion is more of a hindrance than a path to salvation. It is his grandmother's religious beliefs that not only prevent him from being adequately fed, but also stunt his intellectual growth. His education at the religious school is almost a joke and any literature other than the Bible is considered "the Devil's work" by Granny and Aunt Addie. Religion is another obstacle set down by authority to make him conform.
Interacting with his peers at the religious school, he comes to the conclusion that he does not need religion to be strong. Richard sees that the other boys are "willess." When he is beaten for eating in school, he realizes that there is no solidarity among these children, and that the students have no moral or brotherly obligation toward each other. The neighborhood boys sent to convince Richard to join in the revival disgusts Richard because of his own ignorance. Rather than open his heart toward religion, Richard is probably inclined to become more isolated and independent.
It is this sense of isolation and independence that, in the end, drives Richard toward writing. In this chapter, we still see that Richard is young and naive. He does not realize that power that words have (a power he will discover later in life). Instead, his writing brings him satisfaction only because his words confuse others. The reaction of the young lady will be echoed later in the novel when others read Richard's writing and question him.
Chapter 5 Summary:
Granny and Aunt Addie, giving up on Richard as lost, force him to do his own chores. Richard enters Jim Hill public school with only one year of unbroken study. On the first day of school, he is challenged to fight with two of the school bullies. Worried that he will not be accepted, he takes the challenge and is reprimanded by the teacher. Nevertheless, Richard excels school, and is promoted from the fifth to the sixth grade in two weeks. Most of his schoolmates work mornings, evenings, and Saturdays to earn enough money for clothes, books, and lunch. But Granny does not allow Richard to work on the Sabbath due to her Seventh Day Adventist beliefs. Unable to work, Richard goes hungry during school while all his schoolmates buy lunch. Hunger plagues Richard, making him weak.
In class, another rebellious Black Boy asks Richard why he doesn't buy lunch. Learning that Richard needs a job, the boy tells Richard about a job selling papers. The papers are published in Chicago and the boy tells Richard the job's benefit: he can make money as well as read the magazine/comic strip that comes with the paper. With Granny's approval, Richard sells the papers in the "Negro area" for a dime each. reading only the magazine supplement. One day, a family friend who regularly buys the papers asks Richard if he knows what he is selling. The man sits Richard down, showing him the racist propaganda and the Ku Klux Klan articles in the paper. Disgusted with his own ignorance, Richard throws his paper away and never sells them again.
Meanwhile, Richard excels at his studies, burning through volumes of books and outside reading. When summer came, Richard is still not allowed to work during Sabbath. One summer night, Richard tries to interject in one of Granny and Aunt Addie's religious debates. To punish him for opening his mouth, Granny reaches to slap him but Richard ducks in time to avoid her blow. Instead, Granny' momentum sends her down the porch steps, leaving her barely conscious and bed-ridden for six weeks. Aunt Addie confronts Richard, saying: "you are evil. You bring nothin' but trouble!" Addie threatens to beat Richard, and for a month, Richard carries a kitchen knife to bed with him for protection.
Towards the end of summer, Richard obtains a job as an assistant to an insurance agent named Brother Mance. He fills out forms for illiterate blacks on plantations who wish to buy insurance. On his trips to the plantations, Richard is astonished at the ignorance and naivete of the plantation families he meets. The money Richard is able to earn disappears quickly and Brother Mance dies, leaving Richard jobless once again. Richard begins the seventh grade and feels his old hunger once again.
One morning, Richard leans that his grandfather is seriously ill. Grandpa has been wounded in the Civil War and never received his disability pension, something he took with bitterness. For decades, Grandpa would write to the War Department to claim his pension, with no luck. During the days of Grandpa's sickness, the family wrote letters, drew affidavits, and held conferences in an attempt to claim his pension - to no avail. After coming home from school one day, Richard is told to go upstairs and say good-bye to Grandpa. Richard is sent to tell Uncle Tom the news. When he arrives with the news, Uncle Tom shows nothing but anger and Richard realizes that he always seems to provoke hostility in others.
Richard becomes ashamed of his shabby clothing, comparing himself to other boys who begin to wear long-pants suits. Finally desperate to work, he argues with granny until she allows him to work on the Sabbath (with the stipulation that he is going to Hell). Granny and Aunt Addie consider Richard spiritually dead, but his mother approves of his defiance.
Chapter 5 Analysis:
All his life, Richard has been programmed to react with hostility and violence. At school, he finds that he can only gain acceptance among his peers if he is able to fight the other boys. At home, he can defend himself against beatings only by showing the same brutality toward his authority figures. When Uncle Tom is angered by Richard's words, Richard realizes that he does nothing but provoke hostility in others. He has been trained emotionally to regard everyone as his opponent. His violent nature perhaps stems from the lack of compassion shown to him by those who are expected to nurture him: his mother, his relatives, his teachers, and his elders.
In this chapter, Richard experiences for the first time the decision he must make between the value of money versus the value of his moral and social beliefs. The same papers that allow him to buy lunch, to read, and to make money also promote the racist values that Richard is humbled by. Later in Richard's experiences, this tradeoff between social subservience and making money comes into play.
The son of a sharecropper, Richard's job as an assistant to Brother Mance brings him back to "his roots" on the Southern plantations. He feels no ties or kinship to the plantation workers he meets. Their naivete, stupidity, and gullibility strike him as astonishing. His feelings play into his criticisms of the black community. He points out that his race's social subservience stems from their own ignorance. There is no solidarity among blacks, proof given by their willingness to cheat each other just as Brother Mance sells life insurance to plantation workers who are likely never to see a dime of it. Similarly, he holds the plantation workers accountable for their own lack of education.
Black Boy Essays and Related Content
- Black Boy: Essays
- Black Boy: Questions
- Black Boy: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Richard Wright: Biography
- Black Boy Summary
- About Black Boy
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 11-14
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 15-17
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 18-20
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