Black Boy

Plot summary

Black Boy (American Hunger) is an autobiography following 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). Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, to an uneducated farmer and a school teacher. Throughout the entirety of his live Wright encounters many hardships, many of these expressed in his novel, accurately representing the common hardships and struggles that most African Americans faced while growing up during the early 1900s. Richard Wright became a voice for Black writers during his time, showing how their existence intertwines with American culture and their contribution to society. This autobiography shows the growth of Richard Wright through his almost never-ending struggles and lessons that he learns throughout the journey of his life.


Even though this story a true, personal account of Richard Wright’s life and the implications that he faced going through it, there is a large amount of themes intertwined from beginning to end. The need for control, the overall effects of racism, the perseverance shown through the characters and the distraught perception of love shown in the novel all allude and display the unimaginable hardships that people belonging to the African American community faced during this time of extreme social hardship. These detailed accounts are a crucial part of the history and oppression of United State’s history. The broken down themes displayed below were common truths among the African American community during the early to mid 19th century.

The story begins with Richard Wright, as a young four year old mistakenly burning down his family’s home in Natchez, Mississippi. This leads to a series of beatings inflicted by his mother almost killing him and eventually leads to his father abandoning him and his family for another woman, leaving the family financially desolate. This introduction to the Wright family’s situation demonstrates the conflicts and the main themes of the novel. Beginning this novel at such a young age and crucial developmental time in a child’s life shows the boy’s true unbreakable spirit from a very young age. Wright learns to defy authority early on his life and this theme continues to grow throughout the remainder of the memoir. This leads him to coming into contact with a lot of beatings and mishaps along the way. Perseverance, is definitely a crucial theme that carries out throughout the entirety of the novel. Wright continues to show his upbeat view towards life throughout the entirety of the two sections. The representation of love is very interesting in the text, Wright knows that his parents or at least his Mother loves him but she continues to beat him and rarely shows the affection that he desires. This idealized “love” however has been tainted by the oppression they are facing during this time of segregation. How can Wright’s mother be so kind and affectionate to him when she knows that the world will show him no less mercy? She knows that her son has a very strong spirit and she can influence him to stick through the hardest of times. This non-traditional theme of love, is one that really focuses on Wright’s future and the serious implications that he is bound to face being an African American male during the turn of the century. [4] Another apparent theme in Richard Wright’s autobiography is the theme of racism and it’s effects. It is not a secret that the early 1900’s was a very controversial time, there were those who were all for freedom and others that were still stuck in their old fashioned, bias ways of slavery. Through Wright’s story there are many observations on the effects and implications of racism around the United States. In many ways racism was built into the foundations of the United States, even though this was in no way fair or humane ways of running the country. Many people did not know any other way to do things, including the African Americans that were being oppressed. Structuralizing this autobiography in such a way, where it gives graphic accounts of racism towards Wright as a child and young adult, really gives one an insight into what it was like growing up as an African American in their time period. Wright’s child-like innocence is taken away from him when he sees first hand how racism has impacted those around him and negatively affected his life. By the end of the story, and when he truly starts to “become himself” Wright learns to twist the hardships and oppressions that he has faced all of his life to his advantage. This learned knowledge is something that many people do not use to their advantage, instead they would often allow these hardships to bring them down, digging themselves into a deeper darker hole than there ever was before. Not doing this is an excellent example of perseverance, or the act of overcoming diversity. Not only does this racism impact how the African Americans people are treated by the majority in the novel but also how they view themselves. This culture did not appreciate the skills and the dreams of one another, after being torn down through the colonization of many people, which results in many African Americans naturally doubting their abilities and the abilities of others. In the story Wright has shown skills and dreams that he wants to utilize, but many of his African American peers doubt his abilities. There are however, white people in the story that do show respect to him regarding his skills and dreams. This is almost a form of validation, that the African Americans must acquire from the White people in order for their esteem to be accredited. Interesting enough this is not simply a novel about a fictional character that overcame many hardships and entered into success. This is a story about a real man who proved himself to the world, becoming a voice for the African American community.

"Southern Night"

The book begins with a mischievous four-year-old Wright setting fire to his grandmother's house. Wright is a curious child living in a household of strict, religious women and violent, irresponsible men. After his father deserts his family, young Wright is shuffled back and forth between his sick mother, his fanatically religious grandmother, and various maternal aunts, uncles and orphanages attempting to take him in. Despite the efforts of various people and groups to take Wright in, he essentially raises himself with no central home. 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. Throughout his mischief and hardship, Wright gets involved in fighting and drinking before the age of six. When Wright turns eleven, he begins taking jobs and is quickly introduced to the racism that constitutes much of his future. He continues to feel more out of place as he grows older and comes in contact with the Jim Crow racism of the 1920s South. He finds these circumstances generally unjust and fights attempts to quell his intellectual curiosity and potential as he dreams of moving north and becoming a writer.

"The Horror and the Glory"

In an effort of achieving his dreams of moving north, Wright steals and lies until he attains enough money for a ticket to Memphis. Wright’s dreams of escaping racism in his move North are quickly disillusioned as he encounters similar prejudices and oppressions amidst the people in Memphis, prompting him to continue his journeys towards Chicago.

The youth finds the North less racist than the South and begins understanding American race relations more deeply. He holds many jobs, most of them consisting of menial tasks: he washes floors during the day and reads Proust and medical journals at night. At this time, his family is still suffering in poverty, his mother is disabled by a stroke, and his relatives constantly interrogate him about his atheism and "pointless" reading. He finds a job at the post office, where he meets white men who share his cynical view of the world and religion. 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 and slowly immerses himself in the writers and artists in the Communist Party.

At first he thinks he will find friends within the party, especially among its black members, but he finds them to be just as timid to change as the southern whites he left behind. The Communists fear those who disagree with their ideas and quickly brand Wright as a "counter-revolutionary" for his tendency to question and speak his mind. When Richard 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: asserting that everyone has a "hunger" for life that needs to be filled. For Wright, writing is his way to the human heart, and therefore, the closest cure to his hunger.

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