The memoir begins in 1912 in rural Mississippi, where Richard Wright, the author and main character, lives with his brother, mother, and father. Richard nearly burns down their house one day, at the age of four, out of boredom, and his mother and father beat him mercilessly with a switch. Soon after, they relocate to Memphis, where Richard’s father abandons the family. Richard’s mother begins working in white kitchens to support Richard and his brother, but she cannot make enough money, and both boys are sent to an orphanage in Memphis run by a kind woman named Miss Simon. Although Miss Simon takes a liking to Richard, Richard hates life in the orphanage, and he will not accept money from his father to stave off his immense hunger.
Richard’s mother eventually moves the boys back and forth between her mother’s (Granny’s) house, in Jackson, Mississippi, and her sister Maggie’s house in Arkansas. Maggie’s husband, Hoskins, a prosperous tavern owner, is lynched by whites while Richard’s family lives with them, and, later, Richard’s mother succumbs to a stroke and nearly dies. Richard settles into life with Granny in Jackson, and his brother is sent to live with Maggie in Detroit. Richard resents Granny’s overbearing methods of parenting, and her insistence on Christian dogma, and begins his schooling in Jackson, reading as many books as he can afford. He also begins writing stories, which baffle his classmates and family members, including Addie, his aunt and schoolteacher.
Richard works a series of odd jobs in the summer and before school, to buy more food for himself and purchase novels. Although his schooling has been frequently interrupted, he does well in sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, and is named the valedictorian of his ninth-grade class. The principal of the school provides him with a speech he is to read before a mixed black and white audience, but Richard, believing he ought to deliver his own speech, does so, enraging the principal and costing himself a teaching job in the Jackson public school system. By the age of seventeen, Richard resolves that the only way he can live freely is to move northward, and he attempts to make enough money to move first to Memphis, then to Chicago.
Richard has trouble submitting to white authority in the workplace, but his friend Griggs, a schoolmate, convinces Richard that he must be almost theatrically polite to white people if he wants to hold down a job. Griggs recommends Richard for an assistant position at an optometry shop in Jackson, run by a benevolent northerner named Crane. But Richard is chased out of the job after being intimidated and threatened by Pease and Reynolds, two of Crane’s racist white assistants. Richard works in a hotel—despite the fear that white patrons might harm him, if they believe he is consorting with the white prostitutes who use the hotel as a brothel—and later as a ticket-taker at a movie theater. At the latter, he colludes with two other African American employees to defraud the owner of ticket sales, thus earning enough money to leave Jackson in the night and move to Memphis.
There, Richard rents a room with Mrs. Moss, whose daughter, Bess, wants to marry Richard. But Richard demurs and takes a new job at another optometry shop, where he befriends other African American men who work in the building, including Shorty, an elevator operator. Richard saves money in Memphis and begins reading a great deal, after securing a library card from a sympathetic white man named Falk. Richard’s mother, brother, and Aunt Maggie move back to Memphis to be with him, and they decide to make a clean break for Chicago together. Richard ends the memoir by stating that, although novels and the act of writing, along with his life experience, have helped him to develop as a man, he will always keep a part of the South with him in Chicago. Richard hopes that he may live a freer and more rewarding life in the North.