Race and Identity in Richard Wright's Black Boy

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Stephen Donato
Professor Schmitz
HSF
20 September 2012

Race and Identity in Richard Wright’s Black Boy

Each and every person on this Earth today has an identity. Over the years, each individual creates their identity through past experiences, family, race, and many other factors. Race, which continues to cause problems in today’s world, places individuals into certain categories. Based on their race, people are designated to be part of a larger, or group identity instead of being viewed as a person with a unique identity. Throughout Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Richard is on a search for his true identity. Throughout Black Boy, one can see that Richard’s racial background assigns him with a certain identity or a certain way in which some people believe he should live his life. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, many young blacks, have their identities essentially already created for them based solely on the backgrounds and race. During this time period, whites expect blacks to behave a certain way, have certain traits, and treat them with absolute respect. Whites during Richard’s time still feel they are much superior to the blacks they interact with, and have many expectations that would be considered racist today. However, in his work, Richard Wright shows how one can break from this predetermined mold. In many instances during the work, Richard breaks from this identity to which he is assigned in order to create his unique identity and grow into the person he wants to become. Richard refuses to sit back and to be absorbed into the Jim Crow lifestyle of southern blacks. In Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Richard’s past experiences with both white and black individuals, family, and race issues shape his true identity and develop him into the man of his dreams living the life which he chooses instead of the one assigned to him. Richard Wright, a young black boy growing up in his family home in Mississippi, searches for his identity through many different experiences. A constant in his life which continues to shape his identity time and time again is his family. Throughout the work, Richard searches for a loving and caring family. Although his family may not fit the description at all times, they help him to form his independence, a big part of his true identity. As a young black male growing up in a house with his extended family, Richard did not have many freedoms. Throughout Black Boy, Richard’s family constantly shelters him from the outside world. The story begins in his grandmother’s home in Mississippi where his family constantly reprimands him. For example, in the beginning of this work, Richard Wright’s grandmother has fallen sick in the house. Therefore, Richard is expected to be quiet and not play with his brother. Richard, a young boy, just wants to have some fun, and proceeds to play with matches. He becomes more and more curious, and sets the curtains on fire, almost burning down the house. Because he was so sheltered, he became this curious little boy, causing trouble in his family home. Consequently, Richard is beaten for his actions, which becomes a common theme through the work. Richard explains: I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness. I was beaten out of my senses and later I found myself in bed, screaming, determined to run away, tussling with my mother and father who were trying to keep me still (Wright 7) Time and time again, family members or outsiders attempt to beat Richard. He learns his first real lesson shaping his identity while trying to buy groceries for the house. After his father leaves, Richard’s mother tells Richard he is now in charge of buying groceries. Richard feels like the man of the house, and acts very confidently, until he needs to go buy the food. The first two times he attempts to buy food, a crowd of boys beats him and steals his money. However, his mother sends him out a third time equipped with a stick. Richard easily defeats the boys and claims that...
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