Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 4 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 4 : Southern Night | Summary

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Summary

At his grandmother's house Wright is forced to "make a pretense of worshipping her God," but in reality he believes only in "the throbbing life of the people in the streets."

Mrs. Wright is too poor to feed Wright properly, but she refuses to let him get a job. He occupies a "delicate" place in her home as "an uninvited dependent ... whose soul stood in mortal peril." Granny believes Wright's lack of faith could bring her whole house to ruin. In an effort to convert him she sends him to a private Seventh-day Adventist school run by her youngest daughter, Addie.

Aunt Addie hates Wright, and at the end of his first week of school, she invents an excuse to whip him. At home she attempts to whip him again, but Wright pulls a knife and fights her off. His grandfather is called to teach him a lesson, but he is a sick old man who cannot persuade Wright to back down. Wright avoids the whipping, and afterward he and Aunt Addie almost never speak to each other, even though they live in the same house, and she is the only teacher at his school.

Wright lives under constant pressure to accept Mrs. Wright's religion. One day in church he hears a story about Jacob wrestling an angel, and he whispers to his grandmother that he would believe in God if he saw an angel, too. She misunderstands and thinks he did see an angel. Before he can explain the mistake, she announces his conversion—only to be mortified when he corrects her.

In an effort to make up with his grandmother, Wright agrees to spend an hour every evening praying in his room. But he does not know how to pray, and he soon falls into the habit of using the time to write. One evening he shows the woman next door a story he has written, and she acts astonished and threatened.

Analysis

This chapter focuses largely on Wright's struggles with religion. To him, religion is not a peaceful force in life. It does not provide relief from the violence and pain of the streets. Mrs. Wright's and Aunt Addie's Seventh-day Adventist preaching focuses on hell, the end times, and pain. Both Mrs. Wright and Aunt Addie are also physically violent and psychologically abusive. Wright rejects their entire worldview and chooses the one belief system that makes sense to him: the complex rules and loyalties of the streets.

Hunger is a constant for Wright, but now his hunger is not only a result of poverty. It is also caused by his grandmother's strict rules. Wright is no longer just hungry for food; he is hungry for change and for power over his own life.

Wright's strained relationship with his family is starkly illustrated in this chapter. In their minds he is an out-of-control, rebellious boy who would rather pull a knife on his aunt than accept her just punishment. To Mrs. Wright, in particular, Wright's lack of religious faith puts the whole family in danger of feeling God's wrath. Mrs. Wright blames him for anything bad that happens to the family, including his mother's illness. Wright learns to ignore her threats and see himself differently than they see him.

In spite of everything Wright does not seem to hate his grandmother. When he accidentally embarrasses her in front of her church community, he feels guilty and wants to make up to her. This is why he agrees to pray in his room every evening, which also incidentally gives him a chance to indulge his love of reading and writing. His evening prayer times soon become writing sessions. When he shows off his first story to a neighbor, he encounters what will become the typical reaction to his literary efforts: the woman cannot imagine why he would intentionally do something as odd as writing a story.

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