35 pages 1 hour read

Richard Wright

Big Boy Leaves Home

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary: “Big Boy Leaves Home”

The short story “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936) is the first published work of Richard Wright (1908-1960), a celebrated African American author who is best known for his 1940 protest novel Native Son. Most of Wright’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction deal with the experiences of working-class Black people (especially men) in the United States. His protagonists, like “Big Boy,” struggle against overt racism and racist violence in their communities, ultimately facing crises that force them to fight back.

“Big Boy Leaves Home” was initially published as a standalone story in a 1936 anthology of contemporary American fiction and poetry called The New Caravan. It eventually became the first of four novellas printed in Wright’s debut book Uncle Tom’s Children, which was published by Harper in 1938. The collection was so well received that it was reissued two years later with an additional novella at the end and an “autobiographical sketch” called “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” appended to the beginning. Each story in the collection evokes a different incident of shocking racial violence in the rural American South, starting with accidental or interpersonal violence and moving toward conscious responses to violence that involve collective action and self-sacrifice. “Big Boy Leaves Home”—which focuses on a kid who is forced to fight for his own survival—is the beginning of that bigger arc.

This guide refers to the story as published in the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of Uncle Tom’s Children (2004), which uses the restored text from Wright’s original, unedited manuscripts.

Content Warning: The source text includes references to racism, extreme, racially motivated violence, and many instances of the n-word, spoken by both Black and white characters. This guide uses “n-----” when the n-word occurs in direct quotations.

“Big Boy Leaves Home” is divided into five segments, identified with Roman numerals. The writing involves an experimental mix of dialogue written in local dialect, sung lyrics that appear in dialect and are italicized, descriptions from a third-person narrator in a more standard written English, and passages that reflect the protagonist Big Boy’s stream of consciousness, which also appear in dialect. The narrator refrains from providing exposition, allowing the reader to become oriented to the characters and their situation through the dialogue and action in the story.

An Epigraph appears before the story, quoting lines from a “Popular Song.” The lyrics reference an idyllic American South, or Dixie, asking, “Does the sun really shine all the time? / Do sweet magnolias blossom at everybody’s door?” (16).

Section I opens with adolescent voices singing, “Yo mama don wear no drawers…” before introducing the singers as “four black boys” who are emerging out of the woods into a field on a sunny day (17). The boys laugh “easily” and banter with each other. The voices are not differentiated at first, but the protagonist Big Boy is the first to be identified through the dialogue because he has come up with an imaginary rhyme to end a new line of the song and is teased for being “CRAZY […] crazys a bed-bug!” (18).

The boys lay happily in the sun and hear a train in the distance heading north, which sets them off on a chant of “Dis train boun fo Glory” (19) before their reverie is disrupted by somebody farting—probably Big Boy. The narrator introduces the other three boys as Buck, Bobo, and Lester. They all want to go swimming, but Big Boy is reluctant to join them, saying, “N git lynched? Hell naw!” (20). Nevertheless, he follows the others when they leave him behind, playfully knocking them over and initiating a series of attempts by the others to beat him up. When the three try to overpower Big Boy by surprise, Big Boy gets a chokehold on Bobo and uses his position of control to make the other two back off. He then communicates this technique as a lesson on dealing with violent threats. He says, “[W]hen a ganga guys jump on yuh […] all yuh gotta do is jus put the heat on one of them n make im tell the others t let up, see” (24), suggesting that this is a scenario the boys are likely to face someday.

In Section II, the boys cross barbed wire and arrive at the swimming hole in the woods. Now Bobo and Lester feel reluctant to go in because the owner of the property, “ol man Harvey,” does not allow Black people to swim here and has even shot at one of their friends for trespassing. Big Boy dares the others to go in despite their fears, and eventually, they all peer-pressure each other into peeling off their overalls and jumping in. Once in the water, they splash and play, lamenting that there are no good swimming holes where Black people can openly swim. They don’t stay in long because the water is cold. As they get out, they hear the train whistle again and long to go up north where “colored folks […] got ekual rights” (28).

They are drying off in the sun when they become aware of a white woman standing across the creek from them. The boys instantly recognize this as a dangerous situation. They want to flee, but they’re naked, and the woman is standing in front of the tree where they left their clothes. They try to explain that they just want to get their overalls, but the woman is frightened when they rush in her direction. She repeatedly screams for someone called Jim. Just as the boys reach their clothes and turn to run into the woods, Lester is shot and falls onto “a toe of the woman’s shoes” (31). Buck is shot as he reaches the embankment, falling dead into the creek with a splash. Big Boy and Bobo see their friends’ killer emerge from the woods—a white man in an army officer’s uniform carrying a rifle.

As Jim takes aim, Bobo pleads with him not to shoot him. Meanwhile, Big Boy lunges toward the rifle, tussling with Jim to disarm him. Bobo joins in the fight, distracting Jim enough to make him release the gun. Big Boy takes up the rifle and hits Jim over the face with it as he beats his friend. Bobo encourages Big Boy to run, but Jim is coming after them. When Jim lunges for the rifle, Big Boy shoots him dead. Bobo sobs as the two boys flee, still naked.

In Section III, the reclothed Big Boy and Bobo stealthily make their way back to their homes, where they hope their parents will be able to protect them from getting caught and lynched for killing a white man. Bobo wants to go with Big Boy, but Big Boy harshly tells him to go to his own family. Big Boy makes it home via the train tracks, where he tells his mother about what has happened. She’s angry with him for skipping school to go to the woods with his friends and getting into such trouble, but she immediately has Big Boy’s sister Lucy fetch their father, Saul. He, in turn, has Lucy bring three other men—Brother Sanders, Brother Jenkins, and Elder Peters. They all instantly understand the gravity of the situation, especially as it involves a “white woman,” and know they must act quickly if they are to save Big Boy’s life. The men and Big Boy hatch a plan; Big Boy will escape in a truck driven by Brother Sanders’ son, Will. Will drives for the Magnolia Express Company and is leaving for Chicago at six o’clock in the morning. Big Boy will have to hide in a kiln they dug into a hill along the route until then. Lucy gives Big Boy his shoes, his father gives him his hat, and his mother pushes a skillet full of corn pone into his overalls before he flees through the yard. He pauses at the fence to ask them to tell Bobo to join him.

In Section IV, Big Boy fearfully makes his way to the kiln, where he intends to spend the night hiding. He is thirsty, exhausted, and hampered by his ill-fitting shoes. For the first time, the text shifts from recording dialogue to recording Big Boy’s internal monologue. His thoughts are not offset by italics, quotation marks, or separate paragraphs. Instead, they are woven together with the third-person narration, identifiable only by the shift into dialect writing.

As he tries to run, he is terrified by the possibility of bloodhounds chasing him. He is bitter that his father didn’t send him off with a shotgun and comforted that Bobo will be joining him soon. When he arrives at the hill with the kilns, Big Boy opts for a kiln that he, Lester, Buck, and Bobo made the week before—a pit four to five feet deep, dug into black clay. But when he arrives at the hole’s lip, a six-foot-long snake slithers out, and Big Boy must once again fight for his life before he can take refuge. He crushes the snake’s skull with his foot after a struggle and climbs into the kiln. He thinks about the day he and his friends made the kiln and feels sorry for how he treated them. He replays the day’s events in his head, thinking about how things could have gone differently before entertaining a fantasy of killing the mob he knows is coming to lynch him. First, he fantasizes about shooting them with the shotgun he doesn’t have, and then about killing them with his bare hands as he did to the snake.

This violent fantasy is interrupted by a “Hoalo!” He thinks it might be Bobo, but other voices join in, and it turns out to be the white people chasing the two surviving boys. They haven’t found either yet, but Big Boy overhears that they burned down his family’s “shack” after they searched it and enjoyed hearing his mother “howl” (52). Big Boy peeks out and sees more men gathering on the road below with guns and coils of rope slung over their shoulders. He goes numb as he waits. He hears a dog pass overhead, but it goes for the dead snake instead of him. Then a pack of dogs starts barking on the other side of the hill, and Big Boy knows that Bobo has been caught.

He watches and listens as a mob of men and women stream down the hill, shouting about how they are going to lynch Bobo and singing “We’ll hang ever n----- t a sour apple tree…” (54-55). They set a tar barrel alight, taking “souvenirs” from Bobo’s body before tarring and feathering him and setting him on fire. Then, it suddenly starts to rain, and the mob all begins to flee before they can find Big Boy. A dog, however, does find him, leading to another fierce battle for his life. Big Boy manages to strangle the dog, holding onto its corpse “long after the last footstep had died out, long after the rain had stopped” (59).

In the last and shortest section (V), the reader finds that Big Boy survived the night. He awakes from a numb daze to realize that Will’s truck is just 25 yards away. Big Boy struggles toward the truck but can’t get there without Will’s help. Will asks where Bobo is, and Big Boy gestures toward a “charred sapling on the slope of the opposite hill” (60). Will helps Big Boy through a trap door into the hull of his truck. They stop at a filling station, and Big Boy is once again filled with a “wild fear” of being caught. Will returns with a thirst-quenching hatful of water, and they depart without incident. Big Boy falls asleep as the truck speeds northward, and the day breaks into “golden blades of sunshine” that mix with the sawdust in the hull and crumbs of the corn pone that is still against his chest.

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