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SHORT PLOT / CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Richard Wright starts his autobiography Black Boy with an incident from his childhood. At the age of four, Richard is in the home of his grandmother when the latter fell ill. As the old lady lies in bed, Richard and his brother are confined within a room and forbidden to make noise. Trapped within the four walls of a room, Richard playfully sets fire to the curtains in the room. The whole house is soon on flames. The inmates of the house are saved on time but Richard hides himself inside a brick chimney in order to escape punishment. He is finally rescued, but remains sick and in bed for a long time.
From Natchez, Richardís family moves mover to Memphis in a steamboat, Kate Adams. At Memphis, they live in a small apartment where Richard has very little space to play. His father works as a Night porter and sleeps in the mornings. He therefore resents disturbance from the children. If Richard or his brother make noise, they are scolded. Once, while the children are playing with a cat the animal meows, this makes his father very angry and he demands that the animal be silenced. Angry with his father and in a spirit of revenge, Richard kills the animal. Only when his mother asks him to bury the animal, is he tortured with guilt.
One day his father fails to return home from work and this completely disturbs their ordered life. They soon realize that he has left them for another woman. In order to prevent her family from going hungry, Richardís mother takes up a job as a cook. The time his mother is out, Richard spends in idleness. One evening, he strays into a saloon frequented by the Negroes. The customers tempt him with drinks and use him to send indecent messages to the ladies in the bar. Thus, unawares, Richard becomes a drunkard at the age of six and learns to use filthy language without understanding their meaning. His mother has a tough time weaning him out of the bad habit, but she succeeds in her attempt. As Richard roams around the streets, he learns alphabets from the books of school children and later, learns to recite numbers.
With no permanent job and little resource, his mother is compelled to leave Richard in a charitable home. The warden of the home takes a liking to Richard, but the boy resents her familiarity. He runs away from the home but is brought back to it by the police. Later, he goes back to his mother. Mrs. Wright files a suit against her husband for their maintenance but fails to get justice.
One day, Mrs. Wright announces to the children her plan to go to Arkansas to live with Aunt Maggie. On the way to Arkansas, they stop over at his grannyís house in Jackson. Richard finds Grannyís home big and grand. He makes the acquaintance of a black girl who lives as a paying guest in the house and makes her relate stories of mystery and adventure. The tales fire his imagination and increase his thirst for reading.
In Arkansas, Aunt Maggie and her husband are hospitable and kind. Their house is spacious and their table is always loaded with food. Richard is happy to run around and eat as much as he wants. However, the days of fun and fulfillment end with the death of Uncle Hoskins. His aunt and mother struggle to make ends meet but when it becomes difficult to continue existence, they move to Jackson.
Life with Granny is hard and rigid. The atmosphere of the house is charged with religion and restraint. Not only Richard, but his mother too feels stifled to live in the house for long and hence they shift to West Helena. Both Aunt Maggie and Mrs. Wright work as cooks in the homes of White people to maintain the family. Shortly afterwards, Aunt Maggie leaves for Detroit with a mysterious professor. As their income reduces, it becomes difficult to lead a decent life. To make matters worse, Mrs. Wright falls ill. Richard is forced to take up odd jobs to keep the fire in their hearth burning. And one day his motherís condition takes a turn for the worse and she is struck with paralysis. Granny arrives and calls all her daughters and sons to discuss the situation. After the initial course of treatment, Mrs. Wright is taken to Jackson. Richard goes with Uncle Clark to Greenwood, while his brother, Leon, goes to Detroit with Aunt Maggie.
The rigid routine and strict discipline imposed by the Clarks irk Richard and therefore he returns to Jackson. Uncle Edward arrives and takes Richardís mother to Clarksdale for an operation. His mother is unfit to work and Richard is considered a burden to the family. Aunt Addie arrives and persuades Richard to join the religious school where she is employed as a teacher. Richard is neither interested in the lessons taught, nor in the company at school. Aunt Addie behaves harshly with him and invokes his anger. After Richard threatens to wound her with a knife, she cuts off her relations with him.
Richard enrolls himself in school and starts looking for employment, to earn enough money to buy his lunch and books. He studies seriously and makes progress in school. He reaches the ninth grade and shows promise for higher studies. He gets selected to be the Valedictorian of his school. At the graduation ceremony, he reads the speech prepared by himself, instead of the one prepared by the Principal and asserts his identity as an individual.
Richard discontinues studies for want of money and starts working for a living. He takes up jobs at different places. He however is unable to continue in any place for long because of his sensitive nature. The racial prejudice of his white employersí disgust him and hurt his ego. However, he decides to stifle his conscience in order to achieve his goal in life. Thus, he takes up a job in an Optical company suggested by his friend, Griggs. When he takes up the job, they promise to teach him the trade but the White workers show no interest in teaching him anything. Richard is disillusioned but continues with his job. However, the white men make his life miserable and eventually force him out of the job. Shortly afterwards, Richard takes up employment as a ticket collector in a Cinema theatre. Encouraged by the lady at the counter, Richard starts making money through duplication of the tickets. When he saves enough for his travel to the North, he leaves the job. He bids goodbye to his mother and boards a train for Memphis.
In Memphis, he secures a paying guest accommodation in a Beale Street house. Mrs. Moss, the landlady of the house, is kind and friendly but irritates Richard by trying to force him to marry her daughter. However, Richard manages the situation and all is well. Again he takes up employment in an Optical company. He likes the job and is happy with the work environment. However, one of the foremen of the company, named Olin, starts trouble for him. He creates a misunderstanding between Richard and another boy called Harrison, who works in a rival optical company and finally, he forces them to face each other in a boxing ring. Richard hates himself for giving in to the wishes of Olin but suffers silently in order to continue working in the company.
One day, after reading an article on Menckenís works, Richard feels the desire to read the books of the author. With this in mind, he approaches one of the officers, called Falk, of the company to lend him his library card. With this card, he gets the desired book. After reading the book, he gets inspired to read more books by other authors. Thus, he starts visiting the library and borrowing a variety of books.
Aunt Maggieís visit to Memphis hastens Richardís trip to the North. Leaving his mother with his brother, Richard leaves for Chicago with his aunt. They rent a room near Aunt Cleoís quarters and start their new life. Richard gets a job as a porter in a delicatessen. Later, he sits for and passes the Postal clerical examination. However, he is unable to clear the medical examination because as he is under weight. So, he takes up a job in a Café. The White girls in the Café treat him like a friend and not a Negro. Richard once again sits for the Postal examination. This time he qualifies both in the written as well as the medical examinations. He is hired as a clerk in the Post office. The job not only provides him with a good salary, but also enough times to pursue his reading. He makes new acquaintances at the Post office and outside the Post office.
He joins the John Reed club and contributes articles to the magazines. Shortly afterwards, he is elected as the Secretary of the club and made a member of the Communist party. Richard is impressed by the ideologies of the Communist party and tries to propagate their views through his writings. However, the party does not appreciate his efforts and the members even suspect his motives. Richard is dejected and dispirited. To make matters worse there is rivalry between the artistís group and writerís group in the club. Richard finds it difficult to satisfy both the groups. Finally, the club gets dissolved. In the meantime, he is asked to contribute articles on high prices and champion the cause of Communism outside the country. Richard soon gets disillusioned by the policies of the party and resigns from it. His action evokes antagonism from the party 2and they threaten him.
After the crash of the Wall Street, Richard loses his job at the Post office. With the recommendation of the Relief office, he works in different places in different capacities. He keeps shifting houses due to the fluctuations in his financial position. Hunger keeps haunting him but he continues writing articles and stories. Then he takes up work at the Federal Theatre. He appoints a new director with a view to train the actors for staging realistic plays. However, the actors reject his ideas and he is transferred to another department.
He starts working in the Federal Writerís Project. He is assigned the job of writing guides. During the course of his work, he is interacts with other writers many of whom are communists. They view him with disdain. Richard ignores their attitude and continues with his job. Soon, he is promoted as the acting supervisor of essays. His adversaries try to hamper his progress and accuse him of treachery. Richard tries to sort out the matter but with little success. Then he is chosen as the shop chairman of the union.
On May Day in 1936, Richard decides to join his group in the march. However, when he reaches the appointed place to merge with his group members, he does not find them anywhere. As he looks around to spot his mates, he is called to join another line by one of his communist associates belonging to the South Side section. Richard reluctantly joins the line, only to regret his action soon after. The leader of the Communist party of the district, called Cy Perry, abuses him and throws him out of the line. Richard feels both physically and morally wounded. He is now provoked to write about injustice, the attitude of the Negroes and the Communists. He hopes that one day his writings will awaken the conscience of the people and enlighten them.