Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Southern Night | Summary



An epigraph from the Book of Job, a book from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, opens Part 1, setting the stage for the main character's bleak childhood.

Black Boy begins as the four-year-old Richard Wright accidentally sets fire to his grandparents' house in Natchez, Mississippi. When his mother finds out, she whips Wright so severely he almost dies.

Years later Wright and his family move to Memphis, Tennessee. There, Wright grows fearful and resentful of his father, who works at night and reacts violently if he is awakened during the day. When his father disappears, Wright is relieved—until he gets hungry. His mother says she cannot feed him until she finds work. She lands a job as a cook for a white family, leaving Wright and his brother home alone for long periods. Wright, now six years old, learns to fight and gains "the right to the streets of Memphis." He is fascinated by a saloon, and the drunks there feed him alcohol. For a short time he is obsessed with getting drunk and does little else.

Before Wright is old enough to enter school, he hears a scary story about a white man beating a black boy. He is confused about the differences between the races. His grandmother is so light-skinned she looks white, and he does not know she is considered black. He goes to his mother for an explanation, but she says only, "You're too young to understand."

Wright's father refuses to offer any financial support for his sons. His mother places them in an orphanage so she can earn money to move away from Memphis. Wright is terrified of the woman who oversees the orphanage, Miss Simon, and he tries to run away. Worried about him, his mother convinces him to go to his father and beg for money. Wright tries, but his father and a "strange woman"—his father's mistress—mock him. They offer a single nickel, but Wright is too proud to take it. As the chapter ends, Wright shares his adult reflection that his father's experiences with black life in the South robbed him of human feeling and loyalty.


The epigraph to Part 1 comes from the Book of Job. The biblical Job is a good man who suffers every imaginable misfortune. Thematically, his story shows human suffering is impossible to understand. By including this epigraph, Wright suggests a comparison between himself and Job, and he implies his story will be filled with suffering.

The opening chapter of Black Boy establishes some of the major topics of Wright's childhood: violence, hunger, upheaval, and racism. It is no accident Wright chooses to open by showing himself making a huge mistake and suffering for it. Throughout the book his own actions often contribute to the problems he experiences. Many of his mistakes are like this first one: he acts without knowing the consequences, and the results—in this case, the burning of his grandparents' house and a whipping that nearly kills him—are horrific. As the adult Wright reflects on these experiences, he does not explicitly cast judgments or make apologies. Readers must form their own opinions about a world where a child is left alone to make such an enormous error and then treated so brutally afterward.

Hunger dominates this first chapter, and the word "hunger" recurs frequently throughout the memoir. At this stage Wright is focused on the literal need for food, but the presence of the word in the title hints at a psychological hunger that will develop as the story progresses.

Wright is African American, and racial issues shape his story even in the earliest years of his life. Wright is beaten and abandoned by a father who has been broken by black life in the South. He is alternately whipped, mocked, and neglected by a mother who is struggling to care for him in spite of few opportunities. All of the African Americans who hurt the young Wright are also being hurt by the unfair culture of the Jim Crow South.

At this stage in the story Wright's experiences with white people are hazy, distant, and characterized by vague fears. When Wright asks his mother to explain race relations, he shows an insistent inquisitiveness that will stay with him throughout the book. Her reaction is to evade his questions—his first experience with social pressure against curiosity. This pressure will grow stronger as he gets older.

In this chapter and throughout the book Wright describes his relatives using their titles, not their names. He writes about "my mother," "my brother," and "my father"—and he never uses familiar labels like "mommy." This word choice helps establish a certain distance between himself and his family. Although their relationships seem to matter to him, he almost never describes warm, loving, or intimate interactions.

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