Black Boy


Black Boy (1945) is a memoir by American author Richard Wright, detailing his youth in the South: Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and his eventual move to Chicago, where he establishes his writing career and becomes involved with the Communist Party in the United States.

Plot summary

Black Boy (American Hunger) is a memoir of Richard Wright's childhood and young adulthood. It is split into two sections, "Southern Night" (concerning his childhood in the south) and "The Horror and the Glory" (concerning his early adult years in Chicago).

The book begins with a mischievous four-year-old Wright setting fire to his grandmother's house and continues in that vein. Wright is a curious child living in a household of strict, religious women and violent, irresponsible men. He quickly chafes against his surroundings, reading instead of playing with other children, and rejecting the church in favor of agnosticism at a young age. He feels more out of place as he grows older and comes in contact with the Jim Crow racism of the 1920s South. He finds it generally unjust and fights against whites' and other blacks' desire to squash his intellectual curiosity and potential.

After his father deserts the family, young Wright is shuffled back and forth among his sick mother, his fanatically religious grandmother, and various maternal aunts and uncles. As he ventures into the white world to find jobs, he encounters extreme racism and brutal violence, experience which stays with him the rest of his life. The family is starving. They have always viewed the North as a place of opportunity, so as soon as they can scrape together enough money, Richard and his aunt go to Chicago, promising to send for his mother and brother. But before Richard can go to Chicago, he has to resort to stealing money and lying. Many times he must do things he does not want to do, for survival.

The youth finds the North less racist than the South and begins forming concrete ideas about American race relations. He holds many jobs, most of them menial. He washes floors during the day and reads Proust and medical journals by night. His family is still very poor, his mother is crippled by a stroke, and his relatives constantly annoy him about his atheism and his "pointless" reading. He finds a job at the post office and meets white men who share his cynical view of the world and religion in particular. They invite him to the John Reed Club, an organization that promotes the arts and social change. He becomes involved with a magazine called Left Front. He slowly becomes immersed in the Communist Party, organizing its writers and artists.

At first he thinks he will find friends within the party, especially among its black members, but he finds them to be just as afraid of change as the southern whites he had left behind. The Communists fear anyone who disagrees with their ideas and quickly brand Wright, who has always been inclined to question and speak his mind, a "counter-revolutionary." When he tries to leave the party, he is accused of trying to lead others away from it.

After witnessing the trial of another black Communist for counter-revolutionary activity, Wright decides to abandon the party. He remains branded an "enemy" of Communism, and party members threaten him away from various jobs and gatherings. He does not fight them because he believes they are clumsily groping toward ideas that he agrees with: unity, tolerance, and equality. Wright ends the book by resolving to use his writing as a way to start a revolution: he thinks that everyone has a "hunger" for life that needs to be filled, and for him, writing is his way to the human heart.

Publishing history

Wright wrote the entire manuscript during 1943 under the working title, Black Confession. By December, when Wright delivered the book to his agent, he had changed the title to American Hunger. The first fourteen chapters, about his Mississippi childhood, were called, "Part One: Southern Night;" the last six, about Chicago, were "Part Two: The Horror and the Glory." In January 1944, Harper and Brothers accepted all twenty chapters, and by May they were in page proofs for a scheduled fall publication of the book.

But in June 1944, the Book of the Month Club expressed an interest in only the Mississippi childhood section, the first fourteen chapters. In response, Wright agreed to eliminate the Chicago section, and in August he renamed the shortened book as Black Boy. Harper and Brothers published it under that title in 1945; it sold 195,000 retail copies in its first edition and 351,000 copies through the Book-of-the-Month Club.[1]

Parts of the Chicago chapters were published during Wright's lifetime as magazine articles, but the six chapters were not published together until 1977, by Harper and Row as American Hunger. In 1991, the Library of America published all 20 chapters as a two-volume edition, as Wright had originally intended, under the title Black Boy (American Hunger).[1]

The Book of the Month Club played an important role in Wright's career. It selected his 1940 novel, Native Son, as the first Book of the Month Club written by a black American.[2] Wright was willing to change his Black Boy book to get a second endorsement, which positively affected sales. However, he wrote in his journal that the Book of the Month Club had yielded to pressure from the Communist Party in asking him to eliminate the chapters that dealt with his membership in and disillusionment with the Communist Party.[1]


Theodore G. Bilbo, the white supremacist Senator from Mississippi, denounced Black Boy on the Senate floor:

Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and trouble-breeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro.... It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print. I would hate to have a son or daughter of mine permitted to read it; it is so filthy and so dirty. But it comes from a Negro, and you cannot expect any better from a person of his type.[3]

The book was banned by the board of education of the Island Trees Union Free School District in New York, which was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1982.[4]

  1. ^ a b c Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., "Note on the Text," pp 407–8 in Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger), The Library of America, 1993.
  2. ^ Mitgang, Herbert. "Books of the Times; An American Master and New Discoveries." The New York Times 1 January 1992. Accessed on 14 May 2006.[1].
  3. ^ Pierre Tristam. "Theodore G. Bilbo on Richard Wright's 'Black Boy' / Congressional Record, 1945 [Candide's Notebooks]". Retrieved August 10, 2016. 
  4. ^ "Island Trees Sch. Dist. v. Pico by Pico 457 U.S. 853 (1982)". Justia. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
External links
  • Black Boy Sparknotes

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