Although Chapter 1 establishes the conflicts basic to the book as a whole, it does so primarily in terms of Richard’s immediate environment. His mother’s efforts to make him comply with the standards set by a pre-individualistic society succeed only insofar as Richard can take care of himself. They fail, however, in keeping him unconscious of his own individuality. He is ready to measure his condition against others, and Chapter 2 demonstrates his growing awareness of a world outside his own.
His mother tries to protect him from seeing his condition for what it is. She wards off his questions about white people and succeeds in keeping their reality remote. But the results of this protection are to make white people fantastic and unreal in his imagination; even his relationship to other blacks is unrealistic. In two separate incidents, he sees blacks in uniform as soldiers and prisoners and he is terrified by the reality of the nightmare. They seem more like animals than people, and he wants to understand why they are what they are. His mother evades him, but lets him know vaguely that white people are somehow responsible. She does not tell her son about white oppression and crushed black dignity, yet his innocent eyes see the truth: slavery in its rawest form the slaves themselves. Thus the attempts to keep Richard ignorant continue to have the opposite of the desired effects. The murder of Uncle Hoskins, the silence about the white world, and religious explanations for natural events only serve to fire his imagination.
It is easy to see how Richard develops an aversion to Christianity which lasts throughout his life. An awareness of guilt and sin is brutally imposed on him by his grandmother. Even his mother finally finds the atmosphere at the grandmother’s too oppressive for them. Richard’s greatest sin is his curiosity, and every opportunity his imagination has to expand is promptly squelched. His grandmother, for instance, beats him for a foul-mouthed remark he utters in complete innocence; his difficult relationship with her will play a large part in his development. To Granny, any deviation from her concept of the norm is subjected to the most severe punishment. The hypocrisy of these hard judgments, couched in Christian ideology, does not escape the boy, and he will not forget them as a man.
A recurrent response to his condition throughout the book is a series of pastoral contacts with nature. Nature serves as a balm to his injuries, and, in relation to the seasons and natural wonders, he is able to express his emotions freely. This is one of the more striking American qualities about the book reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe, Walt Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, and many others.
Just as Wright can understand his father as “a creature of the earth” who is bewildered and finally driven away from the city, so have hosts of other American writers been obsessed with the vision of an innocent, pastoral, lost world. It is a world they strive to recapture, while doubting its existence. Though none of them would deny that “violence is as American as cherry pie,” there is some mysterious conviction within much American writing that there is the possibility of a pure soul and a humane personality. Nature is the medium through which these writers try to symbolize this pure state be it the nature of earth or the nature of man. The most lyrical passages in Black Boy are invariably concerned with Richard’s love of the natural world, and they stand apart both in content and style from the rest of the book, like a lovely, lonely Blues song.
Richard’s relationship to the natural world is direct and simple. Outdoors, among the trees and birds, a boy can express his emotions freely. Although he is conscious of the good and the evil forces at work in the open air, he feels his individual self expand and develop naturally. He is not judged or repressed. He is just alive. For some people, it is possible to feel more at home in a tree or an empty field than indoors, among his own people. For Richard, as a boy, this is the case, and throughout the book he will return to the natural world to find metaphors for freedom and joy.
Richard is so eager to learn and so consistently suppressed, it is incredible to see how resilient the imagination can be. He won’t stop asking questions, and if he gets no answers, his imagination takes over, providing what reality conceals. In this chapter, we see him becoming aware of his condition in symbolic terms. He is affected emotionally by the things that happen to him; but, without answers to his questions about these events, they are only symbols.
The more he grows and travels, the more he becomes conscious of race. The murder of one uncle and the threat of death to another by whites both of these intensify the fear that has been growing in him slowly but surely. As this fear increases for the enemy is real Richard becomes superstitious. He has lists of antidotes to real and unreal dangers. Unable to perform when called upon shy, but still rebellious his imagination plays a larger and larger role in his life. It is his escape hatch into a better world or into oblivion; it is also the armor he wears against the wounds inflicted by the society he lives in.