Christianity is the dominant moral and religious system of the American South at the time of Wright’s memoir. Many African Americans in Mississippi place their faith, and hope for salvation, in the Christian church. But Wright is not able to believe in God. His struggles against religious authority contribute to his desire to leave the South. Communism in Chicago then fills some of the void Christianity creates in Wright’s life—but only temporarily.
Wright’s mother is not especially religious, except for a brief period during remission from her illness. Wright does not attend church when he is young. Only after moving into Granny’s house does Wright find Christianity to be a burden in his life—a moral system that he must fight against. The kind of Christianity practiced by Wright’s grandmother and aunts is a harsh one, filled with rules, demands, and beatings with the switch. Reading of any extraneous material is not permitted. Wright is to pray constantly, in the morning, at night, and before meals. Any talk unrelated to faith is considered un-Christian.
Schooling is only useful, in Granny’s eyes, if it contributes to Wright’s Christian sensibilities. Granny and the aunts fear that Wright is a “plague” on the family, the cause of his mother and brother’s torment. This stems from Wright’s unwillingness to throw himself zealously into church life. Wright attempts to tell Granny, in one heartbreaking example, that he will believe in God if he sees an angel. But his grandmother misunderstands, and thinks that Wright has proclaimed he has actually seen an angel. This prompts Wright to clarify his speech in front of his grandmother, the preacher, and the congregation, leading to more household strife.
Wright treats Christianity in the memoir as a form of false “salvation,” which black families imagine to make their daily suffering bearable. Wright does not believe his life can change if he asks a distant God for help. He instead believes that he must save himself—use his wits to pull himself out of impoverished circumstances. After the move to Chicago, this realization dovetails with Wright’s awakened Communism.
Communist thought, unlike religious thought, seems grounded in facts, not wishes. The Communists of Chicago want to improve workers’ rights the world over, and they have concrete plans to do so. But over time, Wright becomes disillusioned with the Communist Party and its literary activities. He finds the Party to be too much like a church: afraid of change, frightened of “unorthodox” ideas. Eventually for Wright, “salvation” does come, but it is inward: a feeling of intellectual communion with other authors of literary and philosophical texts. The essays of H. L. Mencken introduce Wright, in Memphis, to a world of writing from which he derives strength. After his attempts at political action in Part 2, Wright returns to his writing desk. He will put his stories, poems, and essays on paper without the sanction, or interference, of any church or Party.