Big Boy Leaves Home Summary

Richard Wright

Big Boy Leaves Home

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Big Boy Leaves Home Summary

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In 1938, famed American author Richard Wright published a collection of novellas entitled Uncle Tom’s Children, which included his 1936 short story, “Big Boy Leaves Home.” Like all of the collection’s stories, “Big Boy Leaves Home” is about the lives of black people living in rural Mississippi – in this case, focusing on a group of adolescent friends whose idyllic afternoon in the countryside turns into a violent ordeal. Wright contrasts normal playful teen behavior with the meaningless and outsized racially-driven brutality the boys receive from the whites around them, and points out how an environment of constant threat affects those living in it.

The story is divided into five parts, which slowly transform a peaceful summer day into a waking nightmare.

As part one begins, four boys – nicknamed Bobo, Buck, Lester, and Big Boy – are playing hooky from school. As they pass through a forest, they tell each other dirty jokes and lie down to enjoy the sun. They play-fight, and then decide to go swimming to cool off from the heat. But Big Boy is worried that the nearest swimming hole is dangerous for them – they could get lynched for going there – so he instead suggests getting food. As the three others playfully attack him, he takes Bobo hostage to get them to back off. As he explains, the best way to fight a group is to pick off its members one by one.

In part two, the boys reach the swimming hole which is marked by a racist sign from Old Man Harvey – he doesn’t allow black people to swim there. Three of the boys are nervous to go in, but Big Boy figures that being next to the swimming hole is basically the same as being in it, so they might as well have fun. The four skinny dip in the cold water, then lie down naked on the bank to dry off and warm back up. As they discuss the possibility of escaping to the North on a train if Harvey caught them, they see a white woman.

The boys try to scramble for their clothes, which happen to be lying near the woman’s feet. Thinking that they are running at her, the woman panics and screams for Jim, her husband. He turns out to be a soldier carrying a rifle, and he immediately starts shooting at the boys, killing Lester and Buck. Big Boy and Bobo manage to wrestle the gun away from Jim, and in the ensuing melee, Big Boy accidentally fires the gun and kills Jim as the woman faints. Bobo and Big Boy grab their clothes and run away in terror.

The third part of the story starts as the two boys reach the forest. Bobo begs to go with Big Boy, but Big Boy decides that it’s better for them to separate and try to hide at their own houses. (This insistence on splitting up the group ties into Big Boy’s earlier divide-and-conquer strategy, except this time he is part of the group being attacked.)

At his house, Big Boy breaks down trying to explain what happened to his family, who are terrified that he has gotten in trouble with white people. His father Saul yells at him for ditching school to goof off, and then makes double sure that Big Boy never actually touched the white woman. Big Boy swears that he didn’t, and that no one saw either him or Bobo.

The family summons the rest of the community to figure out what to do, and together they figure out that Jim was Harvey’s son. Big Boy begs for help to catch a train in order to avoid being lynched, but catching a train isn’t the best idea since the stations are under close watch. Instead, Big Boy is given some food and clothes and told to hide out in some brick kilns until the next morning when a man named Will can drive him up to Chicago in a truck. Big Boy leaves, assuming that the community will also send Bobo to the kilns.

Part four describes the night Big Boy spends in the kilns terrified that there may be blood-hounds on his trail. As he tries to get inside the biggest kiln, he finds a snake inside. Filled with desperate anger, he kills the snake and gets in. As he waits for Bobo, Big Boy ruminates over the mistakes he has made, worries about divine retribution, and mourns Lester and Buck’s deaths. He then imagines himself killing off members of the lynch mob that are coming for him and making newspaper headlines with his valiant death.

Suddenly, he hears people talking about him outside the kiln. When they couldn’t find Big Boy at his house, they set the house on fire. A mob of white people carrying tar, feathers, and gasoline joins the smaller group, and someone jubilantly yells that they have found “him” – and Big Boy realizes that they must have Bobo. As he listens to Bobo’s screams, the mob dismembers and ties Bobo up, covering him with boiling tar and then setting him on fire. Eventually, Bobo no longer looks human, and then rain puts out the fire. One of the dogs barks near the kiln where Big Boy is hiding, and he breaks its neck.

The final part starts the next morning. Will picks up Big Boy, who tells him what happened to Bobo. They start driving North, but the escape is ambiguous and incomplete.

Later in his career, Wright described the novellas that make up Uncle Tom’s Children as “an awfully naive mistake” because they were so clear in their morality that readers could just cry about the way the bad people treated the good and go on with their lives unchanged. The stories didn’t make their readers question anything about their own assumptions. Driven by this realization, Wright says that he promised himself that his later work “would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”