“Black Boy” or “American Hunger” is an autobiographical memoir of African-American author Richard Wright’s childhood and young adulthood. It starts when four-year-old Richard Wright is made to remain still while his grandmother lies ill in her bed. He is bored and starts playing with fire near the window curtains. Richard accidentally ignites the curtains burning down the family home. In terror, Richard hides beneath the burning house. Nathan, his father, retrieves him. Then, Ella, his mother, thrashes him so cruelly that he falls ill.
Nathan then abandons the family while Richard and Alan, his brother, are very young. The Wrights fall into destitution and frequent hunger. Richard closely associates his family’s hardship with his father, becoming bitter toward him.
Ella battles to raise her children, but her long hours of work leave her little time to supervise the boys. Richard gets into all kinds of difficulty, spying on people and becoming a regular at the local saloon. By the age six, he is drinking regularly. Ella’s bad health precludes her from raising two children and often leaves her incapable of working. School is hardly an option for Richard. At one point, Ella must put her children in an orphanage.
Life improves when the Wrights moves to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with Ella’s sister, Maggie, and her brother-in-law, Hoskins. Hoskins owns a profitable saloon, so there is always food to eat, a condition that Richard greatly welcomes. White resentment of Hoskins’s business accomplishment peaks; Hoskins is killed and the rest of his family threatened. The sisters flee with the two lads to West Helena, Arkansas. The two women’s combined earnings make life easier. Soon Maggie runs away to Detroit with Professor Matthews, her lover. Ella is again the sole support of the family.
Times become harder when a stroke incapacitates Ella. Richard’s grandmother brings the three Wrights to her home in Jackson, Mississippi. Ella’s family convenes to decide how to care for their ill sister and her two sons. They decide that Alan will live with Maggie in Detroit. Ella will remain at home in Jackson. Richard is to choose which aunt or uncle to live with. He decides to live with his Uncle Clark, as Clark lives not far from Jackson. Soon after he gets to Clark’s home, a neighbor tells him that a boy had died years ago in the same bedroom Richard now lives in. Richard effectively appeals to be returned to his grandmother’s.
Richard once again faces the familiar problem of hunger. Granny, is a strict Seventh-Day Adventist, and sees her strong-minded, wistful, and studious grandson as sinful, and she struggles to change him. Addie, one of Richard’s aunts, soon joins in the fight against Richard’s insolence. Richard’s passion for books makes his life an endless conflict with his family. Granny forces him to go to the religious school where Addie instructs.
One day, Addie strikes Richard for eating walnuts, but it was in fact the student sitting in front of Richard who had been eating. When Addie tries to hit Richard again, he defends himself with a knife. These similar scenes happen again over the following months and years. Meanwhile, Richard makes his way through school. He delights in his studies in spite of a home hostile to such activity. He graduates from the ninth grade as valedictorian.
As he enters the working world, Richard suffers many frightening and violent racist encounters. As his despair grows, Richard resolves to leave the South. He becomes willing to steal to raise the money for the trip. He sells stolen goods to get to Memphis, where he can make his final arrangements to move to Chicago.
Richard finds a kind and bighearted landlady, Mrs. Moss, who concludes that he must marry her daughter. Richard takes a job at an optical shop, but Olin, a outwardly caring white coworker, manipulates Richard and Harrison, another young black worker. This manipulation ends with a bizarre fight between Richard and Harrison.
In Chicago, Richard still wrestles with segregation and poverty. He smothers his own principles, to work at a corrupt insurance agency cheats of poor blacks. Richard soon quits to try to get a job in the post office. As the Great Depression makes Richard and others out of work, Richard finds Communism attractive, especially its emphasis on shielding the exploited. He becomes a Party member. Meanwhile, Richard works various jobs through federal relief programs. When he begins writing for leftist periodicals. To his disappointment, he finds that, like any other group, the Communist Party is not perfect. After a great deal of political dissension and slur that ends in Richard being assaulted during a May Day parade, he leaves the Party. Unfazed Richard remains resolute to make writing a success.