Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth is hailed in the genre of American literature as one of the most important non-fiction works documenting not only a piece of history, but a piece of African American culture. The novel starts with Richard at the age of four, who mistakenly burns down the house after starting a fire out of boredom. As punishment, Richard is beaten - a typical punishment he receives from authority figures. When Richard father figuratively says to kill a cat outside (because it is making too much noise), he purposely disobeys his father by strangling the cat. When his mother makes him bury and pray for the cat, he is haunted by the image of the cat's ghost. Richard's father deserts the family, and his mother is left to earn money to feed the family, leaving Richard and his brother unattended. When Richard is six years old, he wanders into the local saloon and learns how to drink and swear. Despite Richard's obvious intellectual capabilities exemplified by his quick learning skills, he is still unaware of the relationship between blacks and whites in the South.
Richard and his family move to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with Aunt Addie and Uncle Hoskins a successful proprietor of a saloon catering to black workers. On the way to Elaine, they stop to stay with Granny in Jackson. When Ella the young schoolteacher renting out a room from Granny reads Richard the story of Bluebeard, Granny kicks her out of the house for blasphemy and "Devil stuff." Richard is also beaten for saying obscenities to his Grandmother. In Elaine, Richard is allowed to eat as much as he wants for the first time. But when an envious group of white men murder Uncle Hoskins, Richard and his family flee the town. They stay at Granny's house for a period before moving on to West Helena, where Richard would associate with the black neighborhood children and ridicule Jewish people in the neighborhood. They live in a poverty-stricken area, and one day, Richard witnesses a prostitute and a man in the room upstairs. They move again, and soon after, Aunt Maggie marries Professor Matthew, a mysterious black man who only comes to visit Maggie in secrecy. When Matthews kills a white woman, he and Maggie flee North to avoid trouble. Trying to earn money for food with only one steady income, Richard decides to sell his dog; Betsy; when a white woman agrees to pay a dollar for the dog, Richard refuses because he does not want to sell his dog to a white person. Richard is enrolled in school, where he is behind in his studies and too scared to participate.
Now older, Richard associates with a gang of other black boys with whom he converses. The gang also participates in fights against white boys, which sometimes turn into bloody battles. The family moves in and out of various houses. His mother's health begins to deteriorate, until one day, a stroke paralyzes her. Richard and his brother are sent to live with different relatives: Leon goes with Aunt Maggie to the North while Richard chooses to stay with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood. At Clark's residence, Richard refuses to sleep in his bed after learning that a dead boy once slept in it. When Clark and Jody punish him for using bad words, Richard requests that he be sent back to live with his grandmother. At the age of twelve, Richard develops an emotional detachment from his mother, has not had one year of formal schooling, and has known what it means to suffer.
Living at Granny's house meant little meat or fish because she was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Richard was enrolled in the religious school, where Aunt Addie taught. Addie was intent on making Richard into a bad example, and punished him for things he did not do. One day at home, when Addie threatens to beat Richard, he grabs a kitchen knife to defend himself. When a religious revival was in progress at church, Granny dragged Richard in hopes of his conversion. When Richard says that he would believe in God if he saw an angel, Granny misunderstands him, thinking that Richard actually has seen an angel. The incident is an embarrassment to Granny and Richard promises to pray out of guilt. When trying to pass his "prayer time," Richard writes a story about an Indian girl who commits suicide by drowning.
In school, Richard is isolated from his peers because he has no money. Intent on earning money for books and lunch, Richard obtains a job selling papers. One day, a family friend points out to Richard that the papers he has been selling are full of racist propaganda. Afterwards, Richard refuses to sell the papers. Meanwhile, his grandfather falls ill and passes away soon thereafter. Afterwards, Richard disobeys against his grandmother and decides to take a job where he is required to work on the Sabbath.
Richard never returns to his first job, where he does chores for a white woman, because he is mistreated: given stale bread, asked if he stole, and told that niggers could never be writers. He takes another job in a different white family, serving breakfast and doing chores. His mother begins to recover and convinces Richard to attend a Methodist Church with her; he obliges not because of faith, but because all his schoolmates socialized at church meetings. During a religious revival, Richard is forced in converting and being baptized by his mother as well as the entire black community. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom and his family move into the upstairs of Granny's house. Tom, who disapproves of the tone of Richard's voice, threatens to beat him. Richard defends himself against Tom by grabbing razorblades to fend him off.
Richard obtains a job at the brickyard and is bitten by the boss's dog. He receives no treatment, and the white person in charge claims that no dog bite can hurt a nigger. Meanwhile, Richard writes a story called "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," which is published in a local Negro newspaper. But he receives no positive feedback from his family or his peers. When Richard graduates from school, he is elected valedictorian. But the school principal approaches Richard, giving him a pre-written speech to read at the graduation ceremony. Richard refuses to read the speech, sabotaging an opportunity to attain a teaching position by reading a speech he composed himself. Now desperate for money, Richard acts as a porter in a clothing store, where he witnesses the wrong and brutal treatment of black people. He is driven off of several jobs because white people do not approve of the way he acts; Richard does not now how to laugh or talk like "the other niggers." His schoolmate, Griggs, helps him find a job in a Yankee-owned optical trade shop. His boss, Mr. Crane, is decent; however, Pease and Reynolds two white workers at the shop harass Richard into leaving his job. Richard finds a job as a cleaning boy at a hotel in town, where he encounters other black boys his age. One boy named Shorty surprises him by degrading himself, allowing a white man to kick him in the ass for a quarter. Richard leaves his job to take a job at the theater, where he is involved in a ticket scam. He makes enough from the scam to move to Memphis.
In Memphis, Richard finds a room for rent on the ill-reputed Beale street. His landlady, Mrs. Moss, wishes to have Richard marry her daughter, Bess. Richard refuses to start a relationship with Bess because she is too simple-minded. In Memphis, Richard obtains a job at another optical company. His job is progressing until one day, the head foreman Mr. Olin lies to Richard, telling him that Harrison another black boy is going to kill him. Mr. Olin constantly tries to provoke the two black boys into killing each other; finally, he offers them five dollars each if they will box with each other. Harrison and Richard agree, fighting to the point of exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Richard becomes interested in H.L. Mencken. He borrows a library card from an Irish-Catholic named Mr. Falk and enters into the realm of literature. Soon, Richard decides to leave for the North. When Aunt Maggie comes down for a visit, she leaves with Richard for Chicago. In Chicago, obtains a job at a delicatessen owned by a Jewish couple: Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman. Richard, tuned by the conditions of life in the South, cannot act naturally with the Hoffmans, lying to them and eventually leaving his job. Richard then is employed as a postal clerk, where he meets an Irish fellow whom he can relate to. He is eventually introduced into a literary circle where several of the members are in the Communist Party. Richard joins the John Reed Club a Communist organization for the arts in hopes of learning to write and publish.
Due to inter-club politics, Richard is elected as the executive secretary of the club. One day, a man by the title of Comrade Young joins the Chicago club, claiming to be from Detroit. He wins the trust of the elder members, and then makes accusations against another club member claiming the other is a Trotskyite traitor. When Young disappears, Richard learns that he is an escaped mental patient. Meanwhile, the Party has decided to disband the John Reed Clubs. At the national meeting in New York, where members will discuss the dissolving of the clubs, Richard is unable to find a room to stay in because he is black.
In order to humanize the Communist Party to the common black man, Richard decides to do a book of autobiographical sketches. He interviews a member named Ross for the book. Ross, however, has been charged with inciting to riot and is also accused later of being a traitor. Higher-ranking members, such as Ed Green and Buddy Nealson, begin to suspect Richard of the same crimes. Richard becomes disillusioned with the Party's goals, and tries to sever all relations with the party. He is invited back to witness Ross's trial for his crimes, where Ross breaks down into tears and begs for the Party's forgiveness. Richard is disgusted with the political organization and decides that the only way to reach the common man and evoke a reaction from society is through his writing.