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Black Boy, Richard Wright’s autobiography, examines Richard’s tortured years in the Jim Crow South from 1912 to 1927. In each chapter, Richard recounts painful and perplexing memories that lead to a better understanding of the man who eventually emerges as a black, Southern, American writer. Although the narrator, Richard, uses an adult voice throughout the story, each chapter is told from the perspective and knowledge of a child. However, because the story is told with such force and honesty, the veracity of Richard’s memories is not called into question. By the end of the story, as Richard matures, the narrator’s voice and the voice of the nineteen-year-old young man he has become merge into one.
The plot begins when four-year-old Richard sets fire to his grandmother’s house in Jackson, Mississippi, and is nearly killed by his mother as punishment. He recovers, and the brutal punishment instills in Richard the ability to survive in any situation. The family then relocates to Memphis, Tennessee, where Richard’s father abandons the family. Richard learns about racism in Memphis from what he sees in the world as well as how his family members humiliate themselves in front of whites. It is also at this point that Richard becomes estranged from God and the Christian faith, instead of developing an abiding love of the natural world. Also, you must try to play this Black Boy Quiz.
Black Boy Quiz
As Richard grows older, he realizes how easily he could fall into the patterns that have trapped black men for generations. When his mother becomes ill, Richard returns to Jackson to live with his oppressive grandmother. There, he sees opportunities to break free from his predetermined life and avoid becoming entrapped in it. He also understands how religion can bring people together in ways other than skin color. Although Richard is unable to communicate with God when he prays, he does generate story ideas, launching his career as a writer.
Richard has alienated himself from most of his family by the age of 12, reinforcing his role as an outsider, a role he later discovers is shared by many American writers. Throughout the next few years, he excels in school but feels disconnected from his classmates; he also gets a few part-time jobs but feels alienated from his bosses and coworkers. The community tries to shame Richard into submission because he behaves differently than other black children, but he refuses. By the age of 16, Richard is determined to be a writer, but he is aware of the dangers of a black youth having that aspiration while living in the South, so he fantasizes about fleeing to the North.
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Richard steals the money to travel north after graduating and failing at another job. He is horrified by his crime because it fulfills the expectations placed on him by his extended family. He also recognizes that crime causes additional suffering in the world, and Richard wishes to contribute to social good rather than social ills. With his stolen money, Richard is able to relocate to Memphis, where life is not significantly different from that of Jackson. Following a particularly humiliating incident at a new job, Richard immerses himself in novels and other works by American and European writers. He realizes he’s destined to be a writer and flees to Chicago. He understands that the South will always be a part of him, but he is determined to succeed in his new life and exact revenge on the Southern social system.
American Hunger, published nearly two decades after Richard’s death in 1960, continues his autobiography. In 1991, Black Boy and American Hunger were published together for the first time.