In the early 1930s, Kay Boyle was producing short stories at an astonishing rate. Over the course of that decade she published three short story collections in addition to numerous other works. Despite her prodigious writing, she rarely talked about her work. “Black Boy,” first published in 1932 and collected in First Lover and Other Stories the following year, was one of the few stories that she spoke about to friends, chronicling the difficulties she had getting it published. Several magazines rejected it, including Harper’s, which nonetheless told her that some of its passages were “magical.” Boyle finally succeeded in selling the story to the New Yorker. Later on, she also expressed satisfaction with the story because “it is completely simple, and moral without moralizing.”
Indeed, “Black Boy” is a brief tale about a preadolescent girl who becomes friends with a black boy who makes his living pushing people in chairs along the oceanside boardwalk. Despite her grandfather’s warning that the black boy might want to do her harm, she continues to visit the black boy on the beach. One day, she is thrown from her horse and knocked unconscious. The boy picks her up and holds her comfortingly, but when he returns her home, the grandfather strikes him in the mouth.
To maintain the simplicity of the story and its overarching message, Boyle relies on effective language. Through her words, she draws clear portrayals of her characters and her setting. All of the characters—even the nonhuman ones—are evocatively described through careful metaphor. The waves of the sea are “indolent as ladies,” the boys who push the chairs on the boardwalk have faces that drip “down like tar in the sun,” even the narrator’s horse is “as shy as a bird.” Such language focuses attention on the fundamental characteristics of the story’s elements while bringing them sharply to life. The details that surround the narrator, the black boy, and Grandfather Puss further identify the milieu in which these people are comfortable and shed light on their manner of regarding the world.
Of the three characters, the black boy—who lives the most circumscribed life due to harsh economic realities—has the widest worldview. He is at home in the natural world, sleeping on the beach and spending hours with his eyes on the sea. He is identified with animals; the narrator notes that’ ‘his fingers ran in and out of the sand like the blue feet of a bird.” Yet, his vision is not limited to the world in which he lives. He vividly imagines an Atlantic City that is not a hotbed of tourism but populated by exotic animals allowed to roam wild. His vision of these animals represents the boy himself and his longing for change. He says, “If I was a king, I wouldn’t put much stock in hanging around here.” It also demonstrates his self-sufficiency in his ability to create a better world for himself when none is forthcoming.
Though he speaks with incorrect grammar, the boy is knowledgeable about myriad topics such as biblical kings, mirages, and the Northern Lights. He knows how to ride a horse “easily and straight.” His preference for riding a horse bareback again shows his comfort in the natural world, and his rejection of the trappings of civilization befits him, for civilization has already rejected him. Despite his bleak circumstances, the boy still has the capacity for awe and respect. He regards the narrator’s horse with eyes filled with a’ ‘spark of wonder” and when he rides the horse he was “quick with delight” but still had ‘ ‘no thought of smiling.” He takes his task of riding the horse seriously.
Grandfather Puss’s focus in life is exceedingly narrower. For instance, despite living in close proximity to the ocean, he chooses to remain on the boardwalk or in his house, only visiting the beach when the tide has gone down. Even then, he does not venture far. ‘ ‘For a minute, he put one foot in the sand, but he was not at ease there,” relates his granddaughter. His perception is bounded by the world above, on the boardwalk “over our heads” where “some other kind of life was in progress.” That world contains the trappings of modernity, such as transportation in the form of rolling chairs and women in high-heeled shoes. Puss enjoys the chair ride because he likes to look at the store windows and the electric signs. His granddaughter comments to herself,’ ‘there was no hesitation about whether he would look at the shops on one side, or out on the vacant side where there was nothing shining but the sea.” He also enjoys the dominance he has over the black boys who push the chairs. He might look for a “nice skinny boy” who would “put some action into it.”
Puss’s reaction to the black boys who work on the boardwalk demonstrates a prevailing racist attitude of American society—which is further subtly alluded to in the fact that only black boys work pushing chairs. Puss regards the boys as little more than animals pulling a load. Though he asks the boys their names, he only does so “without turning his head” to actually look at them. His prejudice also extends beyond the African-American race. In casual conversation he remarks to his granddaughter,’ ‘I saw another little oak not three inches high in the Jap’s window yesterday.”
As befits her superior socioeconomic position, the girl can straddle both the world of her grandfather and the world of her friend, but she is not fully part of either. While she enjoys taking her horse to ride in the ocean waves, unlike her friend, she uses a saddle. She also spurs the horse on “with the end of my crop,” which is in stark contrast to the boy, who would “never raise a hand to one [a horse], unless he was to bite me or do something I didn’t care for.” On the beach one morning, the girl notes that the ocean wind was “filled with alien smells.” She enjoys sitting on the sand, but she makes the choice about when to descend to this world. At other times, she ascends as if from hell to heaven, where she is served by the black boys who pull her and Puss along in a chair with red velvet cushions—cushions fit for the king that the black boy will never be.
The important difference between the narrator and her grandfather is that she does not share his racist opinions. Her observations show that she sees the people around her as just that—as people and not as people of a certain color. She describes the neck of the black boy as ‘ ‘longer and more shapely than a white man’s neck.” However, she is still unable to ignore the prevailing attitude of black and white in the world. Her prose is full of references to color: Her grandfather wears a white moustache, she can see her friend sitting on the beach at night in the “clear white darkness,” even the dangerous beams of the boardwalk into which the horse smashes are “tough” and “black.” The message in the language is clear: racism is a pervasive and destructive element of society, affecting even those members who are open-minded. Indeed, even the narrator’s neglect to name her friend, instead choosing always to refer to him as the “black boy” underscores this basic truth of her world.
The inherent racism of society is also manifest in her desire to be superior to the black boy at horseback riding. Never before had she indicated an interest in jumping over the dock; previously she had only spoken of riding the horse in the waves and on the beach. Once she sees the skill with which her friend handles the horse, however, she feels a stir of jealousy. For the first time, she points out the fallacy of her friend’s words. When he claims that he was going to be a jockey but changed his mind, she draws attention to the inconsistency of his story with the simple phrase, “Jockeys make a pile of money.”
Despite this momentary flash of jealousy, the narrator is openhearted toward the black boy. When her grandfather declares that he does not want her to continue the friendship, she feels the ‘ ‘burden of his words.” She decides her best course of action is to stay away from her friend for a few days. She wants to make sure that Puss sees her’ ‘riding high” down the beach. Then she will be able to pick up her friendship with the black boy.
Ironically, it is the effects of racism that lead her to the one place where she feels truly at peace. After she is thrown from her horse and loses consciousness, she feels ‘ ‘rocked in a cradle of love, cradled and rocked in sorrow.” It is her friend, the black boy, who gathers her in “long swift fingers of love untying the terrible knot of pain that bound my head.” She puts her’ ‘arms around him and lay close to his heart in comfort.” The black boy is equated with other symbols of comfort: her dead mother and a soft wind. His compassion is shown through his words: “Oh, my little lamb.” The girl’s peacefulness is extremely short-lived because when the black boy returns her from the beach, to the real world, the two children again come face to face with racism. Instead of thanking the black boy for helping his granddaughter, or even finding out what happened, Puss “struck him squarely in the mouth.”
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Kay Boyle – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “Black Boy,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.