Black Boy Chapter 1
Richard Wright is a four-year-old wandering around his house with his three-year-old brother as his grandmother lies sick in the next room. He is so bored that he sets fire to the window curtains and burns down the house. When his mother finds him, she beats him so badly he falls unconscious and hallucinates for days. That pattern of mischief followed by brutal punishment is a recurring one in Wright's childhood. Still, he is not simply a trouble-maker: he also has probing questions and a deep appreciation for the world around him. He notes, for example:
"...the faint cool kiss of sensuality when dew came onto my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning." Chapter 1, pg. 9
When his family moves to Memphis, he is naturally excited at the idea of being on a boat, but his mother answers all his questions about it with a "just because" or a "hush."
Richard's father, a sharecropper, is known to the family simply as the lawmaker. Richard thinks he is cruel but has no way to let him know until a kitten comes onto the property, making noise while Father is sleeping. Father yells at Richard and his brother to shut the kitten up, saying that they can kill it if they have to. Wright knows he is not serious, but he kills the kitten anyway. His father cannot punish him, because then he would be showing that sometimes he is not to be taken seriously. In this way, Richard exerts power over his father. Soon after, his father deserts the family to live with another woman, leaving them impoverished. Wright further assumes the role of the head of the household. His mother sends him out to buy groceries at one point, and the money is stolen by boys on the street. His mother gives him more money and a big stick, forcing him to face the boys. He runs down the street, swinging the club viciously, and returns with the groceries. He is six years old.
He soon runs into more trouble by becoming overly curious about a local saloon. Its patrons think he is cute and invite him to drink. Unbelievably, within a few weeks he becomes a drunk, begging for alcohol. His mother finally gains control of him, but she cannot be with him at school: there he meets children who will teach him any dirty word he wants to know. Of course, he repeats them to townspeople, and gets into more trouble.
Meanwhile, Richard's family is starving. His mother finally convinces him to go try to get money from his father, but when they arrive at his home he refuses. He tells Richard to come live with him, but the boy proudly says, "I'm hungry now, but I won't live with you." Chapter 1, pg. 33 Even when taken to court, his father says, "I'm doing all I can," Chapter 1, pg. 33 and the judge accepts that. With no money, Mrs. Wright can do nothing but move her two children to a Methodist orphanage, where they stay for a month. Richard dislikes the headmistress and runs away, but returns. Richard flashes back to the time that his father, seeing him starving, offered him a nickel, and then ahead twenty-five years, where his father is still working on a farm. Richard marvels at how much his father is controlled by his animal impulses, and how completely alienated Richard feels from his own blood.