“Black Boy” is a 1945 memoir by the author Richard Wright about his youth in the southern United States. The book is divided into two sections, the first of which details Wright’s time growing up and the racism that he faced as a young black child and the second detailing his time in Chicago working with the Communist party. Initially, only the first half of the story was of interest to publishers who were still wary of Communist-related works.
The full book was not published together until 1991, and it was published under the title: “Black Boy (American Hunger)” to reflect the title that it went under in it’s earlier publishing.
The story revolves around Richard’s difficult childhood with a sick mother and strict religious grandmother, his budding atheism, his ascent into manhood and most importantly, his growing realization of the divide between whites and blacks in 20th century society. Richard eventually joins the Communist party for a sense of community and power but leaves after he feels that the racism that they pledged to avoid was just as prevalent within the party as without.
The memoir has been banned by the board of education in New York and was the subject of a US Supreme Court Case in the year 1982.
After being warned not to wake his sick grandmother, four year old Richard Wright begins playing with straw in the fireplace out of boredom. He decides to set the curtains on fire as he is curious about what they will look like when they are aflame. However, once the curtains are alight, the fire quickly spreads out of control. Terrified, Richard hides under the house until his father, Nathan finds him.
Richard’s mother, Ella spanks him with a switch until he passes out and develops a fever that lasts for several days. After recovering, Richard and his family move to Memphis, Tennessee. Richard’s father begins working nights and sleeping during the day. One day, while Richard and his brother are playing with a stray kitten, Nathan is awoken by the noise and angrily tells Richard to kill the kitten. Thinking that his father is serious, Richard hangs the kitten. Nathan gets angry and Ella punishes Richard by making him bury the kitten alone.
A short time later, Nathan abandons the family to move in with another woman. Without him, the family is left in dire circumstances. Richard begins to develop a bitterness toward his father for leaving. Richard is robbed while walking to the grocery store one day and Ella gives him a large stick to beat the boys who robbed him. Richard returns to find the boys and manages to crack one of them over the head with the stick. Feeling triumphant, he threatens to beat their parents, too.
Richard begins peeping into a local tavern and amusing himself by watching the drunks inside. Eventually, the customers notice and one of them pulls him inside. The various customers offer Richard money for repeating curse words. They also offer him drinks and Richard soon becomes obsessed with drinking. He develops an alcohol problem a the young age of six years old.
When Ella discovers his alcohol problem, she beats him and begs him to stop drinking. She finally manages to stop him by leaving him in the care of another woman who watches him very closely. Richard eventually loses his taste for alcohol. As Richard grows he does not attend school and learns where he can. He begins trying to understand the relationship between blacks and whites but he cannot get anyone to discuss it with him.
Richard hears that a white man beat a black boy in his neighborhood and assumes that the man was the boys father, since he is aware that only parents are allowed to beat children. Ella tells him that the man was not the boy’s father, but does not tell him anything further, confusing him ever more.
Ella sues Nathan for child support, but Nathan manages to convince the judge that he is already supporting her. Richard refuses to see his father and beg him for money. Ella must resort to putting Richard and his brother in an orphanage for one month to shore up her finances.
Scared of the orphanage, Richard runs away one night but does not get far before he is found by a white policeman. Richard is scared of talking to the man at first, remembering the story of the white man beating the black boy but that policeman is kind and brings him back to the orphanage.
Ella brings her sons home a month later and forces Richard to go to his father to plead for some money so that she may take their sons to live with her sister, Maggie in Arkansas.
Richard asks Nathan for money, and Nathan says that he doesn’t have any and seems amused by the idea of his family starving. Richard and his mother get into a fight with Nathan. At the end, Nathan offers Richard a nickel but the boy does not take it.
Richard’s narration informs the reader that this is the last time he would see his father for 25 years. The next time he sees him, Nathan is a poor, old sharecropper who Richard feels pity for. When Richard is finally retrieved from the orphanage, he is so excited to leave that he does not bother to say goodbye to the other children and only does so when bid by his mother.
Digressing from the story, Richard as the narrator outlines his disagreement with the stereotype that black people live particularly passionate and emotional lives. He believed that what white people interpreted as emotional upheaval was instead the craze of living as outsiders in society.
On the way to live with Ella’s sister, the family stops to visit her mother in Mississippi. Richard’s grandmother, whom he calls Granny, is boarding a young schoolteacher who attempts to teach Richard about novels. However, Granny is a heavily religious Seventh-Day Adventist who abhors anything she deems to be “devil stuff.”
Richard secretly makes a vow that he will read as many novels as he can despite Granny’s misgivings. Richard accidentally gets the schoolteacher in trouble by repeating an insult from one of her books that he does not know the meaning of. Granny confronts the women, who decides to move out.
When they reach Arkansas and Ella’s sister, Maggie, Richard is surprised to find that because Maggie’s husband runs a saloon his family is always well fed. Richard has to adjust to having enough food to go around. Unfortunately, before long the white men in the town get jealous over Maggie’s husband’s business and kill him. Ella, Maggie and the two boys are forced to flee the town and return to Granny’s house.
One day, while playing outside, Richard sees a regiment of black soldiers training for World War I. Later he sees a black chain gang and wonders again about the divisions between blacks and whites in society. Maggie and Ella tire of their mother’s religious strictness quickly, and move together with the boys to another town in Arkansas. Maggie and Ella begin working to support themselves.
Soon, Maggie begins seeing a man whom Richard calls Professor Matthews. Matthews is on the run from the police and is only able to visit Maggie at night. He regularly gives Richard and his brother gifts to keep them quiet. One of these gifts is a poodle named Betsy. Matthews commits another crime that involves the death of a white woman and he and Maggie suddenly flee north one night.
This departure returns Ella to struggling to feed her family, since she no longer has her sister’s income to help with her expenses. Richard decides to sell his dog for a dollar and goes door-to-door in a white neighborhood. One woman agrees to buy the dog, but only has 90 cents on hand. Richard’s growing fear of white people causes him to run away from the deal. A week later, Betsy is hit by a coal wagon and killed. Ella tells Richard that he should have sold her when he had the chance.
As World War I ends, racial tensions in the south begin heating up even more. Richard listens to stories about racial conflicts in his neighborhood and hears about a black woman seeking vengeance against a white mob who murdered her husband. He vows to do the same if he is ever faced with an angry mob.
Richard befriends some other black children in his neighborhood and begins seeking a sense of his own racial identity. The boys regularly meet up with the white boys in the area to fight. Wright, as the narrator, relates that he doesn’t think that any of them were old enough to really understand why they were fighting but that it was about a sense of personal honor.
Ella soon becomes ill and suffers a stroke that leaves her paralyzed. Richard writes to Granny for help. Granny soon arrives, and Richard helps her to write letters to her eight older children requesting money and support. Richard’s aunts and uncles soon start sending what they can, and Granny brings Ella and her boys back to her house in Jackson.
Richard’s aunts and uncles converge on Granny’s house to decide who will care for Ella’s children. They decide to separate them so that it will not be as much of a burden. Richard’s brother, Alan goes to live with Maggie in Detroit. Richard is given the choice of who to live with and chooses his uncle Clark, as the man lives closest.
Once entering school, Richard immediately gets into a fight with another boy to gain acceptance from the other students. As Richard is getting accustomed to his new house, he learns that a former occupant of Uncle Clark’s house died in the room that he is now using. This frightens Richard so much that he eventually asks to return to Granny’s house.
Back at Granny’s house, Ella suffers another stroke and Richard begins to realize that he has to get used to the idea that she will never be well again. Wright as narrator, reflects that Ella remained bedridden for the bulk of her remaining ten years alive. He says that he began to associate her pain with the pain of his childhood and that he now believes that the meaning of life comes only through struggle with meaningless pain. Richard’s Aunt Addie, who is also very religious, joins Granny’s crusade to save Richard’s soul. Richard is soon enrolled in a religious school where Addie teaches
One day, Addie accuses Richard of eating walnuts in class although it was actually the student in front of him that was eating them. Addie beats Richard in front of the class. Richard resolves that he will not let her beat him again. Later that night, Richard tells Addie who the real culprit eating the walnuts was and Addie tries to beat him again for not telling her earlier.
Richard becomes furious and pulls a knife on her. He manages to fend her off, but the action only causes his relatives to become more convinced that there is something wrong with him. Richard begins to feel that he is not able to believe in God. At this point, Richard is twelve years old, and Granny begins forcing him to attend all-night prayer meetings. However, he finds himself more interested in the pastor’s pretty wife than the prayers.
To appease Granny, Richard promises to spend an hour praying every day. When he is unable to focus on praying, he begins taking that time to write instead. He writes a story about an Indian woman who drowns herself and shares it with his young neighbor. The neighbor is surprised that anyone would take the time to write out of the desire to do so and Richard enjoys this astonishment.
Eventually, Granny and Addie give up on saving Richard and let him attend public school. Granny refuses to pay for his textbooks, however.
On the first day of school, Richard gets into another fight and gains acceptance with the students through fighting. Richard does well in school although he finds that his poverty distances him from his peers. He gets a job selling papers from a boy at school who also sells them.
One day, one of Richard’s black customers asks him if he realizes what he is selling. As Richard has never read the papers, he doesn’t. The black customer shows him that it is a propaganda paper for the Klu Klux Klan. Richard is shocked and stops selling the paper although this means that he has to go hungry again.
Richard makes a comment to Granny that she deems blasphemous and she lunges to slap him. Richard ducks and Granny loses her balance an falls off the porch, hurting her back. Addie confronts Richard and tries to beat him, and again he pulls a knife to defend himself. Addie promises that she will get him one day and Richard sleeps with a knife under his pillow for a month.
Richard soon takes a job writing for an illiterate insurance salesman. The job involves interacting with black sharecroppers, and Richard is astonished to see the poverty and ignorance of the men. He feels intelligent and cosmopolitan compared to them. After leaving this job, Richard takes another job working for a white family. The family is rude and terrible to him, but he keeps the job so that he will have the money to be on equal ground with his peers in school.
Richard begins attending church again, though he does not believe in God still and feels pressured one day to allow himself to be baptized. Afterward, he notes that he didn’t feel any different and the other boys who were baptized that day agree. Ella suffers another stroke, and Granny asks Uncle Tom and his family to move into the house so that they will pay rent. Soon, Tom gets angry at Richard over a perceived slight and tries to fight him. Richard fends him off with two razors, which shocks the man and causes him to lay off his nephew.
During eighth grade, Richard writes a short story and compels the local black paper to run it. His family is unreceptive and confused as to why he would write a story for fun and Granny and Addie, in particular, are horrified. Ella thinks that Richard’s writing will put off potential employers. Wright notes that if he had known then how difficult it would be to become a writer he would have given up right then. Richard learns one morning that one of his classmate’s brother’s was killed by white men because they thought he was patronizing a local prostitute. The injustice weighs on Richard’s mind heavily. He also learns that Tom has instructed his children not to interact with Richard as he deems him a bad influence. Richard’s brother, Alan visits and sides with the family’s hostility toward him, much to Richard’s discouragement.
At his graduation, Richard is made valedictorian of his class. But because white people will be present at the ceremony, Richard’s principal refuses to let him give a speech of his devising. The principal gives him a pre-approved speech that he has written himself. On the day of the ceremony, Richard gives his speech and leaves as quickly as possible afterward, not listening to the applause.
Wright says that he was disgusted with the school and the community and resolved at that point to enter the year 1925 by taking control of his independence. Richard soon gets a job at a clothing store but is dismayed to see how his white bosses treat the black customers. One day, he is offered a ride home by a group of young white men who end up smashing a whiskey bottle over his head when he forgets to call one of the “sirs”. He falls from the vehicle and walks back home.
One day, while Richard is making a delivery in a white neighborhood, he is stopped and searched by a hostile white policeman. The man sends him on his way but warns him to tell his boss not to send him on runs after dark in white neighborhoods again. Richard’s boss fires him eventually because of his disapproval over the way the man is running the store.
One of Richard’s friends, Griggs, tells Richard that he is getting a reputation among the white people in town for being a troublemaker. He tells him that he needs to learn how to act around white people and swallow his pride. Griggs help Richard finds a job with a white optician who is interested in tutoring a black man.
Richard is happy to have the job, but his coworkers, Pease and Reynolds are upset that a black man has been hired and don’t think he is capable of working the machines. The men eventually drive him out of a job. The doctor tries to mediate the situation, but Richard fears to tattle on his coworkers as they might raise a mob to kill him.
Crane tells Richard that it might be best if he got out of town and moved to the north where it is easier for blacks. Beaten down by the scale of the racism that he faces everyday, Richard drifts from job to job, making mistakes that get him fired again and again. He initially vows never to steal money from his jobs like his coworkers do but eventually begins stealing to collect money to move north. He admits that his racist white coworkers encourage this behavior as they would rather have a dishonest black coworker than an educated, honest one. Richard accrues enough money to move to Memphis and vows never to steal again.
In Memphis, he takes a room from a black woman named Mrs. Moss who decides almost immediately that she wants him to marry her daughter. Richard dislikes the woman’s daughter and is confused as to why she trusts him so readily. Mrs. Moss comes to understand that Richard does not want to marry her daughter after a while.
After being in the city for a while, Richard takes a job in another optician’s shop. At the shop, a black man named Shorty works the elevator. Richard is amused by the man since he seems to be an intelligent, sensible person but he is perfectly willing to let white people demean him for money. Richard happens across Shorty letting white men kick him for a quarter several times.
Richard and another black employee named Harrison are regularly goaded and encouraged to fight by the white employees for their entertainment. The white men offer to pay them to box each other, and the men agree, though they plan to fake the fight. However, once they start fighting they quickly realize that they aren’t sure how to fake it. The fight ends up becoming genuine.
Richard reads local newspapers attack a critic named H.L. Mencken and becomes interested in reading some of the man’s works, as he is surprised that the newspaper would disparage a white man. As blacks were not allowed to borrow library books, Richard asks a white Irish coworker named Falk if he can borrow his library card. Falk agrees and sends him with a note asking the librarian to let Richard borrow the books.
Richard reads the books and becomes a voracious reader afterward, finding himself entranced with the written word. He hides this from his coworkers, but they notice that he has become dreamy and cheerful. That winter, Richard’s mother, and Alan come to live with him in Memphis. Alan also gets a job, and the family begins saving money to move to Chicago.
Having been abandoned by Professor Matthews, Maggie soon moves to Memphis as well. Everyone decides that it would be best if Maggie and Richard go ahead to Chicago to get a place for the four of them. Richard is nervous about announcing his move as the southern whites did not like to see a black person moving north. He waits till two days before the move to tell his boss that he is leaving and lies to say that he only wants to move to be close to his mother. Falk is secretly pleased that Richard is chasing his dream and Shorty is jealous that he will probably never get to do the same.
When Richard arrives in Chicago he is immediately overwhelmed by the size of the city and the casual way that blacks and whites interact in it.
As his Aunt Cleo already lives in the city, Richard gets a room in her building. Richard takes a job at a deli run by a Jewish couple named the Hoffmans. Still adjusting to the way he is treated by the whites in the north, he assumes that the Hoffmans occasional impatience with him is racist and that the whites of the neighborhood are only tolerating him for the time being. He stays on eggshells, constantly afraid that he will offend the whites. Wright says that looking back on this causes him to understand better blacks who seem to surrender to racism like Shorty. He still does not approve of giving in like this, but he better understands it.
Richard takes an exam for another job and simply takes three days off without telling the Hoffmans why. When he returns, he lies and tells them that his mother died in Memphis and he had to go to her funeral. The Hoffmans know that he is lying and tell him that they aren’t like southerners and won’t treat him badly.
Richard is ashamed but still can’t admit his lie. He quits his job shortly after without admitting it because he is too ashamed to work for the Hoffmans any longer. Richard takes another job as a dishwasher and is surprised when his boss believes his side of the story in a dispute with a coworker.
Soon, Ella and Alan arrive and move into the apartment. Richard continues reading obsessively and trying to write, although he is frustrated that he isn’t able to write like the novels he reads.
Richard begins seeking a job at the post office but must reach a weight requirement that is ten pounds over his current weight. He begins forcing himself to eat to the point of illness and manages to gain fifteen pounds in a few months. He is hired at the post office and joins a group of black, Jewish and Irish coworkers who read novels and discuss them.
He meets a group of black people who follow the teachings of the black leader Marcus Garvey, who advocated blacks returning to Africa to form an independent nation. The doctrine doesn’t sway Richard, but he enjoys the follower’s vitriol and passion.
The Great Depression soon begins, and Richard loses his job at the post office. Richard desperately needs a job and gets one working at an insurance company that exploits poor black families. He hates working for the company but knows that he must if he wants to feed his family. Some of his coworkers begin accepting sex from the women they sell policies to as a form of payment, and Richard follows suit, beginning a sexual relationship with a single mother. He is initially disgusted by her ignorance and illiteracy but soon becomes upset with himself for being disgusted with something she cannot control.
Richard overhears a group of Communists giving speeches in the street one day and is intrigued by their passion as he was with the Garveyites. However, he thinks their ideas are too vague, and their express atheism is juvenile. On election night, Richard writes in a joke vote saying “I protest this fraud.”
Soon, the Great Depression worsens more, and Richard loses his insurance job. He and his family are forced to move into cheaper housing and accept food donations from the government. Richard begins waiting in bread lines to receive his daily allowance of food and realizes for the first time that the scores of poor, hungry people around him are indeed a community who could rise and overthrow the government if they wished. He realizes that blacks are especially dangerous to the government because they have no stake in what prizes are being offered for compliance. He finally realizes that he is not suffering alone.
Richard obtains another job working as an orderly in a research institute and sees the segregation between the white health professionals and the black laborers most clearly. The lab uses dogs for experiments but cuts their vocal chords to minimize the noise of the trapped animals. When the dogs wake from this surgery, they howl silently, and Richard sees this as a metaphor for silent suffering.
Richard’s boss sends a boy to time him while he is cleaning, and Richard begins to feel more like a slave than ever. He gets furious one day while he is cleaning the steps and none of the white employees show him the courtesy of not walking over what he has already cleaned. Richard is surprised to discover that many of his old friends from the post office are now part of the Communist party. Richard is encouraged to attend one of the meetings of the party where the white members give him pamphlets and magazines to read.
Richard enjoys the reading and the idea of a world where everyone who is currently oppressed is united. He begins writing Communist poetry as he feels that the party hasn’t yet found a way to appeal to the masses in the right language. Richard officially joins the party and becomes the executive secretary of the club that he attends although the bickering between party members quickly begins to exhaust him.
Richard soon learns that his ambition to become a writer and his intelligent manner of speaking has branded him an intellectual among the black Communists of the city and that they dislike that he reads books that are not approved by the party. This makes the Communists uncomfortable as much of their manifesto of the time shunned intellectuals.
This distance between Richard and the club that he once thought was where he belonged grows wider over the coming months. Richard is encouraged to hitchhike to New York to attend a conference there. When he arrives, he has trouble finding somewhere that will allow a black man to stay and struggles to focus on the conference as a result of the racism he has encountered in New York. The conference moves to get rid of Richard’s Communist club in Chicago due to their literary bent and Richard is helpless as the vote is cast.
The club is disbanded, and Richard’s duties are eliminated. He learns that there are accusations against him high up and decides to quit the party altogether. The party insists that he go to Switzerland to meet with a delegation there, but Richard puts in his resignation instead. However, somehow, the resignation seems to be disappeared. He realizes that they are trying to keep him in the party so that they can be the ones to kick him out after completely destroying his reputation.
Richard is horrified by a trial of one of the higher up men in his club for the spectacle of it and the man’s crimes. He leaves the trail before it is over and none of the party members ever speak to him again. The government relief program assigns Richard to a job working for the Federal Writer’s program, but the Communists working there refuse to let him start.
Richard tries to be part of the May Day parade, and a former comrade from the party asks him to march with his old group. He agrees, nervously and soon after two white comrades throw Richard out of the parade, bodily. None of his black comrades do anything about it. Bleeding and hurt, Richard walks home and convinces himself that the Communists have been blinded by oppression. He says that he thinks that mankind can only learn by building a bridge of words to the outside world.
Richard Wright – the protagonist and narrator of the story. Richard begins the story as a young black child living in the southern US with his family. Before long, his father abandons them, and his mother is forced to support her two sons on meager earnings. Richard spends much of his childhood hungry and degraded. Because of this, it is not surprising that he joins the first group that offers him any sense of belonging and community – The Communist Party.
Throughout the book, Richard’s develops an unshakable assertion that he is worth more than society believes he is. He frequently tussles with white authority figures over their assertion that he remain subservient to them. However, it is not only the whites that feel this way. Richard’s family, especially his grandmother and Aunt Addie also seem to believe in the positions they are subjected to as blacks in a white-driven world. When it is revealed that Richard is reading and writing, instead of being proud that he is making something of himself and trying to change society in whatever small way he could, they are horrified, and his mother expresses the assertion that he would never be hired by white employers again.
Is it possible to view this from the perspective that Richard’s family was realistic about his chances being accepted by white society as a black man in the early 20th century and that Richard had his head in the clouds? From a current readers perspective, knowing all that Richard Wright managed to accomplish in his lifetime despite institutionalized racism working against him, it is hard to see it from any other perspective than this.
Richard seems to tell a very honest story in the memoir and often paints himself in a bad light- such as when he revealed that he kills the kitten as a boy or when he was disgusted with the single mother’s ignorance – heedless of how it makes him look. Over the course of the novel, Richard mostly educates himself not only in an academic sense but in the sense of what he can achieve and what he is willing to let hold him back. In the end, he leaves the Communist party and vows to become a professional writer, a dream that we all know he achieved.
Ella Wright – Richard’s mother. Ella is a very divisive figure in the book. On the one hand, she was a single mother trying to do her best in a society that did not value her or even accept her as a human, on the other, she was physically violent with Richard and, for the most part, unemotional. This duplicity may be a reflection of how Richard felt about his mother even to the end of his life. As the only authority figure for much of her son’s life, Ella delivers beating after beating to him and constantly belittles and criticizes his behavior. But there are little glimmers of her love for her son and belief in him throughout the memoir, such as when she is proud of him for standing up to her mother and sister.
Ella’s character shifts when she becomes ill and begins suffering a succession of strokes. She soon becomes bedridden and, although this does not soften her personality, it does make Richard begin to associate her with illness and pain and therefore associate his childhood with these things. Ella’s death does not happen in the book, but Richard reveals early on that she died around ten years after her first stroke.
Richard Wright Biography
Richard Nathaniel Wright was an American author whose outspoken protest against racial prejudice made him a spokesperson for a generation of black people in America.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1908, Wright spent his early life in poverty and frequently moved with his family around the tri-state area of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Wright left school after the ninth grade and published his first story when he was only 16. He worked menial jobs to support himself and moved to the South Side of Chicago in 1927.
He joined the Federal Writer’s Project and the Federal Negro Theater Project during the Great Depression. In 1932, he joined the Communist party and wrote poems, short stories, and essays. He described his subsequent disillusionment with the party in his contribution to “The God That Failed” (1950), a book of essays written by six former Communists. He lived in New York in the late 1930’s and worked as an editor. Wright’s first book, “Uncle Tom’s Children” (1938) is a collection of stories that eloquently dramatize racial prejudice in America. His major work, “Native Son” (1940), explores the violent psychological pressures that drive a young Chicago black man named Bigger Thomas to murder.
In 1939, Wright married Dhimah Rose Meidman, a dance teacher, but the marriage, unfortunately, ended a year later and in 1941 he married Ellen Poplar, a Communist organizer. The couple had two daughters, Julia and Rachael.
In the autobiographical, “Black Boy” (1945), Wright reveals in bitter personal terms the devastating impact of prejudice on a black person in the U.S during his formative years. Wright became unhappy with life in the U. S and moved to France in 1947 where he became a French citizen and traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. He used these travels as the basis for many non-fiction books. Wright died of a heart attack in Paris, France in 1960 at the age of 52. He was buried in Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery.