Black Boy

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Black Boy Book Poster Image
Moving autobiography reveals brutality of Jim Crow South.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 6 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Richard Wright's autobiographical book Black Boy reveals both the conspicuous and insidious effects of racial bigotry in the southern United States during the 1920s. Readers will learn about the cruel and demeaning ways African Americans were treated by whites, the limited opportunities for employment and education that were available to blacks, the role Christianity played in black life, and generally about life and culture in the South during this period. Wright also wrote very eloquently about the ways in which his own psyche and worldview were affected by racial prejudice, and the stimulation and hope he gleaned from reading.

Positive Messages

Brutal and damaging experiences shaped Richard Wright's worldview, but the book itself stands as proof that a great mind can emerge even from the most degrading life. In his early years, Wright is driven to lie, steal, and demean himself before whites, but his persistent need to escape the indignities he suffers, and to seek new ideas, is most inspiring.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Even within his own family, Richard Wright was surrounded by defeatism, coldness, and brutality. His mother, perhaps his best role model for her dedication to her children, became an invalid early in Wright's life so that the parent and child roles were reversed. His father abandoned the family for another woman. Wright, himself, is the role model here, for better and worse. He shows clearly the ways his circumstances made it impossible for him survive without stealing or lying. He also shows the ways education, and exposure to intellectual ideas, motivated him to rise above his formative experience, and to later become a best-selling, award-winning author.

Violence

Violence was a fact of life in Wright's world. He describes learning early on that whites are dangerous, that they can and will kill blacks with no cause and no repercussions. Wright's uncle is shot and killed by white men who want to take away his "liquor business." Richard and other blacks are routinely threatened and/or beaten by whites simply for speaking in a confident tone of voice. Wright witnesses his employers at one job taking a woman into a room where they beat her and probably sexually abuse her (her clothing is torn when she leaves) for being late with a bill payment. At another place of employment, later in the book, whites lie and coax Richard and another black man into fighting, simply to amuse themselves. Plenty of violence exists within the black community, as well. Richard is assaulted by children on the street who steal his family's grocery money. He's also beaten by his own family members and resorts to wielding a knife or razor blades on two separate occasions to avoid being unfairly beaten. Physical assault is also a hazing ritual whenever Richard enters a new school.

Sex

Wright describes peeking in a window and seeing a naked man on top of a naked woman (a prostitute). When he is older and working in a hotel frequented by prostitutes, he lives with constant tension because he must try not to look at the white women who expose themselves to him because he knows he may be killed for doing so. Wright also tells about his first feelings of sexual desire, which were directed to a married female member of his grandmother's church. The one sexual experience Richard has in the book, as a teenager, is with the daughter of his landlady; he mentions kissing and petting her.

Language

In an early episode in the book, Richard learns profanity from drunks in a saloon and writes foul words in soap on neighbors' windows. The actual words are not mentioned at that point, but later, people other than Richard use the words "f--king," "bastard," "sonofabitch." Also, the "N" word is used constantly in the book by blacks and whites, and racially biggoted language is used in combination with profanity and insults ("black bastard," "stupid n----r").

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Richard is given alcohol by drunks in a saloon at a very early age; he describes being drunk at age 6. Later, he witnesses blacks and whites consume alcohol, but he doesn't partake. Alcohol is also bought and sold in the book: Richard's uncle is killed when whites want to take away his "liquor business." Richard is unwittingly duped into helping transport some stolen liquor.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Richard Wright's Black Boy is a brutal and disturbing portrait of this best-selling, award-winning author's experiences in the American South during the 1920s. Hungry, degraded, and living under the constant threat of violence and death, Wright somehow emerged as a self-respecting man of ideas, and so his story is as inspiring as it is upsetting. The book, which reads like a novel, shows numerous incidents of white-on-black and black-against-black violence -- from children being "whipped" to teens assaulting each other, to adults being shot and killed. There's some profanity, but most foul is the combination of cruel language with racial slurs ("black bastard," "stupid n----r"). Also disturbing is Wright's indoctrination to alcohol as a child. Younger teens may need some guidance to comprehend the effects of Wright's living with so much deprivation and under the constant threat of physical harm.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 3 year old Written bybellabassett November 3, 2013

Good Read

It is a great book although The author suffered some tough misfortunes and there are some racial slurs used we should not hide these kind of books from our chil... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byLCFB12 November 6, 2016

A great, well-written autobiography by Richard Wright

In this autobiography, Richard Wright takes us through his life living in the Jim Crow South. He wants us to know the struggles that black people faced in the S... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written bydonttouchthewketchup November 4, 2016

an autobiography that'll surpass all expectations

Richard Wright artfully composes his autobiography, black boy, going over his childhood in the Jim-Crow south. A brutal retelling showing nearly everything mode... Continue reading

What's the story?

BLACK BOY details the formative years of Richard Wright, a best-selling author and activist who grew up during the 1920s in Mississippi and Tennessee. The book reveals the extreme emotional and physical depravation of Wright's childhood -- hunger and the threat of violence were Wright's most constant companions. After his father abandons the family, Richard, his mother, and his brother move from town to town, in and out of relatives' homes, in a constant struggle to survive. Richard wants to be educated, but never knows year to year whether he will be able to enroll in school -- because he can't afford the books he needs, hasn't proper clothing, or has to care for his ailing mother. Yet, somehow Wright managed to retain some semblance of self esteem, and a keen awareness of the injustice of racial prejudice. Writing from an adult perspective, he shows clearly the desperation born of bigotry and brutality, and the ways that learning and ideas helped to liberate him.

Is it any good?

Black Boy is painful to read; the emotional and physical assaults Wright suffered as a child are as upsetting to parents as they will be to children. However, this is an extremely revealing, eloquent, and important book. There is so much to learn from Wright historically, and in our ongoing effort to understand the long-term effects of racial prejudice and child abuse. Black Boy continues to be an enormously effective and moving autobiography, and it's a must-read for students learning about the Jim Crow South.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why Black Boy is on the list of Frequently Challenged and Banned Books. Do you think the book's message is important enough for schools and libraries to keep it on their shelves?

  • How much have things changed for African Americans since Richard Wright was a young boy in the South in the 1920s? Why do you think this book continues to move readers so many years after it was written?

  • There's a lot of hazing and testing among students at the schools Richard attends; Richard often has to fight other kids to begin to belong. Does anything like this go on at your school?

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