Black Boy marks the culmination of Richard Wright's best-known period, his so-called Marxist period. As such, it must be treated separately from the books that followed. Although it is possible that he might have written this autobiography of his childhood the same way many years later, it is likely that his point of view would have been altered by the changes in his political philosophy. As it stands, Black Boy is as profoundly American as it is a distinctly black chronicle.
Written while Wright was a fervent Communist, the book explores the theory of human behavior determined by environment. Yet, innate in its fatalism is the author-narrator's ultimate escape from a rigid set of rules for survival. In Wright's boyhood, there was virtually no chance for a personality such as his to develop freely. Everything conspired against personal freedom not only the white social structure, but the black as well. He was treated brutally and tyrannically at home in order to prevent his being treated the same way or worse outside the home. His parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents enforced the code of conduct given to them by the white power structure: black children must never strive to be more than black children; if they do, not only will they suffer a terrible fate, but their families will as well. This way of life leads to a kind of society which has been called "pre-individualistic."
Pre-individualistic behavior is forced on one group of people by another. In this case, white southerners separated groups of people according to race. The result was that the individuals in the oppressed group became invisible; all that was left was a mass of faceless people. Yet the effects of this divisiveness are not limited to the oppressors. Within the oppressed community, individualism is considered dangerous; from the earliest age, a child is trained to behave according to the oppressor's view. If he does not obey, he will not be the only one to suffer the consequences. His whole community will be in danger. This preindividualistic state existed particularly among blacks only recently released from slavery. Although its primary effect was negative, its positive value was that it allowed black people to survive as a unit, with unusually close ties to one another. The migration into the urban centers and the North, however, destroyed this positive effect since to some blacks the repressive quality of life at home was intolerable.
Richard Wright could not, from his earliest years, tolerate this repression, and Black Boy is the chronicle of his alienation, not only from white society, but from his own people. His protest springs from what the Spanish writer Unamuno calls "the tragic sense of life"; that is, it is more than a record of personal abuses. In Black Boy, the protest is both personal and metaphysical a cry of anguish in the face of the human condition. Tragedy is what comes of an individual's efforts to overcome the human condition. This is the spirit in which Black Boy was written out of a sense of tragedy yet it does not stop there.
What gives the book its unique place in American literature is its tone, as opposed to its content or structure. Its tone is that of the Blues. Lyrical and ironic, it is the song that follows the reality of pure tragedy. It accepts all that has happened and creates art from the pain of suffering. Ralph Ellison has written that "as a form, the Blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically." There could be no better way to describe Black Boy and its unique voice in American letters.