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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The opening chapter recounts Wright's early childhood in Natchez, Mississippi, and his family's move to Memphis. It describes his early rebellion against parental authority, his poverty and hunger, and his unsupervised life on the streets while his mother is at work.
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Richard is looking out the window and fretting about his mother's order to keep quiet. When he shouts with joy at a bird outside, she comes in and scolds him. Next he invents a game. He throws the straws of a broom into the fireplace and watches them burn, then holds some of the straws to the white curtains at the window. To his shock, the house is soon on fire. Afraid of punishment, Richard hides under the burning house. His parents, grandmother, and brother escape unharmed. When they find him, his mother beats him almost to death. He is sick for days thereafter and hallucinates about white bags, like the full udders of cows, dripping horrible liquid on him.
In this first incident Wright introduces many of the themes of Black Boy and some that appear in his fictional work as well. In his novel Native Son, published five years before Black Boy, the central character Bigger Thomas stands outside a pool hall and sees in an airplane flying overhead a symbol of the freedom that white society denies him. Here, young Richard also yearns for freedom and sees it in the flight of a bird. But for four-year-old Richard the source of deprivation is family, not white society, as it is for Bigger. Note, though, the possible racial symbolism of the white curtains. Richard responds to his deprivation in a way that you will see is typical for him: through a rebellion that characteristically results in punishment. Finally, note the central role Richard's mother plays in this incident. Through most of the book, she remains the most important person in his life. Could the poisonous udders suggest a mother turned punishingly angry?
Wright remembers the pleasures of rural life. Then he describes his family's move to Memphis.
NOTE: NATCHEZ AND MEMPHIS
Natchez, Mississippi, was a city of twelve thousand when Wright lived there. Wright had been born in Roxie, a village with a population of two hundred, where his father worked on a farm. Wright's memories of rural pleasures may come from the time he spent in the Mississippi River port city of Natchez or from Roxie, where he lived until he was three. In any case, the transition to Memphis, an industrial center of one hundred thousand, was dramatic. Writing from the point of view of his childhood self, Wright does not tell you the reason for this move. The reason was that his father was unable to find steady work in Natchez, where economic deprivation forced the family to live with Wright's maternal grandparents.
Richard rebels again, this time against his father. He resents that man and particularly the need to be quiet during the day, when his father, now a night porter, sleeps. When Mr. Wright angrily tells Richard to kill a meowing kitten if that's the only way he can keep it quiet, Richard has found a way to strike back without being punished. He takes his father literally and hangs the kitten. But Richard's mother punishes him by making him bury the kitten and by filling him with guilt.
Wright now introduces another of his central themes. When his father deserts the family, young Richard faces constant and severe hunger. For the first time, Richard sees himself as different from others, because he no longer has a father and because he must consequently, assume some of the responsibilities of an adult. Rebellion, hunger, and the sense of being different will continue with Richard throughout this book.
In Memphis, Richard's mother teaches him to fight in self-defense. When he accompanies her to work at white people's houses, he first senses economic differences, but not yet racial differences. Some people, he notices, have more to eat than others. When he doesn't accompany his mother to work, he amuses himself by spying on people using the open wooden outhouses or by letting saloon patrons ply him with drinks.
But Richard also soon shows his capacity for and delight in learning, even before he starts school, which he begins at a later age than other boys because his mother couldn't afford his school clothes. His first day at school he learns obscene words on the playground and proudly writes them on the neighbors' windows. Have knowledge, writing, and rebellion already become linked for the young Richard Wright?
Richard's mother goes to court to try to compel her husband to pay child support. Richard's father jovially tells the judge that he is doing all he can, and the judge takes his word for it. Then poverty compels Richard's mother to send him to an orphanage. There he is given little to eat, forced to work hard, and deprived of his mother's company. He runs away but is found and returned by white policemen. Note that the policemen give Richard his third chance to learn about whites. His second opportunity came when he heard that a "white" man had beaten a "black" boy. Because Richard's grandmother had light, essentially white, skin, he had never before thought of whites as different from blacks.
Wright's maternal grandmother, Margaret Bolden Wilson, had more Irish and Scottish than black ancestry. Born a slave, she did not work in the fields but had the more favored job of a house maid. Though she remained illiterate, after the Civil War she learned the trade of a midwife-nurse and became an assistant to a white doctor.
Now remembering the story of the beating, he is afraid of the white policemen, but they treat him kindly. So far, Richard seems to feel more oppressed by hunger, his delinquent father, and parental punishment than by racism.
At the end of the chapter, Richard's mother takes him to his father's house to ask for money, which request his father refuses. Years later, Richard still thinks back on this disturbing memory of his father sitting by a fire with a strange woman.
Many readers point out that during the adolescence Wright describes later in Black Boy, he seems to avoid relationships with females. Some readers link what they see as his avoidance of sexual intimacy to events like this one. After all, they say, his father's sexual affair meant hunger and poverty for Richard and his ailing mother. Do you agree with this interpretation?
Some twenty-five years later, Richard visits his father again and realizes the gap between the older man's life and his own. In this passage, Wright lets you know where Black Boy is heading. He sees his father as a black peasant who has been destroyed by the city and compares his father's life to his own life, which was to be liberated by the city. Touching on several of his book's central themes, Wright refers to his father as a victim of whites but also calls his father emotionally, as well as economically, impoverished. Wright's critique of his fellow blacks has been criticized in turn by other black writers like James Baldwin.