Richard Wright's autobiography poses the question, how can a black man experience life and freedom in a post-slavery, Jim Crow world? His own life experiences demonstrate the difficulty of this question. He must work harder than everyone else to achieve less, and the harder he works the more resistance he faces, both from the white world and the black world. His own relatives beat him for asking too many questions, and his white coworkers intimidate him for having the gall to speak to them. Wright comes out as a unique character in his time and place. He refuses to submit to the will of his superiors, but fights back or flees when appropriate. He also has a unique innocence, a sense that his life shouldn't face any greater obstacles than the next man's. His own naivete sets up many moments of disillusionment along his life's course, but they also make him stronger, and this, of course, is at the heart of the novel's themes.
The opening of the novel sets up a pattern of defiance and punishment that defines the rest of it. In defiance of his parents' orders to stay locked up in his room, he begins to throw things into the fireplace, setting the house on fire in the process. He hides under the burning house to escape a beating, but when his parents finally drag him out they beat him to within an inch of his life. The severity of the punishment doesn't quell his defiant nature, however.
Wright had a difficult childhood. His family was poor and he rarely had enough food to eat everyday, so he grew up a scrawny boy. His parents divorced while he was young and because he moved back and forth between homes so often he never had an uninterrupted year of school until he was a teenager. Even then, he never went beyond the ninth grade. His family was very strict. Nobody was allowed to ask any questions, no matter how innocuous, and anybody who did received a reminder smack. Wright still asked questions. Lots of them. And the smack that followed became so habitual that his instinct was to avoid it, which one day drove his grandmother down the porch steps, where she broke her hip. He even learned to fight back when appropriate, such as against his uncle who had no reason to raise his belt to him.
Defiance wasn't the only thing that got Wright into trouble, however. He was a naive boy who expected things to turn out better than they did. As a result, he grew disillusioned and disappointed. He came to realize that it was because he was black that society treated him differently. The first time he worked at a white lady's house, he's offered a breakfast of moldy molasses, which she found perfectly acceptable for a little black boy. He was so upset he never showed up again. His suspicion of whites grew stronger with each negative experience.
As an adult, the racism he faced took a more dangerous turn. He often felt frightened for his life. At one job, a pair of coworkers ganged up on him and threatened to kill him, forcing him to move to another city, and at another job his coworkers coerced him and another black employee to box for money. They played tricks on the two, making them suspicious that the other was trying to kill him. These cruel japes are played, it seems, because the white employees see these two black men as nothing more than playthings. All Wright wants is to make some money to support his family and be left alone to read his books. And he reads a lot.
The novel does settle into a somewhat predictable pattern. Wright enters situation after situation expecting a great experience, only to become disillusioned by the realities of racism. However, this feeds into the novel's main themes. Wright does an excellent job of blending humor, action, suspense, and philosophy. It's also inspiring that he could grow into the great writer he became despite the overwhelming obstacles he faced, and it's sad all the same that those obstacles were there to begin with. In its clarity, its depth, and its thematic content, Black Boy is a very important American novel about a man struggling to survive and thrive in the world's wealthiest nation.