Black Boy is a non-fiction autobiographical piece of work that not only reflects on the treatment of African-Americans in the Deep South during the 1920s, but also remains a potent example of the average dysfunctional lifestyle of most American households during the Great Depression. Although the tone of the piece is that of the grown Richard Wright, the narrative is told from the point of view of the young boy who gradually grows into the nineteen-year-old. He finally starts to resemble the adult voice who expresses his opinion on each of Richard’s actions throughout the novel.
Black Boy begins with a young four-year-old Richard, who accidentally sets his family’s home to fire in Natchez, Mississippi. When he is left alone, other members struggle to take care of his dying grandmother. Fearing punishment, he hides the under the house, but is found and rescued by his father. Enraged at his act of disobedience, mother beats him black and blue to such an extent that Richard faints from the excessive physical abuse and falls sick.
The next turn of event occurs when Richard’s father, Nathan, leaves the family for a younger woman leaving Richard’s mother Ella to fend for him and his brother, Alan. The children are often left uncared for since the mother has to go to work but despite her greatest efforts, she is often unsuccessful at putting food on the table. Thus, the young Richard forms an association between his father’s elopement with the Wright family’s hunger and poverty, causing him to resent Nathan.
The family moves to Memphis, Tennessee in hopes of a fresh start. Ella continues to leave the children unattended while she is away for long hours of work. Thus, at the mere age of six, Richard learns how to drink and swear at the local saloon. Despite his higher powers of perceptibility, he is unable to understand the difference of color in the South, unable to realize that it is his color that makes people treat him differently and not his age or socioeconomic background. In order to help his mother, Richard, instead of attending school, works small jobs, although the family’s economic condition only worsens as Ella’s heath does too.
The family moves again, this time to Elaine, Arkansas where Ella’s sister Maggie and Maggie’s husband, Hoskins live. For a short period of time, things get better since Hoskins’s saloon makes enough money to support the newly extended family. Richard is amazed at how he has ample food to eat, but takes time to get used to it. However, tragedy strikes again when Hoskins is killed by a couple of jealous white men who also blackmail the rest of the family into leaving town. Maggie as well as the Wright family takes shelter at the sisters’ mother’s place for a short while before shifting to Arkansas again, this time, making a stop at West Helena. The two sisters make enough money to keep the family from starving and for quite a period of time, there is stability in the household. However, one pair of hands falls away when Maggie decides to leave town with her new husband, Professor Matthews to up north to flee his arrest for killing a white woman. Ella is again left alone to feed her two boys and at one point, Richard contemplates selling his dog to help his mother. However, when an interested customer turns out to be a white woman, he changes his mind. This shows that Richard has finally started to respond to the blatant racism in the town. He is admitted to a school, but he shows no sign of promise. He is rather seen picking fights with the white boys who fight in gangs.
When Ella’s health deteriorates even more, her mother takes them in again to her house in Jackson, Mississippi but soon, the brothers are separated and sent to live with different relatives: Alan goes to Detroit to stay with Maggie and her husband while Richard, the older brother, is given his choice of residence. He chooses his Uncle Clark as his guardian who lives in Greenwood, Mississippi because he wishes to stay at a closer proximity to his sick mother who shall remain with his grandmother at Jackson. At Uncle Clark’s and Aunt Jody’s, he is afraid to sleep in his own bed after learning that the previous owner of the room had died in his own bedroom. He refuses to stay with at his Uncle’s and begs them to take him back to Jackson.
At Jackson, Richard faces new challenges in the form of his grandmother’s religious practices that does not allow meat or fish inside the house. He is enrolled at a religious school where one of the teachers is also his Aunt Addie. His tendency to daydreaming and his addiction towards reading books are misunderstood as treasons against religion. Hearing this, his grandmother takes it upon herself to punish her grandson into submission. Aunt Addie constantly picks on Richard at school by accusing him of wrongdoings he is not responsible for. At first he resists defending himself, but one day, when she tries to beat him, Richard tries to protect himself by swaying a knife in front of her. The following years pass in a similar fashion with the exception of a one incident: while a religious revival is in place at the church, the grandmother tries to convert Richard by making him renew his faith in God. Richard responds by stating that he would only believe in God if he ever gets to see an angel, but his grandmother mistakenly believes it to mean that Richard has seen an angel. When the misunderstanding is cleared up, Richard feels sorry for her embarrassment and prays to God as a token of guilt.
Despite the instability in his household, Richard begins to progress at his school, especially in reading and writing. One of his stories is even selected for publishing at a local black newspaper and he passes his ninth grade with flying colors to the surprise of his family members. He is chosen to give a speech at his graduation as valedictorian, but his headmaster instructs him to speak from a ready speech that has been written for him. Instead, Richard speaks his own truth, an act that costs him a teaching position that would have paid a respectable amount of salary.
A jobless Richard has to endure through odd jobs that pay meager wages. As a black man, he is the subject to various forms of racism; the white owners do not know how to treat him as his good education had made him overqualified for the jobs for black men in those days. He is treated even more brutally than his fellow peers of the same race since the white Southerners are threatened by his intelligence. He cannot hold a job for more than a short period of time, resulting in further dissatisfaction and depression on his part.
At his last job, he is convinced to partake in small thievery to ensure enough money on his share to guarantee a trip to Memphis where it is safer for black men to work and live. At Memphis, he takes up boarding at the house of a Mrs. Moss who takes a liking to Richard and tries to set him up with her daughter, Bess. However, Richard finds Bess to be too simple-minded and for a while, relations between his landlady and him are cold. Richard is hired to work at an optical shop where a fellow employee, Harrison is also a black man. Although their owner seems kind at first glance, Mr. Loin has a sadistic nature and pits the two black men against each other for his own pleasure. At the optical shop, Richard also befriends a white worker named Falk who is shown to be genuinely kind; he lends Richard books from the library with his card although that is not permissible. He becomes even more interested in making the move to North where his dream of being a writer has a higher success rate of taking off. He is soon joined by his family and Aunt Maggie at Memphis and it is fixed that Richard would take his aunt to Chicago where the rest of the family will join them in a few more months.
While he resides in Chicago, like countless other young men struck by the Great Depression, Richard is made unemployed. During his jobless period, Richard takes a liking towards the teachings of Communism and believes that his flair for writing may come in handy in expressing the Party’s cause to the public. However, he soon discovers that the Communist Party is no different from the others; it is not an epitome of ultimate change for the common good. However, he is still hopeful of the future and still believes that someday his writings may prove to be advantageous in some other way. He leaves the party but still aspires to be a great writer someday.