Richard Wright described himself as a loser growing up in Mississippi with family members who embraced religion. A few of the most disturbing aspects of his early childhood included him accidentally burning down his home, and hanging a stray kitten that his father carelessly instructed him to kill— this, however, was not to be taken literally; Richard's father just wanted the kitten to be quiet so that he could go back to sleep. Richard's hatred for his father led him to take a more literal
- Black Boy
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His plan backfired when his mother and brother instilled in him guilt; his mother instructed him to take down the stiff kitten and give it a proper burial.
Young Richard's father ended up leaving the family for another woman, further aggravating Richard's hatred for him. Even when Richard's mother was struggling and battling sickness to support him and his brother, he refused to live with his father and new wife, who offered a more comfortable living situation, on principle. He described his father as a simple man who had allowed himself to be mentally enslaved; pity was another potent emotion that Richard expressed regarding his father.
When his mother became too ill to work, the family went to live with Richard's grandmother. While at first the Seventh-day Adventist woman was happy to see her daughter and grandchildren, and food was more plentiful than it had been before, conditions later changed and Richard found himself drinking water all day to avoid hunger pangs. He knew that he had to start working at a young age in order to be independent, but this conflicted with his grandmother's religious views. Richard's obvious disinterest in church later convinced her that he was a lost soul and she reluctantly allowed him to get a job. His lack of religious commitment was noticeable not only to his grandmother but to other relatives who came to live with them during hard times. His aunt and grandmother marked him "dead" because of his agnosticism. During these trying times, his sick mother became his only ally. His brother was taken in by relatives as it became clear that Richard's mother had health issues that were not improving.
Wright experienced sporadic schooling throughout his young life due to the constant moving that his family did to try to avoid constantly looming poverty. He soon realized that with the proper reading materials he could teach himself. Various demeaning jobs, one of which involved him delivering racist newspapers to the colored community, and family alienation, accelerated his escape into horror and mystery short stories and novels. He said that as a youth he "could not read enough of them." This sparked Wright's interest in defining his experience, through writing, as a poor black boy in a southern state, experiencing racial tension. He started writing his own short stories that frightened his simplistic grandmother who could not understand why her grandson was interested in writing about mystery and horror. Edgar Allan Poe was very influential to Wright when he started to balance his avid reading with some writing of his own.
Richard was a fast learner and even though he was not able to go to school the required number of years, he was selected as class valedictorian of his junior high class because of his ability and intelligence. The principal even chose him to read a speech to the graduating class. Richard agreed, and wrote a speech for the occasion. When the principal handed Richard a speech that he had written for him to recite at graduation, Wright refused due to his decision not to read a degrading speech created by the principal, and delivered his own. Through menial jobs, Wright was eventually able to support his gravely ill mother and his little brother.
Dreams of moving north to escape debilitating conditions in the south enticed Wright, so he took a risky first step. With raggedy clothing and few belongings, he left Jackson for a stint in Memphis, just north of the Tennessee-Mississippi border. Knocking at the first inviting residence he arrived at in Memphis, he was disappointed to find that slave mentality and religious devotion were not confined to small Mississippi towns. The mother and daughter he briefly moved in with immediately assumed that he was religious, and right away wanted him (a complete stranger) to stay indefinitely, and marry the young daughter who Wright pitied, as he did his own father, for her simplicity: he was an unknown, poor boy from Mississippi who just wanted a place to lay his head until he could save enough money to move North in earnest, and a mother and daughter—knowing nothing about him—shallowly conclude that he was good enough to keep, permanently. It was a critical time for Richard as it marked quite a few beginning and endings in his life: his idealistic view of urban life was crumbling in the face of the simplistic family he moved in with and his disillusionment with the American dream began (Wright later moved to Paris, France). This disillusionment would be further explored during Wright's experiences with the Communist Party in American Hunger. However, it marked the beginning of his writing career in Chicago and independence from a hostile family.
Richard Wright's experience with racism and poverty was unique. So his perspective introduced a dissonance within black communities that had not previously been explored in such detail. In The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. DuBois discussed the debilitating nature of black religion, but not in the deeply personalized way that Wright discussed it.
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In 1977, the second half of Wright's autobiography was published posthumously under the title American Hunger, which deals mainly with Wright's membership and eventual disillusionment with the Communist Party. Originally, Wright intended to publish both sections as one volume. However, the Book of the Month Club offered to feature his book — Wright's 1940 novel Native Son was the first Book of the Month Club selection written by an African-American — if he agreed to end with his train journey to Chicago, omitting any mention of his difficulties and disappointment in the North. Wright agreed, calling it Black Boy and concluding the book on a positive note. Black Boy went on to sell 195,000 retail copies in its first edition and 351,000 copies through the Book-of-the-Month Club. In 1991, the Library of America published the two texts together under the title Black Boy (American Hunger).