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Black Boy | Summary

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Summary

Part 1: Southern Night

Black Boy begins as the four-year-old Richard Wright accidentally burns down his grandparents' house. His mistake is discovered, and his mother whips and nearly kills him.

Wright soon moves from rural Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, where his father abandons the family, leaving Wright, his brother, and his mother near starvation. Wright's mother finds menial work as a cook for a white family. While she is working, six-year-old Wright takes to the streets, where he gets into fights and begs for drinks in bars. He and his brother spend a few months in an orphanage while his mother raises money to move to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with Wright's grandmother. Mrs. Wright belongs to a rigid sect of Christianity called the Seventh-day Adventist church and demands everyone who lives in the house follow her rules.

Soon the family moves again, to West Helena, Arkansas, to live with Wright's Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins. Wright, now seven or eight, is beginning to ask questions about racial issues, but his mother refuses to answer, mocking and sometimes hitting him instead. Then Uncle Hoskins is murdered by white men who want to take over his business. Wright's family is forced to move again—this time in fear for their lives.

When Wright's mother becomes ill and suffers a stroke, she is taken to live with his grandparents. Wright and his brother are separated. After a brief period with an aunt and uncle, Wright joins his mother at Mrs. Wright's. Wright's grandfather is unable to work, and his grandparents are so poor that Wright is often dizzy with hunger. His grandmother expects him to follow the strict rules of the Seventh-day Adventists even though he does not share her beliefs. Her rules prevent him from working on Saturdays, the only day he has a chance to earn any money. She also requires him to attend a Seventh-day Adventist school, where his youngest aunt, Addie, is the teacher. Addie hates Wright and abuses him physically until he rebels and fights her off.

Eventually Wright secures the right to enter public school and work on Saturdays. He excels in his classes and graduates ninth grade at the top of his class. He is invited to deliver a valedictory speech at graduation, but his principal is concerned his speech may offend any white people in the audience. The principal prepares a speech for Wright and tries to force him to read it, but Wright refuses and reads his own speech.

Now 17 and unable to afford more schooling, Wright enters the work force—but his income is small and unsteady. On several occasions he is beaten or forced away from jobs by white people who feel he is disrespectful. He is afraid of being thrown in prison or murdered by whites. He wants to leave his grandmother's house—and the South—but finds it almost impossible to raise enough money. Eventually he turns to crime, stealing from neighbors and employers to amass a sum big enough to move away from town. He hates stealing and feels so guilty that he decides never to do it again.

Wright returns to Memphis, where he works to save money and move north. In the city he earns more and has a little more freedom, but he still faces extreme racism. However, he is able to borrow a library card from a white coworker and read books from an all-white library to continue his education. Eventually he raises enough money to move to Chicago, leaving the culture and terror of the South behind.

Part 2: The Horror and the Glory

Wright, now 19 years old, finds Chicago huge and bewildering. Although he faces noticeably less hostility from whites, his skin color keeps him confined to menial jobs and dangerous neighborhoods. He is often unsure what is expected of him or how he should behave, and the uncertainty is almost as stressful as the outright violence of the South.

Wright finds temporary work at the post office, a position that brings in more money than any work he has ever had. However, his years of near-starvation have left him severely underweight, and he cannot meet the physical requirements for a full-time post office position. He returns to menial labor and works to gain weight. He also continues reading voraciously and trying to write. He wants to live with greater dignity and humanity, but his poverty makes this impossible.

In his menial jobs Wright continues to struggle with fear and racism. He works as a busboy in a café where he sees a white cook spit into the food. Horrified but afraid he will be fired if he makes an accusation against a white person, he lets this behavior go on for some time before enlisting the help of another black worker to report the cook. Later, Wright works on the janitorial staff in a research hospital where the educated white workers treat the black laborers with extreme disrespect. At one point two of Wright's black coworkers get into a fight and accidentally destroy parts of a research laboratory. Wright helps them clean up the lab and conceal what happened, ruining some of the white researchers' work. Wright reflects that he always feels more loyal to his black companions than to white people who treat him with contempt.

Eventually Wright gains enough weight and lands a full-time post office job. He befriends some of his coworkers, including white ones, and spends his free time reading and thinking. But in 1929, when Wright is 21, the stock market crashes, and the economy begins to fail. Few people can afford to send mail, so by 1930 the post office begins laying off workers, including Wright.

For the next few years Wright slips in and out of unemployment. For a brief time he works as an insurance agent for a company he knows is scamming its poor black customers. He despises this immoral work but chooses it over starvation—until even that job is unavailable. Eventually he is forced to seek welfare, chafing against the contempt he sees in society's attitude toward poor black people like himself.

Desperate for a life of dignity Wright seeks out others who are working to improve economic and social fairness. After exploring several intellectual groups, he discovers the John Reed Club, a literary society sponsored by the Communist Party. Like Wright the writers in the group want to expose and change the unfairness they see in the world. Many of the writers are white, but they treat Wright with respect and dignity. They publish his writing, and he gains experience as a poet and journalist.

Now active in the John Reed Club, Wright joins the Communist Party. His fellow party members believe in violent action to fight for the rights of the unemployed, and they are suspicious of people like Wright who prefer writing and thinking. Wright tries to work within the party to help the world understand the lives of poor black people, but the party resists his efforts. When Wright learns the John Reed Clubs are going to be discontinued, he travels to New York City for a convention. Local Communists allow his white traveling companions to stay in their homes, but there is nowhere for Wright to stay. He is forced to walk to Harlem to find a place to sleep. The following day, exhausted and unhappy, he speaks up for the John Reed Clubs, but nobody pays attention.

Wright resigns from the Communist Party. Although he agrees with its values of fairness for all, he dislikes the internal politics and the mistrust of writers. He wants the freedom to express his beliefs in his own way without facing suspicion. But his separation from the party makes his life difficult. At one point he gets a job at a black community theater, but he is forced out in a bewildering scene he later learns was a communist plot. On another occasion he attends a Labor Day celebration where a group of white communists attack him.

As Black Boy ends, Wright is disheartened by his failures but determined to continue writing. He decides to face injustice alone and in his own way. He resolves to "hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo ... to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."

Black Boy Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Four-year-old Wright burns down his grandparents' house.

Rising Action

2 After his father abandons him, Wright goes hungry.

3 Wright's uncle is murdered by whites.

4 After Wright's mother falls ill, he grows isolated.

5 Wright's peers and family act threatened by his writing.

6 In spite of racism Wright tries to earn a living.

7 Wright moves to the North to look for a better life.

8 Wright finds emotional connection with Communist writers.

Climax

9 Growing impatient with Communist Party, Wright resigns.

Falling Action

10 Wright tries to resolve lingering conflicts with the party.

11 White Communists attack Wright at a parade.

Resolution

12 Wright resolves to keep writing without emotional support.

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