Frustrated by his mother’s order to remain quiet, four-year-old Richard Wright is bored out of his mind in his grandparents’ house in Natchez, Mississippi. With nothing better to do, Richard plays with a broom, lighting stray straws in the fireplace and watching them burn. He then decides to set the curtains on fire to see what they look like when they burn. The fire rages out of control, and the terrified Richard runs out of the room. Fearing punishment, he hides under the burning house until his father, Nathan, retrieves him. Richard’s mother, Ella, then lashes him until he loses consciousness, knocking him into a delusional fever for several days. Wright then muses, in a stretch of intensely descriptive writing, on his fantastical and sentimental reflections upon the world around him. Richard recovers from his fever and moves with his family to Memphis, Tennessee. His father, Nathan, works as a night porter in a drugstore and sleeps during the day. One morning, Richard and his brother, playing with a noisy stray kitten they have found outside, wake Nathan. The kitten will not go away. In frustration, Nathan shouts, “Kill that damn thing!” Though Richard knows that his father does not really want them to kill the cat, he resents his father’s shouting and domineering behavior, and resolves to take his order literally. Richard hangs the kitten. This act angers Nathan, but Richard reminds him of his words and feels triumphant. Ella, infuriated with her son, punishes him by forcing him to bury the kitten alone that night, which fills him with shame and terror.
Nathan soon abandons the family to live with another woman. Without his financial support, Ella and her children are left constantly hungry. When Richard begs his mother for food, she responds by informing him that he no longer has a father, which leads Richard to develop a bitter association between his father and hunger. Later, a gang of boys attack and rob Richard when Ella sends him to the grocery store. Ella sends Richard a second time, but the boys only rob him again. Finally, Ella arms Richard with a heavy stick and sends him along once more, telling him she will whip him if he comes back into the house without the groceries. Richard is terrified to be courting violence, but fights back with the stick when the gang again attacks him, managing to crack several of the boys on their heads. The boys run home to their parents, who come outside and threaten Richard. However, the emboldened Richard tells the parents that they will get a similar beating if they come after him.
Richard briefly amuses himself by hiding, with other young boys, behind a row of open-back outhouses to watch people relieve themselves. To keep her sons out of such trouble, Ella starts to take them along with her to the white household where she works as a cook. The constantly hungry Richard resents watching the white family digging into their plentiful food.
Richard soon finds a new form of amusement: peeping into a nearby saloon and laughing at the silliness of the drunks who go in and out. One customer eventually drags the frightened Richard inside the saloon, and the patrons give him drinks and money if he repeats various curse words. This activity becomes an obsession for Richard, and he soon becomes a six-year-old drunkard. Aware of his problem, Ella beats her son and pleads with him to stop, but she is unable to change his behavior. Ella finally stops Richard by leaving him and his brother in the care of an older black woman, who watches them very closely. Trapped under the woman’s watch, Richard loses his taste for alcohol.
Richard gradually learns to read by leafing through children’s books, and learns to count to one hundred when a benevolent deliveryman spends an hour teaching him numbers. His mind increasingly fills with relentless questions, Richard begins to vaguely understand that relations between white and black people are very tricky, but he cannot get anyone to discuss the matter openly with him. He also has trouble understanding the distinction between blacks and whites, as his grandmother, a black woman, looks somewhat white. When Richard hears a rumor that a white man beat a black boy in the neighborhood, he assumes that the man was the boy’s father, believing that only parents have the right to beat children. Ella corrects her son’s misunderstanding about the man and the boy, but she refuses to discuss the matter further, leaving Richard puzzled about white people and wondering why they would beat a black person.
Richard begins the first grade, but he is so terrified on the first day of school that he cannot speak. At recess a group of older boys teaches him the meanings of all the curse words he had been paid to repeat in the saloon. Eager to display this new knowledge, Richard races home after school and uses soap to write the curse words on every available window in the neighborhood. Ella, horrified, forces him to wash all the windows while the neighbors look on with pity and amusement.