The story begins when four-year-old Richard sets fire to his grandmother’s house in Jackson, Mississippi, and, as punishment, is nearly beaten to death by his mother. He recovers, and the brutal punishment establishes in Richard an ability to survive any circumstance. The family then moves to Memphis, Tennessee, where Richard’s father eventually deserts the family. In Memphis, Richard learns about racism both from what he observes in the world and how his family members humiliate themselves in front of whites. It is also here that Richard becomes alienated from God and the Christian faith, developing in its place an abiding love of the natural world.
As Richard grows up, he begins to see how easily he might repeat the patterns that have trapped black men for generations. When his mother becomes ill, however, Richard moves with her back to Jackson to live with his oppressive grandmother. There, sees opportunities for breaking out of his preordained life and avoid becoming trapped in it. He also recognizes how religion can unite people along lines other than skin color. Prayer also brings added value: Although Richard is unable to talk to God when he prays, he does find ideas for stories, thus beginning his life as a writer.
By age 12, Richard has alienated himself from most of his family, which reinforces his role as an outsider, a role he later finds is shared by many American writers. Throughout the next several years, he excels at school but feels detached from his classmates; he also lands a few part-time jobs but feels alienated from his supervisors and coworkers. Because Richard behaves differently than other black children, the community tries to shame him into submission, which he refuses. By age 16, Richard is determined to be a writer, yet he is cognizant of the dangers of a black youth having that aspiration while living in the South, so he dreams of getting away and going North.
After graduation and another failed stint at a job, Richard steals the money to go North. He is horrified by his crime because it fulfills the expectations his extended family holds for him. He also recognizes that crime produces additional suffering in the world, and Richard wants to be a part of social good, not social ills. With his stolen money, Richard is able to move part-way north, back to Memphis, where life is not radically different than in Jackson. After an especially degrading incident at a new job, Richard throws himself into reading novels and other works by American and European writers. He realizes that he is destined to become a writer and soon flees to Chicago. He knows that the South will always be a part of him, but he is determined to flourish in his new life, thus exacting revenge on the Southern social system.
Richard’s autobiography is continued in American Hunger, which was published nearly two decades after his death in 1960. Black Boy and American Hunger were published together for the first time in 1991.