Notes on Characters from Black Boy

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Black Boy Major Characters

Richard Wright: The narrator. Black Boy deals with his childhood and young adulthood. He is an extremely intelligent African American boy coming of age in the South in the early 1900's. The brutality and ignorance that he sees between Blacks and Whites influences his views on race relations. He considers racism and its ills to be American problems, and believes that American politics must change if society is going to change. He joins the Communist party because he thinks it, of any political body, most taps into 'the hunger' of humankind: what people want out of life. He finds ignorance and violence within the party as well, but remains hopeful.

Ella Wright: Richard Wright's mother. She is a dark figure in Wright's life, administering extreme beatings when he gets into childhood trouble, guilt-tripping him into attending church, and refusing to answer any questions about their past or current environment. For a curious child, she is a stifling presence. After suffering a stroke, she is bedridden. She remains with Wright throughout the book, moving from apartment to apartment and gradually becoming more understanding of his life.

Granny: Granny, who sometimes lives with the family, is Richard's mother to an extreme. She beats him casually, and berates him, telling him he is full of sin. A Seventh Day Adventist, she is a ridiculous and frustrating figure when she bans books from the house and forbids Richard to get a job on Saturday Sabbath, even though they are starving.

Father: Wright's father, though he does not appear much in the book, is an important figure in his development. He is first seen as the lawmaker, and Wright is terrified of him. After he abandons his family to live with another woman, Wright finds him a pathetic example of a man who responded to the struggle of being black by drinking and womanizing. Wright views his father as something he does not ever want to become.

Aunt Addie: Aunt Addie is just one of the many characters who tries to discipline Wright. His aunt but also his teacher in Sunday school, she too beats him indiscriminately when his attitude offends her. Finally, though, he lashes out against her for good, threatening to kill her if she hits him once more. This showdown plays a big part in the family's gradual decision that Wright is a lost cause. By the time he has moved out of the house, he is considered by many family members to be a lost soul.

Minor Characters

Griggs: A classmate of Wright's. He tries to show Wright how to get along with white people so that he won't make them angry. He is an intelligent boy who differs from Wright in that he is willing to play the role designed for him by whites: laugh and be cheerful in public, but hate whites passionately behind their backs. He explains to Wright that what whites most want is deference: they want to be shown that blacks know they are white.

Shorty: A black man who works with Wright in a hotel. He, like Griggs, is intelligent and yet totally submissive to whites. He is more than willing to 'act the clown.' He claims to hate racist whites but will never leave the south, because, he says, he is too lazy. Unlike Wright, who wants to make his living as a man, Shorty is happy to take any opportunity he can get. When he wants a quarter for lunch, he invites a white man to kick him for it, saying, 'My ass is tough and quarters is scarce.'

Mr. Olin: One of the white men Wright works with at an optician's shop in Memphis. As a joke, Olin tells Wright that Harrison, one of the other black boys at the shop, is angry at him and is waiting with a knife for him. Olin gives Wright a knife, and meanwhile tells Harrison the same story and also gives him a knife, hoping that they will kill each other. When Wright finds out about the plan, he realizes how brutal and scheming white men can be, and cannot trust them for years to come.

Mr. Hoffman: A Jewish man who owns the Chicago store where Wright works as a porter. Although he and his wife are not racist, Wright does not trust their motives and expects them to beat or dismiss him at any time. They are the first genuinely nice white people he has met, and he is frightened of them. Also, he feels guilty about the anti-semitic views he had as an ignorant child in the south.

Ross: A young black Communist who is put on trial for vague offenses like 'counter-revolutionary activity.' Wright uses him as the subject of a character sketch, trying to hit on why Ross became a Communist. Essentially, he is trying to gain an intimate understanding of Ross' character. However, the other Communists are very suspicious of this, and eventually Ross is afraid to be interviewed: there are rumors that Wright is a policeman. Disgusted, Wright realizes that many Communists are so skeptical that they don't know who their friends are.

Buddy Nealson: A Communist leader who Wright sees as close-minded and ignorant. He directs other Communists to terrorize Wright, threatening him off jobs and inviting him to rallies just so they can reject him again. He represents the many other Communists who act brotherly but who are merely serving their own political interests.

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