How to Teach Black Boy

Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, illustrates the hardships the author suffered as he grew up in the Jim Crow South and worked to become a writer. This account will prompt class discussion on racism, identity, and who can truly achieve the American Dream.

The autobiography is divided into two sections, "Southern Night" and "The Horror and the Glory." "Southern Night" is a straightforward depiction of Wright's childhood in the South, though a background lesson on Jim Crow laws and the hardships African Americans experienced in the South during that era will help students better understand the mistreatment Wright and other African Americans faced.

"The Horror and the Glory" is more challenging as Wright examines the philosophical reasons for prejudices. Wright also evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of Communism, so it is important to teach students about Communism and why it seemed especially appealing to some blacks during the twentieth century. Some students may lose interest with this section, so teachers should encourage them to engage with the text on an intellectual level. Class discussion on the status and availability of the American Dream can help keep students interested.


Richard Wright's autobiography opens with four-year-old Richard's accidentally setting his grandmother's house on fire. As punishment, his mother severely beats him. Later, the Wrights move to Memphis, Tennessee, where Richard's father abandons the family. The family struggles with poverty, hunger, and racism. As he matures, Richard chafes against strict religious relatives and feels alienated by society and his peers. He dreams of moving north and becoming a writer. In order to realize this dream, however, Richard must resort to stealing so he can afford to travel to Chicago.

Once he is outside of the South, Wright studies philosophical and intellectual texts and examines racism on a level beyond his personal experiences. He becomes involved with the Communist Party before recognizing that the movement is flawed. Wright resolves to use his writing to connect to the world.

Black Boy

Black Boy


Wright’s eloquent autobiography is a book that lends itself to teaching. My students were reluctant at first, but after the fire on the second page, they were hooked and eager to continue. This book helped open their eyes to great multicultural literature, and positively influenced their social consciousness.

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Content Warning

Black Boy includes racial and ethnic slurs, though these words portray a realistic depiction of the times. The autobiography also contains some profanity and references to sex.

Objectives for Teaching Black Boy

  • Recognize the dual first-person narration of Richard the character and Richard the author.
  • Discuss how education helps people discern oppression.
  • Trace Richard's growing dissatisfaction with living in the South during the time of segregation.
  • Discuss the concept of the American Dream and how prejudice affects it.
  • Place Black Boy in its correct chronological period and understand how outside events helped mold Wright's life.
  • Understand the human need to belong to a group and Richard's struggles to achieve an identity.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Alliteration
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Racism — Black Boy shows Wright's struggling to survive in the racist, segregated South. Wright also reflects on how racism affects society in both relations between whites and blacks and relations among African Americans.
  • Individual vs. Society — Wright fights to find his own place in society when he is constrained by white oppression and does not fully fit in with the black community.
  • Power of Words — Through reading and writing, Wright discovers new intellectual ideas and dreams of a life outside of the oppressive South.

Key Facts

  • Length: 448 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 950
  • Publication Date: 1945
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12


A documentary titled Richard Wright: Black Boy was released as a TV movie in 1995. It received multiple awards, including an Emmy.

Your students will love:

  • Reading a first-hand account of the oppression black people suffered in the Jim Crow South.
  • Seeing Wright escape his hardships through reading and writing.

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding the philosophy and discussions of Communism in part two, "The Horror and the Glory."
  • Keeping track of all of Wright's family members.

Available from Prestwick House:

Available Formats
Black Boy
Complete Teacher's Kit
Response Journal

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