Black Boy: Character Profiles
Aunt Addie, Richard’s youngest aunt, is the schoolteacher in the Seventh Day Adventist School in Jackson. In her first year teaching, she insists he be enrolled there to save himself from the troubled and wayward ways to which he has become accustomed. However, her strictness and punishments pit the two against one another, leading to violence both in the classroom and at home, which neither is able to forgive.
Aunt Cleo is Richard’s aunt. She lives in Chicago, and Richard goes to join her in 1927.
Aunt Maggie is the friendliest of Richard’s aunts. After her husband Hoskin’s murder by whites envious of his successful business, she flees north with a mysterious Professor who may have killed a white woman. Richard’s brother is sent to live with her when their mother falls ill, and at the novel’s conclusion she and Richard are leaving for Chicago to prepare a home for his mother and brother as well.
Mrs. Bibbs is one of the white characters Richard works for. She hires him for household chores and is shocked to learn he does not know how to milk a cow, having assumed all black residents of the south are suited to physical labor. She offers to teach him, meaning well despite her stereotyping of him as another “black boy.”
Brand and Cooke
Brand and Cooke are co-workers of Richard’s in the Chicago hospital. They get involved in a fight that kills several animals in their care, an incident that ends up bonding the four black employees together. They share the secret of putting random animals into the carefully marked cages, apparently without any of the research scientists or doctors noticing.
Mr. Crane is a white northerner who gives Richard a job in his optical shop in Jackson with the promise of training him, but is unable to persuade his southern employees to teach Richard the skills of the trade and overpays Richard out of a sense of guilt.
Ella is a schoolteacher boarding briefly at Granny’s. She is constantly reading, and her recounting of the story of Bluebeard transfixes Richard. His family blames her for his cursing and she leaves the house, but only after impressing upon him the power of stories, a lesson which stays with him throughout his life.
Mr. Falk agrees to let Richard borrow his library card since libraries, like all other public buildings in the South at the time, are segregated, and the branch in Memphis is for whites only. Richard chooses to ask him because he is a white Catholic, thus a fellow minority perhaps able to relate to Richard’s plight. Fortunately he is right and the older man is sympathetic to him, allowing him to use the card to read the works of H.L. Mencken among others.
Grandpa is an illiterate veteran of the Union Army. He is nearly invisible to the family as he spends his days writing letters to the War Department in an attempt to claim his pension from serving in the Civil War. Because the man who helped him fill out the paperwork misspelled his name, Grandpa is destined to futilely pursue compensation, and literally tries to prove his identity, unsuccessfully, until the day he dies. His reduction to such a pathetic figure shows what becomes of black men under a system designed to keep them down. Richard responds to his impotence by no longer fearing or respecting him as it becomes increasingly apparent he holds little power in the house or world beyond its walls.
Granny, Richard’s white-looking Seventh Day Adventist grandmother, is a formidable figure, who at one point knocks herself nearly unconscious as she slaps Richard for speaking without having being invited to do so. She is an angry woman, whose veteran husband’s appeals for financial recognition by the Union Army meet only with refusals that there is any record of his service. Her religious convictions are her sole solace from her misery, and she is utterly distraught by her grandson’s troubled ways and unwillingness to save his soul.
Ed Green is a black member of the Communist Party in Chicago. He suspects Richard’s motives in writing biographies of men like Ross who is under indictment by the Party.
Griggs is Richard’s closest thing to a friend in Jackson, who tries to tell him how to behave around white people. However, his attempts to fit in with the world created by, and for, whites represents the very self-enslaving man Richard is trying so hard to avoid becoming.
Harrison is a black worker for a rival optical shop in Memphis, whose boss receives calls and notes from Richard’s boss claiming that Richard wants to fight him. Although he has no wish to fight, he is tempted by the offer of five dollars and convinces Richard they can “pretend” to fight four rounds in the boxing ring. However, in the ring they both realize it is impossible to “fake” a fight. Both are ashamed of having been reduced to the status of fighting animals like dogs or roosters, and avoid speaking after the episode, having successfully been divided by white men who found it amusing to pit the potential friends against each other.
Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman
Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman are Jewish shopkeepers in Chicago. They offer Richard a job and treat him with respect, as an equal. But Richard does not understand that they are different from whites in the South, and he feels he has to lie to them.
Mrs. Moss rents a room to Richard when he arrives in Memphis, and she eagerly welcomes into her business and personal life, hoping he will marry her daughter, Bess, who also shows interest. She nearly offers the house to the couple who have literally just met, but Richard resists their ploys and when he threatens to leave both mother and daughter agree to leave him alone.
Buddy Nealson is a member of the Communist International who suspects Richard of being an intellectual and makes life difficult for him with the Party.
Mr. Olin is a white southerner who works at the optical shop in Memphis. He pretends to befriend Richard but later taunts and bribes him into fighting Harrison, another black employee across the street.
Pease and Reynolds
Pease and Reynolds are the white southerners who work as technicians at Mr. Crane’s shop and threaten Richard violently until he flees Jackson.
Ross is a black Communist in Chicago who is facing indictment. Richard interviews him for one of his biographical sketches.
Shorty is an elevator operator in Memphis who sacrifices his dream of departing for the North to instead please white men by letting them kick him for money, thus repelling Richard who is disappointed in his potential peer falling victim to the very system they speak of resisting.
Miss Simon oversees the orphanage where Richard and his brother reside briefly. Richard’s fear of her causes him to freeze up when she asks him to blot a document for her, and as a result he runs away.
When Richard is given the choice of which relative he prefers living with, he chooses Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody due to their proximity to Jackson, where his bed-ridden mother remains with her mother. However, their expectations of him seem too high and when he learns his room and bed were previously occupied by the landlord’s now dead son, he is terrified of living there and returns to Jackson.
Another of Richard’s uncles, Uncle Tom and his family, including a daughter also named Maggie who is near Richard’s age, move into Granny’s crowded house when money becomes tight. Believing children should be deferential to their elders, Tom threatens Richard with a beating and is reduced to tears when his nephew confronts him with a razor blade concealed in each palm. At one point Richard overhears Tom cautioning his daughter to stay away from her cousin’s bad influence, partially explaining why he has felt so ostracized by even his own cousins.
Richard’s younger (by one year) brother, who witnesses his childhood atrocities such as setting fire to the house and killing the kitten, but is largely absent after being sent to live with Aunt Maggie when their mother becomes ill. However, he joins Richard in Chicago, showing a potential for future closeness despite the distance wedged between them at an early age.
Ellen (Ella) Wright
Ellen (Ella) Wright is Richard’s educated and hard-working mother. She is a complex and important figure in the novel. Although she delivers brutal beatings and is at times viciously cruel to her sons, after her husband’s infidelity she is determined to raise them and fights fiercely to succeed on her own. Her health deteriorates to such an extent she must instead witness their separation both from her and from each other. Richard joins her in her mother’s home where she is confined to bed for the majority of his adolescence. She joins him in the North at the conclusion of the autobiography.
Nathan Wright is Richard’s father. He is presented as unforgivable and lost to his sons. After abandoning the family and having failed to build a life in the city, he returns to plantation life, where Richard later glimpses him as a counter-example of the life he wishes to live.
Richard Wright is the protagonist of this autobiography, detailing his journey from childhood to awakening in the racist South. His family’s poverty shapes his early years, surrounding him with hunger and violence that, instead of breaking him, strengthen his will to prove he is the equal of any white man. Richard is determined to fight the degradation of blacks, and loses many jobs in Jackson and elsewhere for failing to learn “how to talk” to whites. Although at times he tries to learn to fit in, his vehement objections to the indignities accepted by the majority of his community make him rebel against the social code. Soon he finds himself lying, stealing and cheating to break out of the confines in which he finds himself in the Deep South of the 1920s. Despite these flaws in his character, Richard is a capable student and writer, and becomes both valedictorian and the first among his peers to publish a story. His strong will and assurance that he is worth something enable him to overcome the obstacles of his early years and the religious doctrine of his family and community to be proud of the black man he becomes.