Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth

by Richard Wright

Black Boy Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Black Boy, which was another immediate best seller, is often considered Wright’s most fully realized work. Ostensibly a description of the first twenty-one years of Wright’s life, the book derives its aesthetic design from two distinct but interwoven narrative skeins: the African American exodus motif, in which a character’s movement from south to north suggests a flight from oppression to freedom, and the Künstlerroman, or novelistic account of the birth of the artist—in this case, a “portrait of the artist as a young black American.” In the process, Wright analyzes how poverty, intolerance, and racism shaped his personality but also fed his creativity, enabling him to view his pain as an embodiment of the existential human condition.

As a chronicle of family life, Black Boy presents a grim portrait of violence, suffering, and disintegration. While the veracity of every event related in the text is questionable, one cannot deny the authenticity with which Wright has documented the emotional truths of his childhood and their devastating psychological consequences. The central motif of the work is the gnawing hunger defining every facet of Richard’s existence: physical hunger born of his family’s worsening poverty after his father’s abandonment; emotional hunger rooted in that abandonment, compounded by his mother’s prolonged illnesses, and resulting in his alienation from other black people; and intellectual hunger exacerbated by his limited formal schooling and the repressive religious fundamentalism of his maternal relatives. Wright had initially chosen “American Hunger” as his title, and it was later applied to the second volume of his autobiographical writings, published posthumously in 1977.

Richard’s responses to the conditions of his life are, from the first, a volatile combination of rebellion, anger, and fear. Black Boy opens with a bored and peevish four-year-old Richard retaliating against his mother’s demand for quiet by experimenting with fire until he sets the house ablaze. He then hides under the burning structure until he is pulled free by his enraged father and beaten unconscious. The episode provides a paradigm for Richard’s young life: willful self-assertion repeatedly produces self-destructive consequences and crushing rejection by those closest to him. His renegade or outlaw sensibility is in dangerous conflict with the arbitrary tyranny of the authority figures dominating his youth, particularly males. Rather than offering a buffer against the injustices of the Jim Crow South, Richard’s home is the crucible of his lifelong estrangement from the human community.

In childhood, Richard learns that the essential law of existence is struggle against forces deterministically operating to extinguish the weak; this view explains the pervasive naturalism of Black Boy. The lesson remains the same whether he is observing the casual violence of nature, confronting street urchins, or battling wits with prejudiced white people. Surrounded by hostility directed at him from all quarters, including the supposedly Christian adults who regularly beat and humiliate him, Richard rejects religion as fraudulent in its premises and hypocritical in its practices. He allows himself to be baptized only because of the emotional blackmail of his abject mother and the friends whose camaraderie he desperately seeks. He craves an analytic vantage point that will illuminate the random pointlessness of experience.

After he graduates from the ninth grade and begins working in Memphis, he finds in the works of H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis evidence not only that his own insights into the brutal nature of existence are valid but also that they are potentially the stuff of serious literature. Years earlier, he had discovered the explosive power of language and the raw emotional energy generated by melodramatic narrative, and he had vowed to become a writer. As a young man, he becomes consumed with literature’s promise to give him a voice in counterpoise to all those forces that have worked so systematically to silence him, and he finds therein the purpose that will save and direct his life after the nightmare of his southern childhood. Wright’s naturalism, Marxism, and existentialism coalesce in Black Boy, particularly in his analysis of American racism.

On the most basic level, Wright depicts the situation confronting the African American male in the first quarter of the twentieth century as literally life-threatening: By the age of fifteen, he had known an uncle lynched for being “too” successful and knew of a black youth murdered for forgetting the strict sexual taboos surrounding interchanges between black men and white women. He had been personally assaulted without provocation by white youths and had participated in street battles between white and black adolescents. His insistent pursuit of a way out of the South is thus a reaction to the physical terrorism exercised against the black community. It is also a repudiation of the psychological condition that racism fosters in its victims.

Richard has already suffered for years from the debilitating anxiety caused by trying to predict the behavior of white people, and he has often felt the impact of their displeasure, repeatedly losing jobs when they resent his manner or ambition. He chafes under the dehumanizing stereotypes they superimpose on him: “The White South said that it knew ’niggers,’ and I was what the white South called ’nigger.’ Well, the white South had never known me—never known what I thought, what I felt.” Richard’s exodus from the South is triggered as much by a spiritual hunger to define his own personhood, free of racist categorizations, as it is by a pursuit of greater material opportunity.

Wright asserts that his personality bears permanent scars as a southern black man—scars that explain his emotional and philosophical alienation as well as his unresolved anger. Significantly, however, they also serve as the creative wellspring of his powerful artistry.

Wright leaves no doubt about his resentment of the white racist social order that defined his youth; what is more difficult to resolve is the ambivalence toward black people that permeates Black Boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, Wright finds himself estranged from the black community by his dismissal of religion, his resistance to strategies for manipulating white people behind the mask of stereotype, and his contempt for passive acquiescence in response to white terrorism. That estrangement becomes central to his depiction of black people and explains his vacillation between analytic detachment and deeply personal condemnation.

Nevertheless, a key source of Black Boy’s narrative tension—and its author’s positioning of himself as existential outcast—lies in his antipathy to the world that failed to nourish him. One might also argue that Wright’s impulse to repudiate the past is very much in keeping with the American literary paradigm of “making oneself” anew in a new world. Richard sets out to define himself according to his own proclivities and talents in the unknown future of Chicago, toward which he is rushing by train at the close of the book.

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth stands as a classic African American autobiography. It tells of Richard Wright’s escape from figurative slavery in the South to freedom in the North. The text opens in 1912 on Wright’s earliest memory at age four. Richard is living in Jackson, Mississippi, in the crowded home of his grandparents. The household includes Richard, his mother, father, brother, and his uncle, and it replicates the subhuman living conditions of slaves.

Richard’s father is illiterate and an unskilled laborer; in search of work, he moves his family to another state, which initiates Richard’s life of emotional and physical instability. These disruptions occur in three cycles. From age four to age twelve, Richard moves frequently from Mississippi to Tennessee to Arkansas and back again. From age twelve to age seventeen, he remains in Jackson. From age seventeen to age nineteen, he escapes, first to Tennessee and then to Illinois. Before age twelve, Richard suffers abandonment by his father, life in an orphanage, street life, heavy drinking, and the illness of his mother.

Wright employs the literary technique of naturalism to portray the racial and environmental factors that create a hostile world for Richard. Whites consider African Americans to be inferior because of their skin color, and Richard hears of violent acts against African Americans in the form of murders, lynchings, and beatings. He personally experiences verbal threats, physical assaults, and animal attacks. Whites pay African Americans low wages to keep them economically enslaved and unable to escape the mandated segregated housing, which is substandard. Richard consistently suffers from hunger, poor housing, insufficient clothing, and erratic schooling.

Richard grows up an isolated figure because he does not fit the servile demeanor required of African Americans to live in the South. He rejects religion since he cannot understand how a white God allows his mother, family, and community to suffer. In turn, they assail his reading and writing of fiction, which his grandmother charges is “Devil’s work.” The school principal even denounces Richard when he refuses to deliver the stock valedictory speech of humility at his graduation ceremony from ninth grade. Whites, too, attack Richard for being a “smart Negro” when he undertakes menial jobs in private homes or at businesses during his stay in the South.

Richard resists these oppressive forces in his quest for knowledge and for freedom. At nineteen, he discovers the writer H. L. Mencken, and decides that he, too, wants to become a writer to “wage war with words.” Black Boy concludes in 1927, with Richard’s flight to the North in the tradition of former slaves before him.

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Richard Wright was a bored and frustrated young boy growing up in Natchez, Mississippi, in a household that he believed neither understood nor appreciated him. At the age of four, he demonstrated his boredom and frustration by setting his house on fire, thus incurring the wrath of his mother, Ella, who beat him into unconsciousness.

When the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, Richard’s father deserted the family, leaving them in poverty. Richard’s mother was forced to put her two sons in an orphanage, where they remained for six weeks before being reunited with their mother. They then moved to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with Ella’s sister and her husband. En route to Arkansas, they stayed for a brief time in Jackson, Mississippi, with Ella’s parents, Margaret and Richard Wilson. Margaret (called Granny), the matriarchal head of the house, was a stern ruler, intolerant of the love of fiction demonstrated by a schoolteacher who boarded with her. The schoolteacher introduced fiction to Richard. From Granny’s intolerance, Richard learned lessons about familial rigidity and cruelty that he carried with him throughout his youth.

When they arrived in Elaine, Arkansas, to stay with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins, it appeared that the Wrights’ lives of constant mobility and poverty were over. They finally got the food they needed and the security they had lacked. This sustenance and stability were short-lived, however. Uncle Hoskins was murdered by whites who wanted his saloon, thus compelling the Wright family to leave. They fled to West Helena, a town near Elaine.

The mobility continued when Richard’s mother suffered a stroke. Granny took her and the two boys back to Jackson, Mississippi. Even this move was temporary, because Granny could not afford to provide for the three Wrights. She sent Richard’s brother to stay with their Aunt Maggie, who had moved to Detroit, and she sent Richard to Greenwood, Mississippi, to live with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody. This sojourn in Richard’s life was a miserable time for him because of his uncle’s brutality. In the early 1920’s, Richard returned to Jackson, Mississippi.

During his four years in Jackson, from 1921 to 1925, Wright went to two schools, graduating as valedictorian from Smith-Robinson Public School. Although this was his only formal education, he made the most of this brief schooling and immersed himself in all types of literature. He also published his first work, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre,” which appeared in the Southern Register in 1924.

Despite the fulfillment he discovered in literature, Richard’s life in Jackson was painful because of the religious fanaticism of his grandmother and his Aunt Addie, who lived with them. When he could no longer tolerate those surroundings, Richard first got a job to earn money for his escape from Jackson, then stole money so that he would have enough support to go to Memphis, where he stayed for two years.

In 1927, Richard followed his dream to Chicago, what he envisioned as the promised land of the North. He arrived there looking for the freedom he had been denied in the South, and he believed he had found that freedom as well as solidarity with others in the John Reed Club, which was a Communist literary organization, and then in the Communist Party itself. This was only a momentary stop on his journey toward self-realization, however, for Richard learned that the Communist Party was not the organization he had thought it was. It wished to rob him of his individuality, his unique gifts as a writer, and his desire to be an individual who used words to create a new world. As he observed what the Communist Party did to people, including a man named Ross who was tried as a traitor to the party, Wright realized that he needed to leave the party. Having learned that his calling was not to be a member of an organized group but to be a solitary individual whose strength was his identity as a wordsmith, he accepted his vocation. He was a writer.

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Summary

Chapters I-IV Summary

Richard Wright's autobiographical account in Black Boy opens with his earliest memory, standing before a fireplace as a four-year-old...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Chapters V-X Summary

Richard's confrontations with his family over religion are reignited when his mother, recovered for a time, joins a Methodist church and...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Chapters XI-XIV Summary

Upon his arrival in Memphis, Richard quickly finds, to his surprise, a friendly family with whom he can lodge; but he is even more surprised...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Chapters XV-XX Summary

Originally deleted by Wright's publisher and finally restored in the Library of America's 1991 edition of Black Boy, this section...

(The entire section is 116 words.)