Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Summary
by Richard Wright

Start Your Free Trial

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Summary

Black Boy is a memoir by Richard Wright. The memoir begins when Wright accidentally burns down his family home at age four, and it follows him through his youth in the Jim Crow South.

  • As a child, Wright shows his impulsiveness and his ultimately self-destructive tendencies when he accidentally burns down his family's house.

  • Wright grows up angry about the prejudice he experiences in the Jim Crow South. He begins working shortly after finishing ninth grade, using books to continue his education.

  • Wright realizes that he has the power to convey emotions through literature. He moves to Chicago to pursue a writing career.

Download Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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...

(The entire section is 1,586 words.)