The entire manuscript was written 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", and 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 all in page proofs for a scheduled fall publication of the book. In June, 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 Black Boy. Harper and Brothers published it under that title in 1945, and it sold 195,000 retail copies in its first edition and 351,000 copies through the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Parts of the Chicago chapters were published during Wright's lifetime as magazine articles, but the six chapters were first published together in 1977, posthumously, by Harper and Row, as American Hunger. In 1991, all twenty chapters were published together for the first time, as Wright had originally intended, by the Library of America. The new title was Black Boy (American Hunger).
The Book of the Month Club played an important role in Wright's career. His 1940 novel Native Son was the first Book of the Month Club selection written by a black American, and Wright was willing to change the book to get this second endorsement. 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 Communism.