Richard Wright, the narrator of the autobiography and the black boy who is the subject of the story. Richard begins his narrative when he is four years old, describing an incident in which he attempts to set his house on fire out of boredom and frustration with his restricted life within his family. He traces his life from that point on, describing numerous adventures and challenges that mark his journey to young adulthood. These challenges include physical ones, including the hunger that the poverty-stricken Wrights experience when Mr. Wright abandons his wife and two sons, and spiritual ones, including the search for himself within an environment that is racially charged and hostile to a young black boy growing up in America. Ultimately, Wright goes to Chicago, Illinois, where he joins the Communist Party before learning that his calling in life is to be a solitary individual, not a member of an organized group, and to be a writer whose weapons will be the words he uses.
Ella Wright, Richard’s mother, whose physical weakness makes it difficult for her to care for and even love her sons Richard and Leon. She moves her sons from place to place, temporarily housing them in an orphanage, as she tries to survive and provide for the boys, whom her husband abandoned when he left her and them for another woman.
Nathan Wright, Richard’s father, who abandons his family to poverty and a hunger that stalks Richard throughout his life. He ends his life as a sharecropper in Mississippi, working the land of a white plantation owner.
Granny Wilson, Richard’s grandmother, whose religious fanaticism and intolerance of what she sees as the frivolity of literature frustrate her grandson, who is both rebelling against religion and seeking the joys of reading and writing.
Aunt Maggie and
Uncle Hoskins, Ella Wright’s sister and her husband. These relatives provide a welcome refuge for Ella and her sons after they are abandoned by Nathan Wright and after their brief, unhappy stay with Granny Wilson. For the first time in his life, Richard experiences security and is given all the food and love that had been deprived him earlier. Aunt Maggie is a supportive relative, and Uncle Hoskins, a saloon owner, is a tolerant man, unflappable even when his noisy nephews seem to take over the house. Uncle Hoskins is murdered by whites who want his saloon, abruptly terminating the Wrights’ brief sojourn with their caring relatives.
Aunt Jody and
Uncle Clark, Richard’s other aunt and uncle. Unlike Maggie and Hoskins, Jody and Clark, with whom Richard lives for a short time, are neither understanding nor supportive of their nephew. Clark beats Richard, ostensibly for Richard’s bad language, and he and his wife cannot live up to Richard’s hope that they will be surrogate parents for him.
Ross, a member of the Communist Party in Chicago. He is tried as a traitor, and his indictment becomes a symbol of the unqualified loyalty to the party that Richard is unable to give.