Richard Wright

Black Boy

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Black Boy Summary

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Black Boy is a memoir by African-American author and poet Richard Wright. Published in Wright’s middle age, it looks back on his childhood in the South, particularly in the states Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. As a young adult, Wright moves to Chicago, where he kicks off a writing career and joins the Communist Party. The former period of his life he titles “Southern Night”; the latter, “The Horror and the Glory.” A connecting theme between them is the hunger Wright feels for finding creative expression in a world that is hostile to the creative soul, especially the soul of the black subject.

“Southern Night” begins when Wright is four years old. A troublemaker to the extreme, he recalls lighting his grandmother’s house on fire out of sheer curiosity. He grew up in a home of religious and strict matriarchal figures, who served in his young mind as character foils to the violent and reckless men. Wright had a turbulent childhood among them. Early on, he showed aversion to playing outside, preferring to read; he also quickly rejected the dogma of organized religion, taking on an agnostic view.

As Wright grew into adolescence, he experienced a feeling of falling out of community. He attributes the bulk of this feeling, in retrospect, to his disillusionment over Jim Crow racism in the 1920s. He felt deeply that the specter of racism was a direct affront to his will to live a life of intellectual flourishing. Eventually, his father abandoned the Wright family, causing Wright to be juggled between his mother, who was sick, his religious grandmother, and a number of uncles and aunts. Making a foray into the white-dominated capitalist world to make ends meet, he became scarred from experiences of racism and violence. At the same time, his family began to starve in poverty.

Fearing a grim fate should they stay in the South, the Wright family saved up enough money to send Richard and his aunt to Chicago. They promised to find a way to make enough money to bring Wright’s brother and mother. Finding Chicago not much better economically, at first, to survive, Wright resorts to stealing from wealthier people. However, feeling that the North is a distinctly less racist place than the South, he begins to theorize about why. He cycles between many menial jobs, while reading classic literature, such as Proust, and science journals in his spare time. His mother has a stroke, disabling her permanently, and the rest of his family harasses him for being non-religious and reading books they think are pointless. Wright goes to work at a post office, meeting liberal-minded white men who have similar views to him about American malaise. He joins their arts organization, the John Reed Club, and begins to work on creating social change. Later, he also works for Left Front Magazine and becomes a member and political organizer of the Communist Party.

Expecting to find friends in the Communist Party, Wright is disappointed to see that they fear radical ideas that contradict their own set beliefs. They look down on him, labeling him “counter-revolutionary.” Wright ultimately leaves, receiving a bitter response from the party members, who suspect him of trying to recruit for the political opposition.

Wright’s memoir ends in the period after he observes another black Communist being brought to trial on an accusation similar to the one he received. He officially rescinds his membership, is called an enemy, and is forced out of social and economic circles he still wants to belong to. Nevertheless, he does not protest these judgments, believing deeply that they are still united in their search for common ideals. At the end of the memoir, Wright states that he will use his life’s work to stir political revolutions. He asserts that every subject has a similar drive to fulfill a deep hunger for expression and justice, validating the act of writing to meet those ends.