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Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 3 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 3 : Southern Night | Summary



When Wright begins spending time with older boys, he is forced "to pay for my admittance into their company by subscribing to certain racial sentiments." He and his friends talk constantly about white unfairness and violence. Wright and his gang fight with white boys who live in the next neighborhood. Wright's mother asks him not to fight, but he cannot obey without losing standing, so he disobeys.

Wright's mother grows ill, and Wright leaves school to earn money. One day he cannot wake his mother up, and a doctor comes to say she has had a stroke. Mrs. Wright and her other eight children pay for an ambulance to move Wright's mother back to his grandmother's house. Aunt Maggie volunteers to take Wright's brother to live with her in Detroit, and Wright goes to live in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi, with his Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody, who are strangers to him. They are emotionally distant, and he is terrified by fear of a ghost in their house. Eventually he asks to return to his grandmother's.

At his grandmother's Wright finds his mother somewhat better—but only briefly. A doctor recommends an operation, but there are no proper facilities for a black patient, so she has to travel in a baggage car on a train and stay in a boardinghouse after the operation is over. Her health worsens, and it becomes clear she will never recover.

In the 12-year-old Wright's mind his mother's illness becomes a symbol for the pain, racism, and unhappiness he sees around him. He becomes convinced "that the meaning of life came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering."


In order to gain acceptance Wright and his friends show loyalty to African Americans and hatred for whites. Wright uses several pages of unattributed dialogue to demonstrate how he and his friends spoke during this period of his childhood. The swaggering statements about fighting and killing white people hide an underlying layer of fear and confusion. Through this dialogue Wright makes clear the boys do not understand their world. They also harbor vague hopes of a better world elsewhere, but in their environment of racial hostility, their loyalty to each other holds paramount importance.

When Wright's mother falls ill, relatives take responsibility for Wright and his brother. Other than Aunt Maggie, who chooses to provide a home for Wright's brother, most of Wright's aunts and uncles are strangers to him. They feed and clothe him, but they do not offer warm relationships. Although Wright clearly cares about his mother, she is constantly ill from this point forward. Wright is left isolated, with no loving, trusted adult to help shape his ideas about life.

Poverty and racial segregation exacerbate Wright's mother's illness. In the Jim Crow South she cannot sleep in white hospitals or travel in white train cars. Her family is forced to improvise to get her what she needs. Although Wright does not say so directly, her condition is likely worsened because she cannot receive the best care. Perhaps even more so than his uncle's death, his mother's illness drives home to him racism's cruel consequences. To him her illness symbolizes all the "meaningless suffering" he sees and describes in his world. It is the reason his search for meaning is rooted in suffering rather than anything more hopeful.

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