Full title   Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth

Author  Richard Wright 

Type of Work  Autobiographical novel

Genre  Bildungsroman (coming-of age-novel); modernist novel; existential novel

Language  English

Time and Place Written   1943–1944; New York City

Date of First Publication   1945

Publisher  Harper & Brothers

Narrator   Black Boy is narrated by the author, Richard Wright, and tells the story of his life from early childhood to about age twenty-nine.

Point of View  As the text is written as a stylized memoir, the narrator always speaks in the first person. Although he occasionally speculates as to what another character thinks or feels, those speculations are always conditioned by the fact that the narrator is a real historical figure with limited knowledge.

Tone  Confessional, ironic, philosophical

Tense  Past

Setting (time)  Roughly 1912–1937

Setting (place)  Primarily Jackson, Mississippi; West Helena and Elaine, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois, with detours to rural areas in the Deep South and to New York City

Protagonist  Richard Wright, the author and narrator

Major Conflict  Richard demonstrates inborn individualism and intelligence, traits that can only cause problems for a black man in the Jim Crow South; he struggles with blacks and whites alike for acceptance and humane treatment; he struggles with his own stubborn nature.

Rising Action  Ella (the schoolteacher) tells Richard the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives; Richard writes his story “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre”; Richard graduates from public school and enters the workforce only to be terrorized by the actions of racist whites.

Climax  Richard reads H. L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces and becomes obsessed with reading and writing; Richard permanently flees the South; he makes his way to Chicago, where he can live a more dignified life and more fully exercise his ambition to become a writer.

Falling Action  Richard comes to understand the psychic pain of growing up black in America and realizes his duty to record his experiences and his environment through writing; he enters the Communist Party and W.P.A. programs, coming into contact with serious writers and outlets for writing about his ideals; he is ousted from the Party but comes to a new vision of himself as an artist

Themes  The insidious effects of racism; the individual versus society; the redemptive power of art

Motifs  Hunger; reading; violence

Symbols  Ella’s infirmity; the Memphis optical shop

Foreshadowing  Perhaps the sharpest foreshadowing in the novel is the activity of Comrade Young in the Communist Party. The fact that a madman participates in the workings of the Party without being detected suggests that the Party is fallible. Another example is Richard’s relationship with his family, a relationship that foreshadows how his personality will conflict with white authority.