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 atheism at a young age. He feels even more out of place as he grows older and comes in contact with the rampant racism of the 1920s south. Not only he finds it generally unjust but he is especially bothered by whites' and other blacks' desire to quash 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 aunts and uncles. As he ventures into the white world to find jobs, he encounters extreme racism and brutal violence, 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.
He 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, a stroke cripples his mother, 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. Nevertheless, he does not fight them because he believes they are clumsily groping toward ideas that he agrees with: unity, tolerance, and equality. He ends the book by resolving to use his writing to search for 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.