The Importance of Language in Black Boy
Richard Wright’s novel Black Boy is not only a story about one man’s struggle to find freedom and intellectual happiness, it is a story about his discovery of language’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. And the ways in which its power can separate one soul from another and one class from another. Throughout the novel, he moves from fear to respect, to abuse, to fear of language in a cycle of education which might be likened to a tumultuous love affair.
From the very beginning of the novel we see young Richard realize the power of language when he follows his father’s literal directions and kills a cat he has befriended(12). Although he knows that this is not really what his father wants him to do, following these directions explicitly temporarily gives him a sort of power over his father’s wishes. At the same time it reveals a weakness in his father, ie., his lack of control over language gives him less power. Later, when Richard must defend himself against attackers who repeatedly try to steal his mother’s money(21), he learns a new and symbolic lesson: Victory can come when one has money, words (the grocery list), and a big stick to defend one’s self.
His next experience with language frightens him away from it. He becomes “blind with anger”(29) when he is forced to clean four letter words from places he has written them. He does not understand how, in his innocence, he could have misused something which had only done him good in the past. After this experience, Richard shies away from the use of powerful language for many years. In one scene he refuses to blot the ink from a stack of envelopes(36), fearing, perhaps, the power of the written word, and…
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