This is American writer Richard Wright's story of his life as a black child in the American South (Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas) in the early decades of the 20th century. Black Boy opens with the disaster in which Richard at the age of four accidentally burns down his grandparents' house and is beaten nearly to death by his mother as punishment. The book ends with Richard's hopeful escape north to Chicago at the age of eighteen.

In between are years of heart-stopping survival stories, as Richard, an intelligent and willful child who tries to resist many of the demands of his strongly segregated environment, runs head-on into the hatred of racists and the deep poverty, hunger, and oppression that so often were the lot of the system's victims. (On the subject of hunger, one of the book's working titles was American Hunger, and Wright was chronically hungry all these years. He gets so used to extreme hunger that at one point late in the book after a short interlude with regular meals he is surprised to discover that he can suddenly read faster!)

Black Boy, originally published by Harper & Bros. in 1945, is only the first half of Wright's original manuscript. After production had begun on the complete manuscript, Wright accepted an offer from the Book-of -the-Month Club to make his book one of their selections if only the first half were published. The second half was first published in its entirety by Harper & Row as American Hunger in 1977. The 1993 edition titled Black Boy (American Hunger) brings both halves together for the first time. The second volume describes Wright's experiences in Chicago from 1926 to 1936, including his frustrating attempt to work with the Communist Party as a way of supporting unemployed workers during the Great Depression.


Tragically, and dramatically, many of Wright's battles are against members of his own race, even members of his own family, who in order to survive had been forced to internalize the brutal teachings of segregation and were trying to pass them on to Richard for "his own good." Richard resists this internalized agenda to defend fairness and decency as if his life were at stake.

This conflict underlies a number of the book's extremely dramatic confrontations--for instance, Richard's refusing to bow to the threats of his junior high school principle over his valedictorian's speech, his violent responses to his extremely strict aunt and grandmother, and his threatening to kill his Uncle Jack rather than be whipped by him because he thought Richard needed whipping generally.

As Richard grows into his teens, he feels an increasing tension between the world of his hopes and imagination and the world around him, and yet he knows he cannot be other than he is. The result is that he lives with a panic-level fear of being caught. As Wright dramatically describes his situation at the age of fifteen: "Somewhere in the dead of the southern night my life had switched onto the wrong track and, without my knowing it, the locomotive of my heart was rushing down a dangerously steep slope, heading for a collision, heedless of the warning red lights that blinked all about me, the sirens and the bells and the screams that filled the air." (Ch. VII) Wright knew that for him, it was escape or die.


Restored text established by the Library of America

Primary Source

Black Boy (American Hunger)



Place Published

New York



Page Count