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Richard Wright is the only main character in the autobiography as the book relates his experiences and encounters with other people. Richard is a sensitive Negro, born to an illiterate and brutish father and a cultured mother. This is the reason why he hates his father but respects his mother. As a child, he craves for attention and love. If these are denied to him, he acts rashly. Thus, at the age of four, he sets the curtains on fire when he feels restricted inside a room. Later, at Memphis, when his father asks him to get rid of the cat that is making noise, Richard gets infuriated with his father’s attitude and decides to teach him a lesson. He strangles the cat to death in order to keep him quiet. However, every time he commits a mistake, he feels sorry for it and repents.
As a normal and active child, Richard possesses abundant energy. He desires to enjoy his freedom by playing outside and observing the stream of life. To him "each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings." Thus, little things like horses driving down a dusty road and ‘rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun’ give him pleasure. However, when he is stopped from pursuing his normal activities and punished unjustly, he rebels. Aunt Cleo forces him to join a religious school and takes him to task for no fault of his. Her behavior revolts Richard and he retorts by challenging her. The rebel in him can also be seen in his behavior with Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom wakes him up from deep slumber and asks him the time. When Richard, who is half-asleep mumbles an approximate time, his uncle gets angry with him and punishes him. Richard gets infuriated by such unjust behavior and threatens his uncle with a razor blade.
Richard is unable to accept injustice, whether it is from his relatives or the White men. Whenever he hears about the atrocities committed by the Whites on the Blacks, he gets infuriated. During the time, he holds jobs under racist white employers, he resents their cruel acts and words. Thus, unconsciously he reacts to their attitude and earns their displeasure. This results in his losing not one but many jobs.
Richard is highly intelligent and perceptive. Due to financial difficulties, he is unable to join school on time. However, his thirst for knowledge makes him browse through the books of school children and learn alphabets much before he enters school. His education gets disturbed due to the insecurities at home. However, in the few years he spends at school, he makes progress and distinguishes himself. Other than studies, he shows interest in reading articles and stories from magazines. He takes up a job as a newspaper delivery boy because it gives him the opportunity to read stories from its magazine section, without having to spend any money. His urge to read and learn is much more than what is found in the other boys of his age. He also understands himself and his environment better than the others do. Thus, he becomes conscious of his rights as an individual and his role in the society.
Poverty and hunger teach Richard the values of life. He learns to make the best use of what is available. He eats very little and lives under the worst of circumstances, but does not lose hope in life. Whenever he gets the opportunity to earn extra money or read good articles, he uses it to his advantage. He feels repulsed by racial discrimination and religious fanaticism. So, he decides to become a writer and convey his ideas to the public in order to arouse their sentiments and create awareness in them. In order to achieve his goal, he decides to go north. With this intention in mind, he starts earning money in order to save for his future. However he soon realizes that all the money that he is earning is being spent on household expenses and that there is nothing left to save. He therefore decides to earn extra money. As he is unable to do so honestly, he resorts to dishonest means of making money. Thus, he steals liquor in the hotel and sells it to the White prostitutes. At the theatre, he and another lady at the counter rotate the same tickets to make more money. However, he does not exceed his limits and after saving enough money, he gives up the job. His conscience does not permit him to continue indulging in unfair deals and he stops the illegal activities before it is too late. As he bids good bye to the South, he sheds off his shady past and looks towards a cleaner future.
Richard is a survivor and an achiever. Wherever he goes, he meets people who put hurdles on his way and retard his progress. In childhood, his father, grand mother, Aunt and Uncle force their will on him and arrest his childhood. As a teenager, his employers hurt his ego and test his power of endurance. Richard feels revolted by their unjust behavior but withstands the abuses hurled at him, in order to achieve his mission in life. Later, in Chicago, he loses a good job and his security because of the Wall Street crash. To add salt to injury, the Communists try to jeopardize his career, when he tries to establish himself in the city. Richard feels dejected but not disheartened. Each bad experience hardens his resolve to transfer his feelings into paper and awaken the world towards the problems of the Negroes in a world dominated by the Whites. Richard thus wins his battle against his adversaries by asserting his identity.