The book opens to a scene of four-year-old Richard and his younger brother playing in their sick grandmother’s home, being scolded for making noise as they seek relief from their boredom indoors. Richard fingers a broom and begins to wonder what would happen if he set fire to it. He lights some straws in the fireplace, and then the white, fluffy curtains enter his field of vision. Before he knows what has happened, the fire has filled the room and Richard scrambles underneath the burning house in an effort to avoid punishment. His terrified mother cannot find him, but his father drags him out from his hiding place to be beaten for his role in the blaze. “From that moment on things became tangled for me,” Richard explains, and he is soon aboard the Kate Adams en route to Memphis to live with his family in a tenement, his father working as a night porter and sleeping during the day. One day, his father tells him to kill a squealing kitten and rather than simply quiet it, Richard takes him literally, knowing his actions will be met with anger but nevertheless wishing to provoke his father, whose violent ways have not earned his respect. His distraught mother forces him to bury the poor creature, and he is brought to tears for what he has done and what his punishment might be.
After Richard’s father leaves them, the family is hungry and miserable, and Richard’s mother’s wages as a cook are not sufficient to feed her sons more than bread and tea. She tells Richard he will have to do the shopping, but some rough boys prevent him from entering the store. Terrified and beaten, Richard tells his mother what happened, but she insists he return and forbids him from entering the house until he brings the groceries. Considering his options in the street better than a whipping at home, Richard brings a stick with him and upon his third encounter with the gang lashes out wildly, proving himself capable of not only defending himself when attacked but also at attacking when provoked. By the age of six, he has learned to know both hunger and violence, and all about alcohol, frequenting a local saloon where men buy him whisky—all this before he has even entered school.
One day the coal man comes to the freezing house and upon learning Richard cannot count, teaches him to count to a hundred. He repeats the lesson proudly to his mother, and his curiosity leads him to learn to read from the newspaper. But his main fascination is with “black” and “white,” as he cannot understand why the former are beaten by the latter, just as he cannot comprehend why some people have enough to eat while others do not. His inquisitiveness leads him to join a crowd of older boys who teach him all sorts of racy language, and he repeats his newly learned sex words at home, to his mother’s horror. Since her husband’s desertion she has become increasingly religious, and one Sunday the black preacher is invited to dinner. Richard is awestruck by the plate of fried chicken served, and, eyeing it wistfully, cannot force himself to eat the thin soup in front of him. As he watches the preacher select and consume the choice pieces, Richard wails, “the preacher is going to eat all the chicken!” His mother punishes him with no dinner.
The family goes to court the next day, Richard’s mother destitute and hoping her husband’s payments will increase enough to feed the family. But the judge sympathizes with Richard’s laughing father, who pleads he’s doing all he can. As a result, Richard and his brother are put in an orphan home, where they are fed little and worked hard pulling grass by hand. Miss Simon requests fewer visits from the children’s mother, feeling they will be spoiled by her attention, and one afternoon instructs Richard to blot a letter. He is frozen with fear and unable to lift his hand, and that night runs away in search of home. Lost and frightened, he is found by a “white” policeman who feeds him at the station. Satisfied at long last, Richard dozes before answering another policeman’s questions, telling him about Miss Simon and the home, to which he is promptly returned. His mother is upset to learn of the episode, and suggests Richard ask his father for money to move to her sister’s in Arkansas. Richard resists participating, awkward and distraught to see his father and another woman sitting in front of a fire. He is tempted by his father’s offer of a nickel, but in the end leaves empty-handed, the vivid image of the flames dancing on their faces lingering in his mind for the quarter century until he next meets his father, a sharecropper for white landowners who never managed to succeed in the city.
The violence, hunger and fear omnipresent in the first pages of Richard Wright’s autobiography are echoed throughout his tale of beatings, desertion and disappointment at the hands of his parents and others. In response to his immediate environment, Richard himself becomes a vehicle for violence, a child filled with anger and pain which he discharges in acts such as setting the house on fire, killing the kitten bothering his tired father, and drinking with the local men at the saloon before he is six. He learns to meet violence with violence, having been scolded for fleeing the gang of boys who prevented him from buying food, and before long is known throughout Memphis for his own brutality. His response to violence is not because he is an innately evil child, but rather a victim of wretched circumstances that contribute to a childhood filled with misery of various kinds. Abandoned by his father and aching with hunger, Richard’s feelings are focused on resentment of injustice, and he observes the racial dimension of the issue with insight beyond his years. Noticing that white “men” are allowed to beat “black boys,” he assumes that they are the fathers and thus entitled to reprimand their sons. But as he learns more of the world and realizes this type of violence is not explained by blood but by racial discrimination, he is determined never to be beaten by such men. His early experience with alcohol and foul language set him on a course in which he is destined never to rise above such behavior, but his enthusiasm for learning, both counting and reading, bode well for his abilities to overcome the violence and misery of his earliest memories to make something of himself despite so many negative factors working against him.