Required to remain quiet while his grandmother lies ill in bed, four-year-old Richard Wright becomes bored and begins playing with fire near the curtains, leading to his accidentally burning down the family home in Natchez, Mississippi. In fear, Richard hides under the burning house. His father, Nathan, retrieves him from his hiding place. Then, his mother, Ella, beats him so severely that he loses consciousness and falls ill.
Nathan abandons the family to live with another woman while Richard and his brother, Alan, are still very young. Without Nathan’s financial support, the Wrights fall into poverty and perpetual hunger. Richard closely associates his family’s hardship—and particularly their hunger—with his father and therefore grows bitter toward him.
For the next few years, Ella struggles to raise her children in Memphis, Tennessee. Her long hours of work leave her little time to supervise Richard and his brother. Not surprisingly, Richard gets into all sorts of trouble, spying on people in outhouses and becoming a regular at the local saloon—and an alcoholic—by the age of six. Ella’s worsening health prevents her from raising two children by herself and often leaves her unable to work. During these times, Richard does whatever odd jobs a child can do to bring in some money for the family. School is hardly an option for him. At one point, the family’s troubles are so severe that Ella must place her children in an orphanage for a few weeks.
Life improves when Ella moves to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with her sister, Maggie, and her sister’s husband, Hoskins. Hoskins runs a successful saloon, so there is always plenty of food to eat, a condition that Richard greatly appreciates but to which he cannot accustom himself. Soon, however, white jealousy of Hoskins’s business success reaches a peak, as local white men kill Hoskins and threaten the rest of his family. Ella and Maggie flee with the two boys to West Helena, Arkansas. There, the two sisters’ combined wages make life easier than it had been in Memphis. After only a short time, however, Maggie flees to Detroit with her lover, Professor Matthews, leaving Ella the sole support of the family. Hard economic times return.
Times become even harder when a paralytic stroke severely incapacitates Ella. Richard’s grandmother brings Ella, Richard, and Alan to her home in Jackson, Mississippi. Ella’s numerous siblings convene in Jackson to decide how to care for their ailing sister and her two boys. The aunts and uncles decide that Alan, Richard’s brother, will live with Maggie in Detroit. Ella will remain at home in Jackson. Richard, given the freedom to choose which aunt or uncle to live with, decides to take up residence with Uncle Clark, as Clark lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, not far from Jackson. Soon after he arrives at Clark’s house, Richard learns from a neighbor that a young boy had died years ago in the same bedroom Richard now occupies. Too terrified to sleep, Richard successfully pleads to be returned to his grandmother’s home.
Back at Granny’s, Richard once again faces the familiar problem of hunger. He also faces a new problem: Granny’s incredibly strict religious regimen. Granny, a Seventh-Day Adventist, sees her strong-willed, dreamy, and bookish grandson as terribly sinful, and she struggles mightily to reform him. Another of Richard’s aunts, Addie, soon joins the struggle against Richard’s defiance. Richard’s obsession with reading and his lack of interest in religion make his home life an endless conflict. Granny forces him to attend the religious school where Aunt Addie teaches.
One day in class, Aunt Addie beats Richard for eating walnuts, though it was actually the student sitting in front of Richard who had been eating the nuts, not Richard. When Addie tries to beat Richard again after school that day, he fends her off with a knife. Similar scenes recur with frustrating frequency over the following months and years. One time, Richard dodges one of Granny’s backhand slaps, causing her to lose her balance and injure herself in a fall off the porch. Addie tries to beat Richard for this incident, but he again fends her off with a knife. Later, another of Richard’s uncles, Tom, comes to live with the family. One morning, Tom asks Richard what time it is and thinks Richard responds in a sassy manner. He tries to beat Richard for his supposed insolence, but the boy fends him off with razor blades.
Meanwhile, Richard picks his way through school. He delights in his studies—particularly reading and writing—despite a home climate hostile to such pursuits. To the bafflement and scorn of everyone, he writes and publishes in a local black newspaper a story titled “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre.” He graduates from the ninth grade as valedictorian, giving his own speech despite the insistence of his principal, friends, and family that he give a school-sanctioned speech to appease the white audience.
As Richard enters the adult working world in Jackson, he suffers many frightening, often violent encounters with racism. In the most demoralizing of these encounters, two white Southerners, Pease and Reynolds, run Richard off his job at an optical shop, claiming that such skilled work is not meant for blacks. Richard is upset because the white Northerner who runs the company, Mr. Crane, has hired Richard specifically for the purpose of teaching a black man the optical trade, but then does little to actually help defend Richard against his racist employees.
As his despair grows, Richard resolves to leave for the North as soon as possible. He becomes willing to steal in order to raise the cash necessary for the trip. After swindling his boss at a movie theater, selling stolen fruit preserves, and pawning a stolen gun, Richard moves to Memphis, where the atmosphere is safer and where he can make his final preparations to move to Chicago.
In Memphis, Richard has the seeming good fortune of finding a kind, generous landlady, Mrs. Moss, who determines that he must marry her daughter, Bess. Richard does not take to Bess, so his living situation is awkward until Mrs. Moss comes to terms with the fact that her daughter will never be Richard’s wife. Richard takes a job at another optical shop, where Olin, a seemingly benevolent white coworker, plays mind games with Richard and Harrison, another young black worker, in an attempt to get them to kill each other. These strategies culminate in a grotesque boxing match between Richard and Harrison.
Another white coworker in the optical shop, Falk, is genuinely benevolent and lets Richard use his library card to check out books that otherwise would be unavailable to him. Richard begins reading obsessively and grows more determined to write. His mother, brother, and Maggie soon join him in Memphis. They all decide that Richard and Maggie will go to Chicago immediately and that the other two will follow in a few months.
In Chicago, Richard continues to struggle with racism, segregation, poverty, and with his own need to cut corners and lie to protect himself and get ahead. He suppresses his own morals, forcing himself to work at a corrupt insurance agency that takes advantage of poor blacks. He also works in a café and for a couple of well-meaning Jewish storeowners, the Hoffmans, in a whites-only neighborhood. Irresponsibly, Richard soon quits to try to get a job in the post office.
As the Great Depression forces him and millions of others out of work, Richard begins to find Communism appealing, especially its emphasis on protecting the oppressed. He becomes a Communist Party member because he thinks that he can help the Party cause with his writing, finding the language that can promote the Party’s cause to common people.
Meanwhile, Richard works various jobs through federal relief programs. When he begins writing for leftist publications, he takes positions with federal theater companies and with the Federal Writers’ Project. To his mounting dismay, he finds that, like any other group, the Communist Party is beset with human fears and foibles that constantly frustrate its own ends. Richard’s desire to write biographical sketches of Communists and his tendency to criticize Party pronouncements earn him distrust, along with the titles “intellectual” and “Trotskyite.” After a great deal of political strife and slander that culminates in his being physically assaulted during a May Day parade, Richard leaves the Party. Unfazed by the failure of his high hopes, he remains determined to make writing his link to the world.