Form and Content

Black Boy traces the young Richard Wright’s troubled journey through the violence, ignorance, and poverty of the Jim Crow South. Originally intended as a much longer work, the autobiography focuses primarily on the racist attitudes Wright encountered as he moved from rural Mississippi and Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee. It also highlights the turmoil he suffered growing up in a supposedly cruel and often overbearing family environment. The book ends in 1925 with the nineteen-year-old Wright, having begun his literary apprenticeship, determined to become a writer and escape the nightmarish turbulence of the oppressive South.

The posthumously published American Hunger takes up where the earlier autobiography left off. It chronicles not only Wright’s disillusionment with the Communist Party, which he joined near the end of 1933, but also the difficulties he experienced as a poor African American living in the urban North. “What had I got out of living in America?” Wright asks at the end of the book. “I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and a dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life.” Wright vows to “hurl words” at his country in order to make it a safer and more promising place for all Americans.

In the early 1940’s, Wright considered himself a militant novelist; he thought his own biography would be of little interest to the American public. Writing disturbing, violent fiction such as the acclaimed novel Native Son (1940), which put to rest the myth that American racism confined itself only to the Deep South, provided him the voice he needed to help resist American injustice. Only after he traveled to Fisk University in Nashville in 1943 to speak to a group of sociology students did Wright realize the potential of his own life story. The mixed group of white and African American admirers responded enthusiastically as he recalled what it was like growing up during the early decades of the twentieth century. That night, Wright decided to abandon fiction temporarily and to string together his own thoughts and memories into a candid, personal narrative.

Wright wrote his complete autobiography, which he originally entitled American Hunger, in less than eight months, relying partly on a sketch he had written about himself in 1937 called “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Eventually included in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), his first collection of short stories, this early autobiographical piece recounts, in nine segments, the violence and resistance Wright had experienced in Jackson, Mississippi, and West Helena, Arkansas, where he spent most of his childhood, and in Memphis, where he spent his later adolescence and plotted his eventual journey north. The author’s expanded autobiography expounds on these episodes and more, including Wright’s flight from the South and his future assimilation into a Chicago slum. It also recalls his days as a young militant and the difficulties he encountered trying to make his living as a writer under the aegis of the Communist Party.

Edward Aswell, Wright’s editor at Harper & Brothers, praised the manuscript and agreed to publish it the following year. He suggested to Wright, however, that only the “Southern” section of the text be released. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which had agreed to feature the autobiography, objected to Wright’s criticism of the Communist Party and threatened to withdraw its support without specific revisions. Somewhat reluctantly, Wright accepted Aswell’s advice. Further delays postponed the publication until the following spring, when it appeared under the new title Black Boy: A Recollection of Childhood and Youth. Over the next several months, Wright’s recollections of his Chicago days were published separately as articles in various literary journals. They appeared collectively as American Hunger in 1977, seventeen years after the author’s death.

Black Boy is divided chronologically into fourteen chapters. It begins with two episodes that introduce most of the important people in Wright’s youth, including his parents and his Grandmother Wilson. On the opening page of the book, Wright recalls an accidental fire he set in his grandparents’ rural home and how he was beaten so severely afterward by his parents that he lost consciousness. The “fog of fear” that enveloped Wright following the beating stands as a fitting metaphor for the agonizing and painful relationship that he claims he experienced with his family while living in the...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L., and Douglas Taylor, eds. Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” (“American Hunger”): A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Compilation of responses to Black Boy that includes contemporary criticism by such writers as W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, as well as later academic evaluations.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.” New York: Chelsea House, 2006. Collects essays on Wright’s autobiography by leading scholars. Includes thematic studies, as well as comparisons of Wright’s work to that of Maya Angelou and to the African American autobiographical tradition generally.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. New York: William Morrow, 1973. Generally considered the definitive biography of Wright. Details the period in which Wright wrote the autobiographies. Also offers an in-depth critical evaluation of each text.

Gibson, Donald B. “Richard Wright’s Black Boy and the Trauma of Autobiographical Rebirth.” Calloloo 9 (Summer, 1986): 492-498. Offers a short but informative analysis of Black Boy, arguing that the first chapter, in which Wright distances himself from his environment, sets up an outline for the rest of the text.

Mechling, Jay. “The Failure of Folklore in Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” Journal of American Folklore 104 (Summer, 1991): 275-294. Points out several passages in Black Boy that highlight Wright’s use of songs, riddles, and stories, but generally argues that Wright’s text fails as authentic folklore.

Stepto, Robert. “Literacy and Ascent: Black Boy.” In Richard Wright, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Shows how Black Boy “revoices” Wright’s own Native Son and borrows from various tropes in African American narrative literature.

Wright, Richard. Later Works. Vol. 2 in Works. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991. Includes an informative section of notes by Rampersad pertaining to Black Boy and American Hunger. Rampersad argues that the Library of America edition is the “complete text” that Wright presented to his publishers. Points out how the Book-of-the-Month Club influenced Wright’s editor and persuaded him to convince Wright to publish his autobiography in two volumes.