The memoir begins in 1912 in rural Mississippi. 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. 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 works 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. Though Miss Simon takes a liking to Richard, Richard hates life in the orphanage. 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. 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. He reads 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 and books. Although his schooling has been frequently interrupted, he does well in 6th through 9th grades, and is named the valedictorian of his 9th-grade class. The principal gives him a speech to read before a mixed black and white audience. Richard believes he ought to deliver his own speech, however, and he does so, enraging the principal and costing himself a teaching job in the Jackson schools. By age seventeen, Richard resolves to move to the North to escape Southern racism.
Richard has trouble submitting to white authority in the workplace, but his friend Griggs, a schoolmate, convinces Richard that he must be theatrically polite to white people if he wants to keep 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 then 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 black 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. Richard demurs and takes a new job at another optometry shop, where he befriends other black 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. Wright ends Part One by stating that he will always keep a part of the South with him. He hopes that he may live a freer and more rewarding life in the North.
Part Two takes up immediately afterward. Richard and his Aunt Maggie live with their Aunt Cleo, and Richard’s mother and brother join them later. Richard works many jobs. He is a porter at a deli, run by the Hoffmans, but he cannot escape his ideas of racial structure, which are informed by the Jim Crow South. For example, Richard believes the Hoffmans will not allow him leave from work to take the Postal Service exam. Richard thus lies to Mr. Hoffman when he does sit for the test, saying his mother has died in Memphis. Hoffman doesn’t believe Richard, and Richard doesn’t admit to his lie. He leaves the deli, ashamed, and finds a job washing dishes. He’s eventually called to a temporary position at the Postal Service, but is let go because he can’t meet the Office’s minimum 125-pound weight.
The Great Depression hits, limiting Richard’s employment opportunities. He collects insurance policies among black families on the South Side, and has an affair with one woman who is a policyholder. Although Wright is fascinated by black life in Chicago, he is also confused by it; many black people, like this unnamed woman, think Wright talks like an “intellectual.” Eventually, Wright must go to the relief office to secure food for his family.
This office places Richard in the animal lab of a fancy, white-dominated hospital. Richard works with three other black men: Bill, Brand, and Cooke. Doctors at the hospital largely ignore black laborers, and assume they don’t understand anything about medicine or science. One doctor plays a prank on Richard. When Brand and Cooke get into a violent fight, they knock the animals out of their cages, and the four men must put animals back without knowing the experiments to which they belong. Although Richard fears they’ll be fired for this, no doctor is ever the wiser.
Richard cycles in and out of the Postal Service as work becomes available. There, he meets white workers, mostly Irish and Jewish, who are members of the Communist Party. They encourage Richard to attend meetings of the John Reed Club, a Communist literary organization. Richard does, and finds that his poems and stories are accepted for publication by the Club’s journals. Club-members elect him their leader, though Richard has been active only for two months. Richard gets a crash-course in Communist politics, including frequent intra-party fights. Wright officially becomes a member of the Party, but insists that the Club’s writings should be creative and imaginative, not propaganda.
This attitude puts Richard at odds with Party leaders like Buddy Nealson and Ed Green, who want Reed Club writers to toe the Party line. Richard becomes more and more disillusioned with Party work. He interviews Ross, a fellow black Communist, for a series of biographical sketches. The Party is skeptical of this work, even as Wright turns these sketches into stories and publishes them. Discord between him and the Party grows, and Richard eventually resigns membership, though he does not renounce the political ideal of Communism.
The relief office shuffles Richard between jobs at the Boys’ Club on the South Side, then the Federal Negro Theater. Richard develops a friendship with DeSheim, the white director of the Theater, who champions experimental work. The black actors do not like this work, though and accuse Richard of being an “Uncle Tom” for sympathizing with DeSheim over them. Richard is moved to the Federal Writers’ Program, where Communists, his former Party comrades, do not speak to him. Richard attends a show trial, in which Ross, his former friend, “confesses” to crimes against the Party and begs forgiveness. Richard realizes that the Party is a group much like the Christian church of his Southern youth.
At a May Day parade, Richard marches with a mixed group of Communists, only to be kicked out by some still angry at his disavowal of the Party. At the close of Part Two, Richard returns to his small apartment, where he promises himself to build a literary career as an individual—but he will carry with him all he’s learned about race relations and American society, and his writing will always be attuned to the possibility of human unity.