Friday, February 25, 2022

Memoir Review: Black Boy

When I decided to focus my February reading on Black History Month, I searched through my huge backlog of audio books and found the perfect fit. Black Boy by Richard Wright is a memoir that was originally published in 1945, about a boy's difficult childhood and adolescence in rural Mississippi and his early adulthood in Chicago, all in the first part of the 20th century. It's an engrossing, fascinating (and at times, horrifying) account of a young life that was defined by constant struggle and the author's striving for more for himself, his family, and other Blacks.

Richard begins the memoir with his earliest memories, as a four-year-old boy in Natchez, Mississippi, living with his parents and brother. His father soon leaves, which starts an endless struggle for his mother to try to care for her young sons while also supporting the family financially. Richard is an early reader and an eager student, but he begins trying to earn money to help his family as soon as he is able, first running errands and doing odd jobs, even hanging around the local bar to earn a penny or nickel from patrons (and having his first alcohol when he was much too young). He drops out of school after eighth grade so he can help to support his family. They move around the area, as they struggle to make ends meet, sometimes having to move in with family or living in ever-smaller, shabbier apartments. Richard's grandmother has a decent house, and they live there for while, but she is a religious fundamentalist with extremely rigid ideas about how Richard should behave, and life there is intolerable for both Richard and his mother (though they have to tolerate it for a while). As he gets older and begins reading more and becoming more aware of the world around him, Richard begins to notice the horrible inequities in the South between Blacks and whites. As an intelligent and increasingly well-read young man, he can't understand why things are this way or why his people put up with such abhorrent treatment. Eventually, Richard escapes north to Chicago and is later able to move his mother and brother up there with him, though life isn't much easier. Richard is stunned to meet white people (often Jews or other immigrants who are outsiders themselves) who treat him kindly and fairly, though much of society is still stacked against people of color, even in the exalted North. He is attracted to the Communist Party for its rhetoric on equality and the presence of other well-read Blacks, but he is soon disillusioned by their in-fighting and other issues.

Richard's life story is a compelling one, both as an intriguing coming-of-age story and as a fascinating glimpse into the Jim Crow South and the challenges faced by Blacks in the early 1900's. I found it all the more powerful listening to the first-person narration on audio. Having been published first in 1945, the narrator is of course not the author, but Peter Francis James does a wonderful job of completely inhabiting the voice of the boy and man so that you feel like he is telling his story directly to you (audio sample here). While much of the discrimination and outright abuse faced by Richard and his family are greatly disturbing, there are moments of humor woven in, too, as Richard recalls his naivete as a child. The first half of the book, in Mississippi, was a little more interesting to me than the later sections, where Richard gets involved in Communism, but I was still riveted by his powerful, engaging story from beginning to end.

Vintage Classics


This book fits in the following 2022 Reading Challenges:

Back to the Classics Challenge: a nonfiction classic

Nonfiction Challenge (#3) - in category of Social History

Diversity Challenge

Literary Escapes Challenge - Mississippi

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.


Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!


Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, from the beginning of the memoir when Richard is a very young boy, read beautifully by Peter Francis James, and/or download it from Audible.


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!


Or you can order Black Boy from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. This sounds like a tough but interesting read/listen.

    1. Yes, exactly, Helen. Always tough to read about the realities of the Jim Crow South, but it was such a compelling, engrossing story.