Richard Wright made a masterful recording of his own life in the form of the novel Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. The work earned him a place as "father" of the post-WWII black novel and precursor of the Black Arts movements of the 1960s. Published in 1945 as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Black Boy was received enthusiastically by the reading public and topped the best-seller lists, with 400,000 copies sold. The commercial success of this novel secured for Wright what his acclaimed novel of 1940, Native Son, had demanded. With these two works, Richard Wright is correctly said to be one of the most powerful forces in twentieth-century American literature. Without doubt, he is the most powerful influence on modern African American writing due to his impact on James Baldwin (Another Country, 1962), and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1953).
Black Boy is an autobiographical work in which Wright adapted formative episodes from his own life into a "coming of age" plot. In the novel, Richard is a boy in the Jim Crow American South. This was a system of racial segregation practiced in some states of the U.S., which treated blacks as second-class citizens. In his novel, Wright emphasizes two environmental forces of this system: hunger and language He shows how hunger drives the already oppressed to even more desperate acts, and his emphasis on language explains how he managed to survive Jim Crow: by developing an attention to language as a coping mechanism for the surface world of life. Meanwhile, literature offered him internal release from the tensions of living without the freedom to express his dignity as a human being. Thus, Wright's novel is a powerful story of the individual struggle for the freedom of expression.