Study Guide

Black Boy Analysis

  • Tone

    Like Singing the Blues, Contemplative, Serious

    Sing it, Daddio

    Guitars, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, or Louis Armstrong. Guys with deep gravely voices and sad songs. Black Boy.

    Yeah, seriously. Black Boy is basically a blues song stretched out to 400-odd pages and without a catchy tune. You know how these songs go: your lover left you, your money is gone, your dog ran away, and now you’re singing about it for all the world to hear. In the same way, Richard unashamedly hangs his dirty laundry out to dry. Yes, he was hungry, yes he watched people pooping, yes he played in sewage, and yes he was alone.

    At the same time, the blues celebrates the good things in life. That’s why we get passages like this: "There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning" (1.1.4). And this: "Granny’s home in Jackson […] made me feel that surely there was no finer house in all the round world" (1.2.6).

    Passages like this keep us from feeling sorry for Richard. The blues isn’t a complaint: it’s a way of expressing both the bad and the good, and bringing other people into your life. Just like Black Boy.

    Why So Serious?

    Racism and child abuse are serious business. Moments that any halfway decent comedian would have had a field day with don’t even get a chuckle in the hands of Wright.

    Like the scene when Richard tells his granny to kiss his behind. This could be comedy gold, but there's not one thing funny about the way he sets it up: "I stooped and she scrubbed my anus. My mind was in a sort of daze, midway between daydreaming and thinking. Then, before I knew it, words—words whose meaning I did not fully know—had slipped out of my mouth. 'When you get through, kiss back there,' I said, the words rolling softly but unpremeditatedly" (1.2.47-48).

    Are you laughing? Knowing what comes next, neither are we.

    Think Before You Speak

    This is no stream-of-consciousness project. The text is littered with little parenthetical asides that seem to be Wright’s interjections into the scenes of Richard’s life. He basically comes on stage holding a glass of wine, going on and on about something that seems only tangentially related to the action.

    Take this stunning bit: "Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion" (2.15.89). "Therefore," "confines," "purge," and "spasm": does this even sound like the same author saying that Granny’s home "made me feel that surely there was no finer house in all the round world" (1.2.6)?

    So, the asides are a little jarring. They’re supposed to be. By pressing the pause button, Wright gives us a little more time to think about what is happening to Richard—and he even gives us a little guidance on just what to think.

  • Genre

    Autobiography, Coming-of-Age, Comedy

    These are the Days of Our Lives…

    Let’s get the basics out of the way. Black Boy is a story about Richard Wright, written by Richard Wright. Richard narrates it, and it follows his life from childhood to adulthood. There, Black Boy meets the minimum requirements of autobiography.

    In fact, it does more. Since the story is about Richard becoming a writer, it actually meets the minimum requirements of a little thing called the künstlerroman, a fancy German word for a novel (often vaguely autobiographical in nature) that shows us how a kid grows into an artist. (Check out the Learning Guide on James Joyce’s "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" for a really famous example of the künstlerroman.)

    So much for fancy German words. Now things are going to get a little bit more complicated.

    Autobiographies are usually considered to be basically true. Sure, the writer might have Photoshopped the edges a little bit to make themselves look good, but more or less everything happened the way they said it did.

    The thing is, no one thinks that Black Boy is true in that kind of way. It’s sort of his life, but it’s mostly fiction. So then, why is it Autobiography and not just Literary Fiction? Because it feels true. It could have happened. It’s sort of what happened. So, good enough.

    Not the Ha-ha Kind of Comedy, the Other Kind

    We all know the basic definition of Comedy. It’s Looney Tunes, it’s Family Guy, it’s anything with Jack Black in it. It’s obviously not Black Boy… or is it?

    There are funny moments—like a bunch of grown men racing around trying to get guinea pigs back in their cages—but Black Boy is a different kind of comedy, the kind that is about overcoming constant adversity. It’s about getting everything but the kitchen sink thrown at you (and maybe even that), but still coming out the other side as a functioning human being.

    This is exactly what happens to Richard. Like Wile E. Coyote, or Tom from Tom and Jerry, Richard is goal oriented. He wants that piece of cheese, if by cheese you mean "to get out of the South and figure out this racism business."

    But every time he tries, something happens. He runs off a cliff, Jerry puts some dynamite in his pants, or the Great Depression takes his job away. Still, just like Wile E. or Tom, Richard manages to survive, and this book is the proof.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Apparently Wright is an indecisive guy. He went through three different titles for Black Boy before it was published, even without help from his editor. Maybe he’s just a perfectionist, but it’s clear that he wanted to find a title that was just right for his breakout book.

    The first potential title was Black Confession. We can’t be certain why Wright chose this title at first, but he probably expected his story to be something like a confession to the world about what life as a black person really is like.

    That title was scrapped for the second title, American Hunger. This is actually our favorite, because it really captures what Wright seemed to be saying with his book. Wright is so heavy with his hunger symbolism, and it is so important to the story of Richard growing up, that it seems to make sense for the title to reflect that.

    In the end, Wright went with Black Boy. In a letter to his editor, Wright writes this, "Now, this is not very original, but I think it covers the book. It is honest. Straight. And many people say it to themselves when they see a Negro and wonder how he lives. Black boy seems to me to be not only a title, but also a kind of heading of the whole general theme." (Source, p. 408)

    By using the term "black boy," Wright seems to be challenging readers to rethink its meaning. Black men used to be called boys, since black people were considered to be like children. The term went along with a whole host of ugly stereotypes, including stupidity, carelessness, and laziness. By titling his book Black Boy, Wright says to the reader, "This is your black boy. Is he who you thought he was? Do you still think he’s a boy?"

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    I picked up a pencil and held it over a sheet of white paper, but my feelings stood in the way of my words. Well, I would wait, day and night, until I knew what to say. Humbly now, with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity, I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal.

    I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human. (2.10.105)

    If you were looking for a happy ending, or even just a feeling of completion, you might have to look somewhere else. The final moments of the book come after Richard has been dragged out of the picket line by a bunch of angry Communists. Shocked, he goes back to his room to ask himself what he’s gotten out of his life. He has no answers.

    The text ends with a flash of insight but no certainty, at least for Richard. He’s alone, he still doesn’t understand how to connect with people, he still doesn’t understand racism, and to top it all off he can’t even write very well. But he knows he’s going to try.

    The dramatic irony of this is that, since we’re holding this book in our hands, we know that Richard has succeeded. But if we were his editors checking out the manuscript, we’d probably feel a lot more uneasy.

  • Setting

    The South During Jim Crow

    If you are a black person, this is not the place that you want to be. The Reconstruction has failed, and Jim Crow has taken over. No one likes Jim Crow. Well, what is there to like about discrimination, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan roaming free in the streets?

    Understandably, the black people who are in the South want out. That’s a lot of people, so many people that the flight of black Southerners to the Northern Promised Land is called the Great Migration. So Richard’s idea? Not so original.

    When Richard is a kid, he gets spooked by a bunch of black soldiers going off to WWI. These guys were the Buffalo Soldiers immortalized by everyone’s favorite Rastafarian songster. (Bob Marley, kids.) Even though they fought just as hard as any other soldiers, these guys weren’t treated well during the war. They were treated even worse when they got home, when race riots broke out all over the South.

    You get the picture. The South + Jim Crow + WWI = Not happy times.

    Houses, Apartments, and Rooms in the Southern Countryside

    Richard spends most of his time hopping from one place to another. Because his family can never make rent, they are always moving to a smaller, dirtier home. At one point, they’re living in "one half of a double corner house in front of which ran a stagnant ditch carrying sewage" (1.2.302). Home sweet home.

    All of this moving makes Richard’s home—and the setting—totally unstable. There’s never a particular place that feels like "home," except wherever his mother is. When Uncle Clark insists (kind of sweetly) that his house is Richard’s home, Richard corrects him: "‘I want to go home,’ I said again. ‘But this is your home.’ […] ‘I want to go to my mother’" (1. 3.298).

    At the same time, Richard is terrorized by the everyday violence of the South, and especially by the increase of violence during the race riots. No home, no safety, no security: no wonder he wants out.

    The North During the Great Depression

    And so onward to the North, land of plenty where black and white people live together in equal harmony.

    Well, kind of. Or, not really at all. As Richard says, "My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies" (2.15.1).

    One major problem is that many of the black migrants aren’t doing so well. Many of these black people don’t have trades or much education at all, and they’re struggling to survive in the big, strange cities up north. To make things worse, Richard arrives in Chicago just in time to experience the Great Depression. His sweet gig vanishes along with millions of other jobs, leaving Richard hungry and poor.

    The contrast of these two settings helps dispel the myth that the North is black people’s saving grace. It turns out that the North can be just as bad for black people as the South, or even worse—especially if you get mixed up with…

    Communism

    During the Great Depression, people felt betrayed by the government and by capitalism. Guess who spent a lot of time and effort recruiting unemployed black people during the Great Depression? Yep, that’s right, the Communist Party.

    The Communist Party lured people in with promises that they knew the real way to achieve progress and equality. Their rhetoric was especially appealing to black people, like Richard, because they claimed to represent the hopes and dreams of oppressed people and minorities all over the world.

    Richard falls for Communism hook, line, and sinker. (In fact, his first book Native Son is a total Communist fan letter.) By the time he’s writing Black Boy, the love affair is over. His Communist Party roller coaster ride is uncomfortably close to the violence he experienced in the South and, by the end of the novel, he wants out. The party has just made him feel even lonelier than before.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    They meet with darkness in the daytime
    And they grope at noonday as in the night...
     
    Job 5:14

    So who is this Job fellow? Job basically gets the bummest deal in the whole Hebrew Bible. He’s just sitting around minding his own business when God allows the Devil to mess with him. And by mess with him, we mean destroy his house, kill his family, and give him horrible disfiguring diseases. For no reason.

    On top of that, since people used to think horrible things only happen to you if you are a bad person, all of Job’s friends tell him to stop sinning so much. Did we mention that Job sins the least out of everyone in his town? Yeah. Great stuff, huh? The Book of Job is one of the most controversial books in the Bible, because it seems to be about God allowing his people to suffer for no reason at all.

    If you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know where we (and Wright) are going with this. Richard is like Job. He suffers, horribly and constantly, for no reason at all, and meanwhile everyone is telling him that he’s evil and it’s all his fault.

    And here’s a more metaphorical way of thinking about it. Notice that the epigraph talks about people groping around as though they’re blind. You could say that Richard is blind and groping his way toward the light. At first he thinks that the light is the North, but he finally figures out that actually what he’s after is a better understanding of life itself.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Tree Line (5-6)

    In terms of vocabulary, Black Boy doesn’t get past the first few pages of the dictionary. Well, mostly. He does throw in a couple of doozies, but most of the time it’s nothing that your average Shmooper can’t handle. Wright’s tone isn’t very conversational, and if he talks like he writes, we get why people said he talks like a book.

    Okay, sometimes Wright does get a little carried away with the sound of his own voice (which we have to say, is pretty awesome). Check out the way he describes his fever dreams after recovering from burns: "There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood" (1.1.46).

    No wonder people said he talks like a book.

    But if you can make it through the tough spots, you’re in for some nice little gems along the way. Wright is a passionate writer, especially when he’s talking about literature. Plus, he’s so good at making you feel what he’s feeling that you might get some funny looks as you smack your head at his stupidity or cheer on his success.

  • Writing Style

    Episodic, Cinematic, SAT-astic

    Plot? Who Needs A Plot?

    We wouldn’t exactly call Black Boy a traditional novel—well, it’s not supposed to be, since it’s modeled on autobiography. Instead of one long smooth narrative, Richard’s story jumps all over the place, more like a series of flashbacks than anything else. You can almost hear Richard thinking, "Oh hey, I remember when this happened."

    Notice how many times Richard says "one time" or "one day." (Hint: it's a lot.) Each small story (let’s use the fancy word and call them "vignettes") is independent, and together they trace out the journey of Richard’s life.

    I Can Picture You in Movies, Kid

    Wright’s language is so visual that it almost seems begging to be turned into a movie. Take this scene: "There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody" (1.1.58). You can just see the hog being killed, cleaned, and cooked. (Anyone else hungry for some bacon? Just us?)

    Okay, so you want something less bloody. How about this: "There was the bitter amusement of going into town with Granny and watching the baffled stares of white folks who saw an old white woman leading two undeniably Negro boys in and out of stores on Capitol Street" (1.2.103). The way Wright writes from outside himself makes even this heady, mental autobiography into a visual feast.

    In the end, what we mean by saying Wright’s writing is cinematic is that his scenes play out in your head, just like a movie. Even though he doesn’t use fancy flowery language, his point gets across loud and clear.

    All the Words Money Can Buy

    Let’s be honest: sometimes Wright sounds a little like Mr. Spock. His language seems a little too stiff and sophisticated for the subject material, like he is throwing in all the big SAT words that he can find. There’s "internecine strife" in the Communist Party, not just infighting (2.19.360). People don’t curse; they hurl "invectives" (1.6.62). Granny and Aunt Addie aren’t brown-nosing Richard; they’re displaying "urgent solicitude" (1.5.2).

    These two-dollar words might seem to take away from the story, making it more difficult to sympathize with Richard. It makes sense that people would call him an intellectual or stuck up because the language is too formal for a normal kid, much less one who grew up starving on the streets of Memphis.

    But here’s a nicer way to think about it: Richard loves words. Remember? He loves words like Justin Bieber loves hairspray. These aren’t just fancy words to throw around on a college application; they’re a way to legitimize his life story.

  • Hunger

    Hungry Like a Wolf

    We don’t know if you noticed, but Richard is hungry. You probably did, since Wright tells us almost a hundred times, but it’s cool if you didn’t. So, since Wright is a smart kind of guy, you can probably guess that the "hunger" he’s talking about is not exactly literal. And it’s not—entirely. But the first kind of hunger that Richard feels is totally, deathly literal.

    Richard does not have enough to eat. He’s not even in elementary school, and he’s actually starving.

    When his dad leaves the house, Richard’s family becomes poor. We’re talking seriously poor. Before he even knows that his dad is gone, Richard starts to hallucinate about how hungry he is. "Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played," he says, "but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly" (1.1.156).

    That is super creepy. Think about that next time that you complain on Facebook about how you’re starving. Sometimes, Richard is so weak from hunger that he can barely move. It’s so bad that neighbors start offering him food on the street.

    But Richard, even as a teeny little boy, is proud. He doesn’t want the food from strangers. He doesn’t want other people to know that he is hungry. Sure, sometimes we want to shake him and tell him just to take the stupid sandwich already. At the same time needing to put food in his belly is what makes him work so hard. And that’s admirable. In fact, it’s the American way.

    Not Exactly Hungry Like a Wolf

    Put on your fancy pants, Shmoopers, because it’s about to get literary up in here. As Richard matures, he starts experiencing a different kind of hunger: the metaphorical kind. Hunger represents a desire for or lack of something important. You want something, you’re going to suffer an unpleasant death without it, and you just can’t get it—what is that, but hunger?

    So, what does Richard hunger after? What makes his metaphorical mouth water metaphorically? Let’s see: he hungers for "that which is not and can never be," "to be and live," for "insight into my own life and the lives about me," for "a grasp of the framework of contemporary living," and for "a new way to live" (1.4.205, 1.5.1, 2.15.194, 2.16.3, 2.20.102) (got all those citations?).

    All of these fancy phrases are just different ways of saying the same thing. He wants to live, and we wants to better understand how to live. Basically, he wants to figure out the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

    Here’s something kind of noteworthy: Richard stops being hungry exactly two times as a child. The first is when he’s talking to the mean orphanage lady, Mrs. Simon: "when I sat facing her at the table, my hunger vanished" (1.1.290). The second time happens when Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody are questioning him, when he grows "so self-conscious that [his] hunger left [him]" (1.3.158).

    But this isn’t the good kind of not being hungry. Right after saying that his hunger vanished in front of Mrs. Simon, he goes on to say that "the woman killed something" in him (1.1.290). And we already know what happens at Uncle Clark’s house. These scenes suggest that maybe there’s something good about being hungry after all—something that makes him want to keep trying.

    Seconds?

    In the end, it doesn’t seem so bad to be hungry—at least, not metaphorically hungry. Being physically hungry still stinks. Metaphorical hunger gets Richard out of the South and it keeps him searching for what he really wants in life.
    Being hungry when you haven’t found what you want is a good thing. It’s the people filling up on junk food you have to watch out for. They’ll try to tell you that you should just fill up on junk food, too.

    Nah, says Richard (and us). No Doritos for us. We’re waiting on some filet mignon.

  • The North

    Valhalla. The Elysian Fields. Spring Break in Key West. Every culture has a place where everything is awesome, and everyone is eternally happy. (In some of those cultures, unfortunately, you have to die to get there.) In the Jim Crow South, that place was the North.

    More than just a geographical location, the North is a magical place of possibility and opportunity. As soon as you cross the border, everything about your mundane life will be awesome. Maybe trees will even start singing songs.

    The Myth

    It’s hard to separate truth from fiction about the North. Are the buildings really 40 stories high? Can black people really live freely? Do the buildings sway in the breeze, like tree branches? Even the truth sounds fantastical to the black boys from the South. Besides being magical, the North also becomes a place of refuge in Richard’s imagination after his aunt and brother flee to Chicago.

    It’s no wonder that the white people around Richard don’t want him to go to the North. They tell him, "Boy, you won’t like it up there," and "the North’s no good for your people, boy" (1.14.5, 1.14.28).

    The (Disappointing) Reality

    If you want a happy ending, or an ending that suggests that the North is the Promised Land for black people, you will want to stop reading at the end of the first section. That’s how the book’s first readers experienced it, since the Book of the Month Club made him cut out the whole second section.

    And, really, you can see why. The book’s second section tears apart all Richard’s dreams about the North. Once he gets there, Chicago seems "an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie" (2.15.1). Racism may not be the problem that it is down South, but everyone seems stressed out and preoccupied.

    Not to mention that Richard experiences the same problems that he faced in the South. After spending so much time getting himself there, he ends up poor, threatened, and bullied. Again. In the end, he asks himself, what was the point of coming here?

    Good question, Richard.

  • Silence

    There is an awful lot of silence in Black Boy. Since books are basically the opposite of silence—they’re all about words—it’s notable that Black Boy brings up "silent" and "silence" almost 100 times. If an author does something enough, it probably means something. Something like…

    Access Denied

    When Richard starts asking the difficult questions, he realizes that his security clearance doesn’t get him very far. It’s like a big conspiracy of disinformation.

    When Richard asks his mom about race, she mostly non-answers and he’s frustrated to think that there’s a reality "beneath all the words and silences" (1.2.142). When his grandpa dies, he can’t go to the funeral and he says, "They told me nothing and I asked no questions" (1.5.231). Even when he asks about "Professor" Matthews, the only answer Richard finds is more silence: "it’s something you can’t know" (1.2.423).

    As he grows older, Richard realizes that it’s not just his family: whenever he asks the boys he works with about race, "they would either remain silent or turn the subject into a joke" (1.7.125).

    The whole world seems complicit in a conspiracy to keep him from understanding anything about his life.

    A Secret Language

    But there’s another kind of silence, too. A telepathic kind. Richard explains: "That was the way things were between whites and blacks in the South; many of the most important things were never openly said; they were understated and left to seep through to one" (1.8.7).

    Time after time, Richard "talks" to white men through silence. And it makes sense. Since blacks and whites more or less speak different languages in the South—maybe silence is the only way they can communicate.

  • Illness

    When Richard is a little boy, his mother suddenly gets sick. She never really gets better, and a lot of the time she actually gets worse. We don’t know why she gets sick, and no one ever seems to have a very good explanation.

    Mrs. Wright’s inexplicable, constant illness comes to symbolize suffering. Richard lays it out for us: "My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering" (1.3.324).

    So, not only does she have to suffer through being sick all the time, she has to bear the burden of representing Richard’s suffering, the suffering of black Americans, and the suffering of all oppressed people everywhere. That’s a heavy burden to lay on a sick lady, Richard.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator) 

    We get really close to Richard over the course of Black Boy. We don’t get to know very much about anyone else, but we know a ton about Richard. A little too much. After a little less than 400 pages, it starts getting a bit claustrophobic up in his brain. (Imagine how Richard feels.)

    The great thing about this perspective is that we feel everything that Richard feels, like when he sees the chain gang:

    As the strange animals came abreast of me I saw that the legs of the black animals were held together by irons and that their arms were linked with heavy chains that clanked softly and musically as they moved. […] One of the strange, striped animals turned a black face upon me. "What are you doing?" I asked in a whisper, not knowing if one actually spoke to elephants. (1.2.251-1.2.307)

    What’s awesome about this is that Wright’s technique works on two levels. On one level, he’s brilliantly conveying the sense of being four years old and not being able to understand what you see. On another level, the adult Wright is giving us the clues we need to know exactly what Richard is looking at. The whole book works, like with the perspective of Richard as he’s living his life and also Wright as he’s narrating his life. It’s super cool.

    But there’s a downside to this all-Richard, all-the-time approach. You can’t hang out with the emo kid all day, you know? When Ned appears and tells Richard that his brother has died, we’re left wondering, "Wait, who are you?"

    If Black Boy is an accurate portrayal of Wright’s mental life, we can understand why he has so few friends.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call

      Richard’s life is going nowhere in the South. He decides to go north, to the land of magic and happiness.

      Let’s be clear: Jackson, Mississippi, is not some kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max sort of town. The Terminator isn’t coming. There are no Hunger Games. None of that stuff. The first problem with Jackson is that it is in the South during the Jim Crow era. The second problem with Jackson is that Richard—a poor, skinny, little black kid who wants to read, write, and can’t keep his mouth shut for anything—lives there. Obviously, these two things don’t belong together. So, when Richard realizes that no one around him will support his dreams, he sets his eyes on the big city lights of Chicago.

      The Journey

      One does not simply walk into Chicago. Even though there are no orcs to fight in the South, racism is a pretty big monster to slay (um, not to mention the problematic racism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work). Also, Richard has no wizards or elves to help him. He has to figure out ways to earn enough money to get out of Jackson without any magical lembas bread. On the way, he has to compromise his morals, avoid going to jail, and avoid being beaten up by his coworkers and other white people around him. Like we said, this is some tricky stuff.

      But, Richard also grows on the journey. He learns more about literature, meets some friendly people, and figures out that the answers to his problems don’t always involve threatening to cut them with a knife.

      Arrival and Frustration

      Richard finally makes it! Chicago, Chi-town, the windy city. Everything is perfect. Or is it?

      Because he’s made it to the North, but now what? He struggled and fought to get to Chicago and to be honest, it’s a bit underwhelming. Maybe no one is trying to jump him, but people are scared, it’s cold, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It doesn’t matter at first, because Richard’s got a place, food, and books—everything he needs. But, rumors are circulating about rising unemployment rates. Something called an "economy" is not doing so great. Whatever; Richard doesn’t have to pay attention to that kind of stuff. Right?

      The Final Ordeal

      Wrong. The battle: life and its many layers of ugly vs. Richard’s stubborn will to live. Who will win?

      So there’s this thing called the Great Depression. You might have heard about it. It was kind of a big deal.

      You know who hasn’t heard about it? Richard. Even though he is living through it. Not until the Depression smacks him in the face and he loses his job does Richard realize his paradise is starting to fall apart. He’s struggling to survive again, just like when he was a kid.

      At the same time, Richard gets involved with the ultimate video game boss, the Communist Party. Even though things start out okay, soon the Party ends up some kind of nightmarish war zone that Richard has to fight his way out of. Metaphorically. This is how we know that he’s grown up: he didn’t try to cut anyone, not even once.

      The Goal

      With Richard’s newfound maturity, he’s won the ultimate prize: the secret to happiness.

      Okay, so you can’t put a bow on it, but it’s still a pretty good place to be at the end of your autobiography. Richard’s experiences escaping from Communist clutches have given him a new and clearer vision. His true goal wasn’t the North, or even the Communist Party. It was writing. And this book that we’ve just read is the prize—his prize, and ours. Pretty neat.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Just a Small Town Boy, Livin’ in a Lonely World

      Richard and his family are small-town country folk. They don’t have a lot, but what they have is enough for them to get by. Like any old-school parents, Richard’s mom and dad run a tight ship. The thing is, Richard is a troublemaker, so he’s constantly running into problems. That’s everything we need to know to start the story, because his problems—a little fascination with fire—launch us into the tale. 

      Rising Action

      Life Drools, Part 1: Murphy’s Law

      Things fall apart from here on out. Richard’s dad runs away with another woman, so the family has no money. Richard’s mom tries to work, but she gets so sick that she can’t even move. Richard is hungry. He’s an alcoholic by the time he’s six and working before he’s finished middle school. And he’s starting to figure out that some people will hate him just because his skin is brown. The only high point is that Richard has just discovered the love of his life: literature.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Free at Last! Free at Last!

      Richard is outta there. He did it. He has moved to the North, where he can (more or less) be free of racism and follow his dream of being a writer. Money is good. His family is happy. This is definitely the turning point of the story, because Richard’s life does a total 180.

      Falling Action

      Life Drools, Part 2: The Reckoning

      The Great Depression messes up all of Richard’s plans. He loses his job. He has to move to a worn-down apartment. He has to work so hard at a shady job that he doesn’t even have time to read. Not only that, but he gets mixed up with the Communist Party. His struggles with that group are almost as bad as the racism he experienced in the South, and at this point we’re still not sure how the whole thing will turn out.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      Richard and Writing: Two Peas in a Pod

      Richard gets the heck out of the Communist Party. When he’s alone again, he realizes what really was the most important thing in his life: writing. So, Richard sits down, picks up his pen, and does what he was born to do. Turns out, he wasn’t just born to cause trouble. He was also born to write.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Follow the Drinking Gourd

      Even though the novel begins with Richard burning down his house, everything is pretty okay, aside from the occasional beating, until his dad leaves and his mom gets sick. Then Richard’s life gets a little crazy. He becomes an alcoholic, learns to curse, goes to work when most kids are still playing with Legos, and even does a brief stint in an orphanage. At the same time, he’s struggling to understand racism, fit into a religious Southern black society, and get his hands on anything and everything he can read. That’s a lot of multitasking for a little kid.

      When Richard publishes his first story to universal disdain and suspicion, he decides he’s had enough. Time to head North.

      Act II

      Lying, Cheating, and Fighting

      There’s just one problem: he’s broke. Since honest hard work isn’t really paying the bills, Richard lies, cheats, and steals to build his little ticket-buying stash. He doesn’t get quite enough to make it to Chicago, but he does end up a little closer, in Memphis. But Memphis isn’t much better. For example, his boss wants him to kill another kid for no reason. Plus, this writing business is hard. Richard is more full of doubts than an acrophobic at the top of the high diving board.

      But he’s no coward. With little money and no job, he heads for Chicago.

      Act III

      Please Don’t Feed the Communists

      In the North, Richard’s life is gravy. He’s found a job, people don’t want to kill him just because he’s brown (nope, they want to kill him for a whole new set of reasons), and he can read and write all he wants.

      And then the Great Depression comes and takes all of that away. Richard finds himself mixed up in a Communist group, which messes with his life just like white racists in the South. Eventually, Richard breaks ties with the Communist Party to focus on what he’s realized is really important: writing.