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.
Ella invites the preacher from the local black church over for a dinner of fried chicken. Richard is very excited about the relatively fancy meal, but Ella will not let Richard eat any of the chicken until he finishes his soup, which he is unable to do in his excitement for the meat. Increasingly distressed as he watches the preacher devour piece after piece of the precious chicken, Richard eventually runs out of the room, screaming that the preacher is going to eat everything. The preacher laughs, but Ella does not find Richard’s dramatic actions amusing, and forbids him any more dinner.
Ella sues Nathan for child support, but Nathan successfully convinces the judge that he is already giving all the support he can. Richard notes that he does not hate his father but merely prefers not to see him or think of him at all. For this reason, Richard refuses his mother’s requests that he go to his father’s job and beg him for money.
Poverty forces Ella to place Richard and his brother in an orphanage for a month, where they eat two miserable meals per day and tend the lawn, pulling grass by hand. The orphanage director, Miss Simon, apparently takes a liking to Richard and asks him to help her blot envelopes in her office. Once in Miss Simon’s office, however, Richard is paralyzed with an inexplicable fear and is unable to do anything she asks of him. Frustrated, Miss Simon drives Richard from her office. He decides to run away from the orphanage that night, and when he does so he gets lost. Richard encounters a white policeman, but he remembers the story of the white man beating the black boy and fears that the policeman will beat him. The policeman is friendly, however, and brings Richard back to the orphanage. Miss Simon promptly lashes Richard for running away.
Ella decides that the family should go to her sister Maggie’s home in Elaine, Arkansas. She takes Richard out of the orphanage so that he can go to Nathan and plead for the money the family needs to make the journey. Predictably, Nathan claims that he has no money to give, and he seems amused by the idea that his children are going hungry. A slight altercation ensues, and Richard and his mother say harsh words to the irritatingly jolly Nathan and his mistress. Nathan then offers Richard a nickel, and though the boy wants to accept it, he refuses.
Richard muses that this meeting is the last time he would see his father for twenty-five years. When he next sees Nathan, the old man is nothing more than a poor, toothless sharecropper. Richard feels nothing but pity for Nathan as an old man, reflecting that whereas Nathan failed in his attempt to find a successful life in the city, Richard himself has done much better, and created a dramatically new life out of his humble origins.
Though it is essentially autobiographical, at times Black Boy does not resemble a conventional autobiography. Immediately following Richard’s description of his almost-fatal illness, for example, Wright includes a lengthy passage of lyrical prose that details his sentimental responses to the natural environment. Phrases such as “the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood” and “the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun” shift the focus of the narrative away from concrete facts and toward more nebulous depictions of Richard’s imaginative mind. These phrases give human qualities to inanimate matter and contain highly subjective feelings that we typically associate with fiction and poetry. Because it contains such purely artistic passages in addition to concrete biographical information, Black Boy is often termed an autobiographical novel. Similar to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Wright’s novel strikes a creative compromise between fact and fiction—in part because the author wishes to describe events and ideas deeply embedded in the memories of early childhood.
One of Wright’s central concerns in Black Boy is the insidious nature of racism in the United States—insidious because its roots and effects are very subtle. At first glance, Chapter 1 may not seem to explore this idea of racism very much at all. Though Richard resents the well-fed white family that employs his mother and fears the white policeman who returns him to the orphanage, these situations contain nothing that resembles outright racial conflict. Similarly, Richard’s failed attempt to learn why a white man beats a black boy does not say anything overt about racism itself; it only seems to prove that Richard is interested in learning about race but is having difficulty doing so. Yet Wright strives to portray the subtle, sometimes even invisible workings of racism, and the events in Chapter 1 do contribute to this portrayal. In his encounters with the white family and the white policeman, Richard is already beginning to display a strong association between white people and the injustices of the world. This association is itself harmful because the young Richard already sees it as natural.
The fact that no one will answer Richard’s questions about race relations reveals that Richard lives not only in a society of racist whites, but also in an environment that blacks themselves make worse for him. In a racist society, the oppressors fear curiosity among the oppressed, as curiosity eventually uncovers the lies that form the foundation of that oppression. The oppressors therefore use any means necessary to discourage such curiosity. Under the worst conditions of oppression, the oppressed even do the oppressors’ dirty work for them by discouraging curiosity among their own ranks. Indeed, we see that Richard’s family discourages his curiosity concerning racial matters. More broadly, blacks often try to discourage anyone who could cause trouble for the rest of the group by speaking out against injustice.
Richard’s actions in Chapter 1 reveal a pattern of unpredictable—either passive-aggressive or over-reactive—behavior that hinders his ability to peacefully adapt to his surroundings. For example, when his parents force him to be silent, Richard burns down the house, resulting in a thorough beating. He rebels against his father’s overbearing demeanor by killing a kitten, only angering his parents further. Richard overcomes his profound fear of the gang of boys by fiercely attacking them and threatening their parents. His quiet fascination with the saloon quickly burgeons into disgraceful alcoholism. At school, Richard fails to express any enthusiasm for knowledge, but later channels that enthusiasm into overexpression, proclaiming all his new, forbidden knowledge on the neighborhood windows. These behavioral swings demonstrate Richard’s inability to interact with his family, friends, and society in a way consistent with their expectations. In response, his family, friends, and society punish him. In some ways, we can see this punishment by Richard’s peers as similar to their lack of interest in engaging his curiosity about racism. Like curiosity, unpredictable behavior is a dangerous trait for a subordinate to show in a racist society.
Richard’s acquisition of reading and counting skills are impressive intellectual feats. He accomplishes these feats with relative ease and speed, needing, for instance, only one hour to learn how to count to one hundred. More significant, Richard acquires these skills of his own free will—because he wants to, not because he is forced to. As such, Richard’s feats of learning reveal his potential for powerful intelligence and intellectual curiosity, foreshadowing the quest for knowledge that will shape his life so decisively.