Black Boy

Summary

Part I (Southern Night): Chapter 1

Summary Part I (Southern Night): Chapter 1

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.

Analysis

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.