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Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 5 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 5 : Southern Night | Summary



Eventually his grandmother and Aunt Addie give up on trying to save Wright's soul. Now 13, Wright returns to public school, where he enters fifth grade with kids two years younger than he is. He studies furiously and moves up to sixth grade two weeks later. At home his family marvels at a "bad, bad boy" doing something so good.

Wright is dressed in rags and nearly starving. He wants to get a job on Saturdays so he can buy his own clothes, textbooks, and lunches. But Mrs. Wright forbids him to work on Saturday, the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath. Unable to find work on other days, Wright goes hungry and watches his classmates enviously during lunch every day.

One day a "tall, black, rebellious boy" tells Wright about a job selling newspapers. The opportunity does not require Saturday work and offers the chance to read, so Wright jumps at the chance. He sells papers after school and spends evenings reading the fiction in the paper's magazine section. But when a customer points out Ku Klux Klan propaganda in the news section, Wright quits selling the papers. He has no other income until summer, when a brief job brings in "a pocketful of money that melted into the bottomless hunger of the household."

The following school year, when Wright is in seventh grade, his grandfather dies. Wright's grandfather had been ill for years, and Wright mainly knows him for his bitterness toward white people. A former slave, the old man fought in the Civil War and was injured, but he never received a pension because his illiteracy led to a misunderstanding with the spelling of his name. Mr. Wright's death changes almost nothing about Wright's life.

Wright's clothing becomes so ratty he is unable to attend school. He fights with Granny, begging for the right to work on Saturdays. When she refuses, he packs up to leave. She snatches the suitcase from his hands and relents. When he sneaks into his mother's room to tell her he is going to disobey his grandmother and get a job, she kisses him in joy.


Wright continues to exist in isolation, even among family. He has little emotional connection to anyone in his household except his mother, who is too ill to care for him. His family's attitudes toward him shift constantly depending on what he is doing at a given time. They sometimes treat him more warmly when he does something good, but nobody offers him unconditional support.

The theme of hunger sharpens as Wright's desire for work comes into conflict with his grandmother's religious beliefs. Hunger keeps Wright malnourished and dizzy at school, and it prevents him from bonding with his classmates during breaks. Because of this, he is isolated not only at home but also with his peers. He seems to wish vaguely for deeper connections with others, but he does not know how to make them. But by the end of the chapter he finally gains the strength to defy Mrs. Wright's rule about Saturday work. Afterward Wright experiences one of the few moments of familial tenderness in the book. His mother, the only adult in the house who loves him, kisses him.

Wright's love of reading causes him more trouble than ever when he is duped into selling a Ku Klux Klan newspaper. Wright is so focused on earning money and reading fiction that he completely overlooks the newspaper's biases. However, when he learns his mistake, he does not for a moment consider continuing to sell the papers. His hatred for racism in any form outweighs his desire to read and earn money.

Wright's grandfather makes few appearances in the story until the moment of his death. Even though he has lived with the man for years, Mr. Wright plays virtually no role in Wright's life. After noting this as more evidence of his childhood isolation, the author uses his grandfather's story to show another way the white world creates a system unfair for blacks. Wright's grandfather, a former slave and Civil War soldier, was never able to obtain his war pension. It is impossible to know whether his grandfather was deliberately cheated by white people or merely the victim of a mistake that resulted from his own illiteracy.

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