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...
(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...
(The entire section is 678 words.)
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 child on a rural Mississippi plantation. Warned repeatedly to "keep quiet," young Richard instead plays with fire and nearly bums his family's house down, then unsuccessfully tries to avoid being severely punished by hiding under the burning house. After the family moves to a new home in Memphis, Richard again challenges parental authority by taking literally his father's exaggerated demand that he kill a noisy kitten. Richard lynches the cat and then feels triumphant over his stern father, who can not beat Richard because he was just following orders. However, when his mother forces him to bury the animal and pray for forgiveness for his cruel act, he feels crushing guilt. These two incidents set the stage for various attempts by young Richard to express his powerful feelings and to test the limits placed on him by his family and his environment.
Richard begins to explore the world around him early on, sneaking into saloons and begging for pennies and drinks, learning to read from neighborhood school children and learning to count from the coal man, and above all, asking questions of everyone he encounters. He is witness to several disturbing scenes and events that do not make sense to his young mind. He hears that a "'black' boy had been severely beaten by a 'white' man" and he can only assume that it is because...
(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 pleads with him to be baptized. Forced into a position in which rejection of her Christian faith would constitute a visible and shameful rejection of his mother and the entire community, Richard relents and is baptized. Privately, however, he still finds his reading and writing of "pulp narrative" far more compelling than what the church, which he rejects as a "fraud," offers.
Having once again started school and in need of money for clothes and food, Richard confronts his grandmother about her religious refusal to allow him to work on Saturdays. When he finally threatens to leave her home if not allowed to work, she yields to his demand and Richard immediately begins to seek out employment. His first job, selling newspapers to black neighbors, not only provides him with an income but also a "gateway to the world" beyond his own. However, he soon learns that the newspaper he sells endorses the doctrines of the Ku Klux Klan, and he quits the job in shame. Various other jobs—including work at a farm, a brickyard, a sawmill, a clothing store, an optical company, and a movie theater—give Richard firsthand experience of the ways that white people live in the South and, more importantly, the ways that they expect blacks to live and behave. Finding himself unable to act out the roles expected of him, Richard fears that a...
(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 when Mrs. Moss, the proprietor, pressures him to marry her daughter Bess. Richard comes to realize that the Mosses live by a "simple unaffected trust" that he knows to be "impossible" in his own life. Richard immediately begins looking for work and he finds it running errands for another optical company. While working there Richard meets several other black workers who discuss together "the ways of white folks toward Negroes," but he also recognizes that the ways of some blacks toward white folks—like Shorty, who acts like a degraded clown for money—fill him with "disgust and loathing." Against his own will, however, Richard is forced into playing a similar role when the white men he works with coerce him into fighting another black boy. The psychological tension he feels around whites makes him reject the kindness of a "Yankee" white man who wants to help him.
To feed his growing hunger for books, Richard cautiously borrows a white man's library card— something forbidden to Southern blacks—and then begins to read voraciously. Reading writers whose names he can not even pronounce, Richard finds "new ways of looking and seeing" and feels "a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived." Believing that he could no longer survive in the South and inspired by his reading to seek a life of...
(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 details Wright's experiences after arriving in Chicago. Continuing his quest for a meaningful way to "live a human life," Wright realizes that the lives of blacks and whites are less segregated in the North but are separated nonetheless by a great "psychological distance." For a time Wright finds meaning in the work of the Communist party, but eventually he becomes disillusioned with the party's limited role for him. He closes Part Two with the decision to write, "determined to look squarely at my life" and to "build a bridge of words between me and that world outside."
(The entire section is 116 words.)