Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 2 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Southern Night | Summary

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Summary

Wright's mother removes him and his brother from the orphanage, and all three move in with their grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi. There, Wright meets a black schoolteacher, Ella, who introduces him to novels. Mrs. Wright forbids Wright from reading stories. She calls fiction "Devil stuff" and says Wright will "burn in hell" for his interest in it. Later, when Mrs. Wright hears Wright using foul language he probably picked up in Memphis, she blames Ella for corrupting her grandson and forces the young woman to move away.

Soon Wright's mother decides to move in with her sister Maggie in West Helena, Arkansas. On the train there Wright notices separate cars for white and black passengers. He probes his mother with questions about race—and about his white-looking grandmother—but his mother mocks him and slaps him. He resents her refusal to give him information and resolves to figure out the answers.

At the home of Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins Wright is allowed to eat as much as he likes for the first time in his life. He cannot get used to this and often steals food to save in case there is nothing to eat later. Uncle Hoskins owns a successful saloon, but Wright is not allowed to see it. When Hoskins is murdered by white men who want to take over his business, the rest of the family flees town.

After a brief stay at his grandmother's house, Wright's mother and Aunt Maggie rent an apartment in West Helena. There, Wright spends his days in the streets, shouting racial slurs at Jews, looking for treasure in sewage ditches, and spying on the prostitutes next door. Aunt Maggie starts a relationship with a man called Professor Matthews, who commits an unknown crime and flees with Maggie to the North. Wright's mother cannot earn enough to feed her family by herself, so Wright goes hungry again. School starts, World War I ends, and Christmas passes by—but Wright is so consumed by hunger he has little interest in anything else.

Analysis

Chapter 2 introduces Wright's love of reading and his struggle with religion, two important topics. Mrs. Wright belongs to the Seventh-day Adventist church, a strict right-wing religious group. Seventh-day Adventist teachings are partly, but not wholly based, on Protestant Christianity, and many people consider the group a cult. Mrs. Wright considers all fiction a form of lying, but Wright loves reading. His rebellion on this issue seems almost automatic, as if he cannot resist the power of words. His difference of opinion with Mrs. Wright on this issue primes him to question her beliefs in general. From Mrs. Wright's perspective, then, novels really may be responsible for corrupting her grandson—even though Wright does not actually learn foul language from the books he borrows.

In this chapter the racism and segregation of the Jim Crow South begin to affect Wright more directly. When he takes a trip in a segregated train car, he asks questions that his mother mocks and evades. His personality is highly focused on the pursuit of truth, and he keeps pursuing answers even when his mother slaps him.

When white men murder Uncle Hoskins, racial violence becomes personal for Wright. This event looms as a tragedy in Wright's life not only because his uncle dies, but also because it takes away his chance for a stable life. Without Hoskins's business to support them, Aunt Maggie and Wright's mother have no prospects except to work as servants for white families.

For Wright childhood is not a time of protected innocence. Rather, it is a period of confused and traumatic exposure to human suffering. For fun he and his friends play in sewage. They are exposed early to grim realities like prostitution. They also shout racial slurs at Jews, failing to realize racism hurts others as much as it hurts them.

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