A defining feature of the memoir is its shifting setting. Richard Wright’s young life is one of movement and dislocation, both physical and psychological. Wright is born in Mississippi, and Jackson, the capital, is a “home-like” place during his youth. But after his father’s departure and his mother’s stroke, Wright moves back and forth between relatives in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Memphis. This movement prevents him from feeling truly at home in a single location. His schooling is interrupted, and his formal education amounts to no more than a few years altogether.
Racially-imposed poverty prompts some of this instability, as does the overwhelming strictness of his grandmother’s household. Wright’s mother, now disabled, cannot work, and Wright’s father refuses to pay child support. Richard’s brother leaves and lives with relatives in Chicago. Many characters in the memoir, especially the young black men of Memphis, want to move North to escape lives of discrimination, violence, and servitude. Shorty, Harrison, and others with whom Richard talks and eats lunch during his time in Memphis, are jealous that Richard has saved up the money—and marshaled the courage—to head for Chicago.
There are many consequences of Wright’s movement and his restless desire to improve his station in life. These desires cause him to feel psychologically separate from his schoolmates and friends in Mississippi and Memphis. Wright’s intellectual aspirations are lofty, and he never loses sight of them, despite the horrors of his childhood. Wright also feels distant from many members of his family, but Wright concludes the first part of the memoir by saying that, though he is moving to Chicago, he will never abandon a piece of the South within him. That “southern” quality, the complicated life of black-and-white interaction, will always preoccupy him. He will learn to “transplant” it into the “new soil” of a freer life in the North.
But in Chicago, Wright’s lack of roots takes its toll. He moves, with his mother and aunt, from apartment to apartment because his wages are too low for stable housing. And he moves between groups: from the “Bohemians” to the Garveyites, the John Reed Club and the Communist Party, and Boys’ Club and the Federal Negro Theater. Throughout the memoir, Wright documents a search for stable community. And often when he finds a group that “fits,” he soon realizes the group prizes its own stability and unity over freedom of expression. Wright desires this freedom above all else. It causes him to keep moving, physically and psychologically, in search of creative fulfillment.