Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1146 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 678 words.)