Big Boy Leaves Home by Richard Wright, 1938
BIG BOY LEAVES HOME
by Richard Wright, 1938
Richard Wright's short story "Big Boy Leaves Home" first appeared in 1936 in the anthology The New Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Rosenfeld. It also appears as one of the stories in Uncle Tom's Children, published in 1938. All of the stories in this latter collection focus on black rural life in Mississippi.
The action of "Big Boy Leaves Home" takes place over a period of 24 hours and begins with Big Boy and three friends, all having skipped school for the day, enjoying a walk through the woods where they eventually decide to swim naked in the creek. The opening setting is intentionally idyllic, emphasizing youthful innocence and exuberance. Relying more heavily on dialogue written in African American dialect than on description or other forms of authorial intrusion found in Wright's later works, he allows the characters to discuss topics with varying degrees of racial overtones, including hostility to blacks by Mr. Harvey, the owner of the land they are walking on. In spite of their apprehension they do swim naked in the creek—and startle a white woman who is standing on the creek bank. The woman backs away from them toward the tree where the boys have hidden their clothes. A white man with a rifle arrives on the scene after hearing her scream. In the ensuing scuffle Big Boy sees two of his friends shot and killed; he wrestles the rifle away and shoots the white man to protect himself.
The two survivors, Big Boy and his friend BoBo, run home to escape from a lynch mob. Big Boy's family and three friends arrange for his escape by hiding him in a brick kiln where he will wait for a truck driver to deliver him to safety in Chicago. Although Big Boy is successful in his escape, his friend BoBo is not so lucky. BoBo was supposed to meet Big Boy at the brick kilns but fails to do so before being captured by the lynch mob. From his hiding place Big Boy watches as the lynch mob tars, feathers, and burns his friend.
"Big Boy Leaves Home" shares a number of themes typically found in American literature, including the initiation of youth and the subsequent flight to a new land. In "Big Boy Leaves Home" the concept of flight is ironic since Big Boy flees not to a new and open free territory but to the violent urban landscape of Chicago. The theme of initiation, particularly to violence and an attempted escape from it, is a central part of Wright's novels, including Native Son, The Outsider, and The Long Dream, as well as several of his short stories.
Wright begins the story with an Edenic setting where four boys are enjoying themselves in harmony with nature. The environment changes sharply as the story progresses. The warm sun is replaced by the chill of the cold water that prefigures what follows. Although the story focuses on racism and its effects on blacks and whites in rural Mississippi, Wright's narrative resists this convenient generalization, and he successfully prevents the reader from arriving at simplistic conclusions or suggesting ineffective remedies such as those he warns against in his prefatory essay to Native Son, "How Bigger Was Born." The result is a clear and effective portrayal of the precarious nature of African American life in the South. It is the element of chance, of arbitrariness, of a meaningless and insignificant encounter fueled by racial prejudice and fear that becomes magnified to such a level of violence. It is not just the acts of violence that should draw our concern here, it is the basis for these acts and the degree to which human beings are willing to escalate violence before it becomes shocking and repulsive.
The level of violence and its impact on the human personality is developed in transitions—transitions between the idyllic natural landscape and a human or psychological landscape characterized by fear and terror. At the beginning of the story Big Boy appears as a bit of bully to the extent that his three friends gang up on him to overcome his dominance. Although this is a more or less playful scene, Big Boy almost strangles BoBo and tells him if people gang up against you "you put the heat on one of them n make im tell the others t let up." Although this may seem innocent enough, it prefigures the tar and feather scene later in the story, as well as the lynch mob burning Big Boy's home because his parents would not reveal his hiding place.
Later when Big Boy hides in the brick kiln he is startled by a rattlesnake. In a frenzy he beats the rattlesnake to death with a stick while imagining the angry lynch mob chasing him. After wishing he had taken his father's shotgun with him for self-defense, he lapses into a dream of killing his attackers and imagines the newspaper's headlines: "Nigger Kills Dozen Of Lynch Mob Befo Lynched" and "Trapped Nigger Slays Twenty Befo Killed." Here violence appears again in an imaginative context, but in this instance it is clear how the external environment has affected Big Boy's consciousness. It is in part due to progressively violent and hostile imaginings of Big Boy that one can begin to address the irony inherent in Big Boy's name. He is no more than a boy, as the story indicates, but he is forced to become big, to become as threatening to others as others are to him. In Big Boy's case he threatens or overpowers no one—he merely survives by escaping.
Escape, especially to the North, is rendered symbolically with the existence of northbound trains in the story. The North is seen as a place of escape from racial oppression, but, as Wright chronicles in his later fiction, the city—Chicago in particular—was not the haven African Americans expected it to be. It is ironic that the theme of flight from the rural South exists as a central theme in much of Wright's fiction since many critics, both black and white, accused Wright of abandoning his own people by fleeing the South and eventually his country when he moved to Paris. More important, the reader of "Big Boy Leaves Home" should not breathe a comfortable sigh of relief or congratulate Big Boy on his escape as a solution to the conflict. In Wright's most famous novel, Native Son, published in 1940, the protagonist commits the brutal murder of two women: his name is Bigger Thomas.
—Jeffrey D. Parker