Black Boy begins with a bang, literally, when four-year-old Richard sets his house on fire. Then it’s out of the fire and into a long story of poverty, suffering, and—just maybe—a little bit of happiness.
First off, Richard’s dad leaves when he’s young. And then, his mother is sick all the time. Richard basically runs wild. Uncles, aunts, and even orphanages do try to raise him, but Richard does whatever he wants. Sounds great, right? He learns to fight, to curse, and—oh yeah—becomes an alcoholic before he’s six. Maybe not so great after all.
Richard grows up fast, and he starts taking jobs when he is just eleven. That’s sixth grade. That’s barely middle school! When he starts working for white people, he figures out that something is wrong with his world—something called racism. He dreams about moving north, where rumor has it that racism doesn’t exist.
Something else keeps Richard going. When he’s living with his Granny, he hears a fairy tale. Just one, but that’s enough. He becomes obsessed with everything relating to reading and writing. By the time he graduates high school, Richard has two dreams: to become a writer, and to move up north.
Richard steals, cheats, and lies his way into enough money for a ticket to Memphis, but not enough for a ticket to his ultimate goal of Chicago. Still, Memphis is awesome—at first. He meets some super nice people, and also some super prejudiced people. When Richard is almost assaulted just for wanting to learn, he decides that is the last straw and he finally makes his way to Chicago.
Ah, the North. It’s no Emerald City, but he sure likes it a whole lot better than the South. After his initial shock at the tall buildings and white people treating him like an equal, life is smooth sailing.
And then comes the Great Depression. Richard and nearly everyone else is out of a job. Suddenly, Communists yelling about oppression started making a lot more sense.
Richard decides that the Communist Party is going to be the great savior of the black race and can’t figure out why everyone else hasn’t already accepted it, too. Here’s a hint: rumors, backstabbing, and cultish insularity make the Communist Party a pretty scary place to be, especially if you’re like Richard and don’t take too well to other people ordering you around.
In the end, Richard decides to use another tool to connect with other people. Heck, he doesn’t need Communism; he just needs a pen and some paper. So, Richard sits down to write.