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Defiance And Quest For Identity In The Book Black Boy

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His Black identity comes to the fore when he goes on to say that this story ‘gave form and meaning to confuse defensive feelings that had long been shaping in me’. Hostility towards the whites develops further in Richard. As he writes, “Tension would set in at the mere mention of whites and a vast complex of emotions involving the whole of my personality, would be aroused” ( BB 84).

However, Richard confesses that he has never been abused by whites in his life. He goes on to say, “….but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings” (BB 84).

Richard asks three vital questions and gives his own comments on them, “Man, what makes white folks so mean?” Returning to grapple with the old problem.

“Whenever I see one I spit,” Emotional rejection of whites

“Man, ain’t they ugly?” Increased emotional rejection. (BB 91)

The following analysis highlights the rebellious nature of Richard Wright. Here, the researcher focuses on the responses of Wright rather than on the humiliating incidents.

Richard’s fighting instinct is revealed in the Aunt Addie incident. He fights as he has never fought in his life for being punished for an offence he is not guilt of. He is shocked to read a Ku Klux Khan doctrine in a newspaper. The doctrine advocates lynching as a solution to the problem of the Black. He is piqued when he is asked by a white lady if he steals. He gives her an acidic reply.

“Lady, if I was a thief, I’ll never tell anybody” (BB 91).When he is taunted about his ignorance of how to milk a cow, he writes, “I said nothing, but I was quickly learning the reality of –a Negro’s reality of the white world” (BB 163). But he is not so reticent with his uncle. He erupts thus to him. “You are not an example to me; you could never be”, I spat at him. “You‘re a warning. Your life isn’t so hot that you can tell me what to do” (BB 176).

Richard Wright meets a white boss in the brickyard who says, “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger”. But Richard adamantly argues with him that it has hurt him, when Bob’s brother is killed by the whites for meddling with a white prostitute, he comments thus, “The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness” (BB 190).

While working as a porter in clothing stores selling cheap goods to Blacks on credit, he sees a Black woman beaten up for not paying her bills. These experiences breed in Richard an alertness when he is dealing with white people. As he says, “I was learning rapidly how to watch white people, to observe their every move, every fleeting expression, how to interpret what was said and what was left unsaid” (BB 200).

Richard undergoes a strange experience when he goes to a white residential area to make deliveries; the white policemen stop him and search his pockets and package. They ask him to tell his boss not to send him out in white neighbourhood at that time of night. Once when his boss’s son asks him why he doesn’t laugh and talk like the other niggers, he replies, “Well, sir, there’s nothing much to say or smile about” (BB 201).

From Griggs, one of his old classmates, Richard learns a lot about the Black problem. Griggs reminds him again and again that he is black. He is going to teach him how to get out of white people’s way. He makes him understand that the white people want him out of their way. He must act around white people as if he did not know that they are white. When he is in front of white people, he must think before he acts and think before he speaks, this way of doing things is all right among their own people but not for white people.

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The conventional attitude of the blacks towards the whites surprises Richard Wright. He marvels at how smoothly the black boys acted out the roles that the white race had mapped out for them. Most of them are not conscious of living a special, separate, stunted way of life. There had been development in them a delicate, sensitive controlling mechanism that shut off their minds and emotions from all that the white race has called taboo. The white night watchman slaps at the backs of the Black girls who do not mind it. As one of the girls says, “It don’t matter. They do that all the time” (BB 218). But Richard resents the dirty behaviour of the white. When the watchman says that he seems not to like it, he is unable to move or speak. His immobility appears to be a challenge to him. He can never make subservience an automatic part of his behavior. As he says,

Misreading the reactions of whites around me made me say and do the wrong things. In many dealing with whites I was conscious of the entirety of my relations with them, and they were conscious only of what was happening at a given moment. I had to keep remembering what others took for granted, I had to think out what others felt. (BB 215)

When he fails to take off his hat while meeting a white man, he is asked to take off his hat. He does not like shorty, one of the most colourful of the Black boys getting kicked up in the rump by the whites and receiving money for it. When the white men try to goad him into a fight with Harrison, a Black boy working in a rival optical company, he feels that the blacks are like dogs or cocks to the white people.

Leaving the south for the north appears to be a remedy for all the ills that Richard has experienced. He decides to fight the southern white by organizing with other Blacks. As he writes, “I was leaving the south to fling myself into the unknown, to meet other situations that would perhaps elicit from me other responses” (BB 284).

He leaves for north with ever watchful eyes bearing scars, visible and invisible. He has a hazy notion that life can be lived there with dignity without the necessity of facing others with neither fear nor shame. In order to get ahead in the white world, Wright decided to take the civil service exam in order to obtain work at the local post office, an exam he had brooded over for many months due to his deteriorating financial situation. While awaiting full-time position at the local post office, Wright sought federal financial relief and was placed in a distinguished research hospital as part of the assistance program. Like all other black employees, Wright was assigned mindless work and confined to the basement “with three other Negroes with whom I worked. They had no curiosity about white folk’s things” (BB 358). When he asked them questions, all would become angry and wanted to know why he was so interested in such foolishness; why did he have to be so uppity and want to learn about things he could never understand. Similarly, he would draw harsh reactions fromwhite doctors who would say things like “if you know too much boy, your brains might explode” (BB 359). When he inquired about the experiments done on dogs, Wright remembered that a “young Jewish doctor would simply ignore me with; ‘Come on. Bring the next dog. I haven’t got all day” (BB 359).

One more incident at the hospital would launch Wright into a great sense of self-pride. During a scuffle over who was more “intelligent”, two of his fellow employees had gone to blows in the room that held all of the animals under scientific study. In the process, all of the cages had fallen, specimen records became mixed up, and animals ran everywhere. In a flash Wright had wisely broken up the fight and supervised the restoration of the room, but great doom struck them. Though the room was in order, all of the information was misplaced, and months of crucial research had been ruined, all grounds for a dismissal followed by a stereotypical Southern lynching. But Wright had done well and things eventually went unnoticed. In a farewell to that episode, Wright provides a subversive reminder of the brutal realities found in 1930s America:

I brooded of course, upon whether I should have gone to the director’s office and told him what had happened, but each time I thought of it I remembered that the director had been the man who had ordered the boy to stand over me while I was working and time my movements with a stop watch. He did not regard me as a human-being. I did not share his world… The hospital kept us four Negroes, as though we were close kin to the animals we tended, huddled together down in a vast psychological distance from the significant processes of the rest of the hospital-just as America had kept us locked in the dark underworld of American life for three hundred years-and we had made our own code of ethics, values, and loyalty. (BB 370)

During this period, Wright became involved with the John Reed Club, a minor faction of the Communist Party, and his views on racial defiance and race relations changed drastically. He had absorbed an inexhaustible amount of revolutionary literature and was now able to mix with whites and blacks freely while discussing the varying perspectives on finding truth in the world. It had taken quite some time but he had finally found a group of men representing many cultures, men who had struggled and experienced much of the same social and economic oppression that he had. During his initiation Wright was assigned the task of writing for Party journals and newspapers and had done quite well at it, but for some reason he could not rid himself of the mistrust he felt for some in his group. Several of the whites felt that he was an attribute to the group but he was quite shocked to hear that “I, who had only been to grammar school, was classified as an intellectual” (BB 388). Other whites were clearly agitated by such arrogance but never made it an issue. Ironically, it was the black members of the Party whom he disliked, oppressed men and women, poor and uneducated, who let it be known that uppity, defiant blacks like Wright were not welcome. Wright’s most disturbing moments in the party, he recollects, were when his own people turned against him:

I learned, to my dismay, that the Black Communists in my unit had commented upon my shined shoes, my clean shirt, and tie I had worn. Above all, my manner of speech had seemed an alien thing to them. ‘He talks like a book,’ one of the Negro comrades had said. And that was enough to condemn me forever as bourgeois. (BB 389)

Like so many times before, Wright’s outspoken nature had offended other blacks, but he understood their reasoning clearly. Much like his own childhood, they too had experienced racism and oppression and because of it “just did not know anything and did not want to learn anything. They felt that all questions had been answered, and anyone who asked new ones or tried to answer old ones was dangerous” (BB 390). Dangerous he was, but Wright was a non-conformist, a free thinker who had always possessed the intellect to speak freely, and for a while he did so, but not without penalty. After rising to the ranks in the Party many begrudged Wright’s intellectualism and failure to abide by Party practices. Those who disliked him associated his intelligence with betrayal, an enormous violation of their principles. Wright grew numb with despair, but he would not succumb to any measure of the Party’s ideological control. As an independent thinker he could no longer associate with Communist ideals and had ultimately come to conclude that all men, both black and white, would meet the same fate if mutual grounds were not shared.

In the final pages, Wright reflects back on his life and his choices, both good and evil. He had the desire to exist freely without regard to skin color, so he moved North to find his inner-self. Without hesitation he asked himself what he had achieved by being defiant. What did he get out of the city? And what did he get out of the South? These were questions that would continue to create a void in Wright’s self for many years, but his last words in Black Boy provide insight into the great mystery, a prophecy that would provide strength and guidance for future endeavors,

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human. (BB 453)

Wright’s Black Boy facilitates Wright’s overall theme of defiance, which directs him ultimately in the path of finding his own identity. He does not fit to the role of a meek little black boy, who indulges in fantacy in order to drive his sense of suppression away. He neither finds himself as a communist nor as a biased racist. His quest had continued, till he identified himself as a existentialist humanist, who wanted to immortalize the sense of humanism in each and every heart.

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Defiance And Quest For Identity In The Book Black Boy. (2021, September 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“Defiance And Quest For Identity In The Book Black Boy.” Edubirdie, 21 Sept. 2021,
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