Because Richard is growing throughout the book, his character is always changing. The small child we see at the beginning is a far cry from the seventeen-year-old at the end; yet there is a fundamental core which remains the same. He is a rebel and, as such, an outsider, from the very beginning.
Through his descriptions of people’s reactions to him, Wright gives us a sense of the impression he makes on others. He offends most everyone, not for overt acts of defiance against them, but because of the attitude he expresses. He has few friends, but has no real enemies. He is not aggressive, but his presence is threatening. Unable to participate naturally in fun and games, he is irritating to those who do. Almost no one likes to have him around.
What social forces conspired to make him into this type of individual is the question that Richard Wright, the narrator, is trying to solve as he writes. It is said that one’s character is pretty much formed by the age of four and, afterward, can only be modified to one degree or another by experience. Although Wright emphasizes social circumstances in creating an individual, he starts his autobiography with a solid characterization of himself as a child. There is, then, always a conflict between which is the stronger influence: character or society.
The question of how and why Wright’s character was formed is hardest for him to answer in terms of his own development. It involves the complex problems of personal guilt as opposed to social guilt, personal responsibility as opposed to social responsibility. In the end, he can make no clear-cut distinctions between one or the other. Why he becomes who he is, or why he is the person he is becoming these are two inseparable questions.
The reader is always conscious of the unique nature of the author. In many ways he seems to consider himself exempt from normal human fallacies. Ruthless in his condemnation of any weakness, he is rarely self-critical. What he ultimately discovers in his self-analysis is that his reactions have been justifiable. This quality of egotism gives the book a strident tone at times, which confirms what he is saying about himself; that is, Wright is not a sociable person, but a critical observer who alienates others by his moral position.
Given the circumstances of his life, Richard the boy and Wright the author do in fact hold a justifiable position. Viewed as coldly as it is in Black Boy, society is invariably and simply wrong. Richard is not a deviant personality, but a natural product of his circumstances. This is what the book is telling us. Richard Wright is not going to soothe anyone’s nerves.
If, therefore, the reader finds the tone of the book irritating, it is inevitable. The questions Wright is raising can only have answers that are serious and upsetting. These are the questions Richard has been asking himself from a very early age: why is my family disrupted? Why is Granny oppressive? Why do my friends and I have such limited futures? Why do white people set out to destroy me? What have I done as an individual to deserve this treatment from society? And how can I escape? Richard has to come to terms with his own personal history by escaping from the place where it endures. And he has to conceive of his past and write about it as if it were typical, in order to understand and answer those questions. This is his legacy for the future of black and white America.