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Excerpt #1: "Hunger" from Black Boy by Richard Wright

Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945 Memoir)

Richard Wright's works aim to call out the injustices Black communities face in America and warn of the inevitable consequences that will occur as a result of these injustices going unaddressed (particularly by White Americans). While reading this passage as well as the novel Native Son, pay attention to the injustices Wright highlights and how these injustices impact both Black and White Americans, men and women, and the young and old. Analyze his work and arguments, and then, take time to make your own arguments. Being able to analyze an author's work does not mean you must agree with their opinions. While reading this excerpt, make annotations and comment on the text. Respond to each other's comments with meaningful reactions and respectful debate.

How many responses should you make? It's less about the number of responses and more about the quality behind those responses. Your responses should be insightful, original, and analytical. You should avoid simply summarizing the text, stating that you agree/disagree with a peer, or explaining the figurative language used. Instead, spend time breaking apart this excerpt to consider the themes within the text and how Wright shares his overall message/opinion with the audience. You'll want to form an opinion and explain your critical analysis of the text. Generally, I suggest 2-3 direct responses to the text and 2-3 responses to your peers. Don't worry about if your response "is right" or "sounds good enough." We'll work on how to craft our arguments, but the accuracy of your analysis is only as strong as your explanation. It doesn't matter if your teacher or your peers agree or disagree with you if you can't explain your position.

Whenever you read, you'll want to think of topics the passage addresses directly and indirectly. The thematic topics that are listed are very broad, so if you can make them more narrow in focus and/or find other topics you're interested in discussing PLEASE SHARE! In this excerpt, you'll witness some of the following thematic topics to consider:

  • fear
  • manhood / masculinity
  • parenting



Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly. The hunger I had known before this had been no grim, hostile stranger; it had been a normal hunger that had made me beg constantly for bread, and when I ate a crust or two I was satisfied. But this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent. Whenever I begged for food now, my mother would pour me a cup of tea, which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. I would grow dizzy and my vision would dim. I became less active in my play, and for the first time in my life I had to pause and think of what was happening to me.

“Mama, I’m hungry,” I complained one afternoon.

“Jump up and catch a kungry,” she said, trying to make me laugh and forget.

“What’s a kungry?”

“It’s what little boys eat when they get hungry,” she said.

“What does it taste like?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then why do you tell me to catch one?”

“Because you said that you were hungry,” she said, smiling.

I sensed that she was teasing me and it made me angry.

“But I’m hungry. I want to eat.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“But I want to eat now.”

“But there’s nothing to eat,” she told me.


“Just because there’s none,” she explained.

“But I want to eat,” I said, beginning to cry.

“You’ll just have to wait,” she said again.

“But why?”

“For God to send some food.”

“When is He going to send it?”

“I don’t know.”

“But I’m hungry!”

She was ironing and she paused and looked at me with tears in her eyes.

“Where’s your father?” she asked me.

I stared in bewilderment. Yes, it was true that my father had not come home to sleep for many days now and I could make as much noise as I wanted. Though I had not known why he was absent, I had been glad that he was not there to shout his restrictions at me. But it had never occurred to me that his absence would mean that there would be no food.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Who brings food into the house?” my mother asked me.

“Papa,” I said. “He always brought food.”

“Well, your father isn’t here now,” she said.

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“But I’m hungry,” I whimpered, stomping my feet.

“You’ll have to wait until I get a job and buy food,” she said.

As the days slid past, the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, and

whenever I felt hunger, I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness.

My mother finally went to work as a cook and left me and my brother alone in the flat each day with a loaf of bread and a pot of tea. When she returned at evening, she would be tired and dispirited and would cry a lot. Sometimes, when she was in despair, she would call us to her and talk to us for hours, telling us that we now had no father, that our lives would be different from those of other children, that we must learn as soon as possible to take care of ourselves, to dress ourselves, to prepare our own food; that we must take upon ourselves the responsibility of the flat while she worked. Half frightened, we would promise solemnly. We did not understand what had happened between our father and our mother, and the most that these long talks did to us was to make us feel a vague dread. Whenever we asked why father had left, she would tell us that we were too young to know.

One evening my mother told me that thereafter I would have to do the shopping for food. She took me to the corner store to show me the way. I was proud; I felt like a grown-up. The next afternoon I looped the basket over my arm and went down the pavement toward the store. When I reached the corner, a gang of boys grabbed me, knocked me down, snatched the basket, took the money, and sent me running home in panic. That evening I told my mother what had happened, but she made no comment; she sat down at once, wrote another note, gave me more money, and sent me out to the grocery again. I crept down the steps and saw the same gang of boys playing down the street. I ran back into the house.

“What’s the matter?” my mother asked.

“It’s those same boys,” I said. “They’ll beat me.”

“You’ve got to get over that,” she said. “Now, go on.”

“I’m scared,” I said.

“Go on and don’t pay any attention to them,” she said.

I went out of the door and walked briskly down the sidewalk, praying that the gang would not molest me. But when I came abreast of them, someone shouted.

“There he is!”

They came toward me and I broke into a wild run toward home. They overtook me and flung me to the pavement. I yelled, pleaded, kicked, but they wrenched the money out of my hand. They yanked me to my feet, gave me a few slaps, and sent me home sobbing. My mother met me at the door.

“They b-beat m-me,” I gasped. “They t-t-took the m-money.”

I started up the steps, seeking the shelter of the house.

“Don’t you come in here,” my mother warned me.

I froze in my tracks and stared at her.

“But they’re coming after me,” I said.

“You just stay right where you are,” she said in a deadly tone. “I’m going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself.”

She went into the house and I waited, terrified, wondering what she was about. Presently she returned with more money and another note; she also had a long, heavy stick.

“Take this money, this note, and this stick,” she said. “Go to the store and buy those groceries. If those boys bother you, then fight.”

I was baffled. My mother was telling me to fight, a thing that she had never done before.

“But I’m scared,” I said.

“Don’t you come into this house until you’ve gotten those groceries,” she said.

“They’ll beat me; they’ll beat me,” I said.

“Then stay in the streets; don’t come back here!”

I ran up the steps and tried to force my way past her into the house. A stinging slap came on my jaw. I stood on the sidewalk, crying.

“Please, let me wait until tomorrow,” I begged.

“No,” she said. “Go now! If you come back into this house without those groceries, I’ll whip you!”

She slammed the door and I heard the key turn in the lock. I shook with fright. I was alone upon the dark, hostile streets and gangs were after me. I had the choice of being beaten at home or away from home. I clutched the stick, crying, trying to reason. If I were beaten at home, there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it; but if I were beaten in the streets, I had a chance to fight and defend myself. I walked slowly down the sidewalk, coming closer to the gang of boys, holding the stick tightly. I was so full of fear that I could scarcely breathe. I was almost upon them now.

“There he is again!” the cry went up.

They surrounded me quickly and began to grab for my hand.

“I’ll kill you!” I threatened.

They closed in. In blind fear I let the stick fly, feeling it crack against a boy’s skull. I swung again, lamming another skull, then another. Realizing that they would retaliate if I let up for but a second, I fought to lay them low, to knock them cold, to kill them so that they could not strike back at me. I flayed with tears in my eyes, teeth clenched, stark fear making me throw every ounce of my strength behind each blow. I hit again and again, dropping the money and the grocery list. The boys scattered, yelling, nursing their heads, staring at me in utter disbelief. They had never seen such frenzy. I stood panting, egging them on, taunting them to come on and fight. When they refused, I ran after them and they tore out for their homes, screaming. The parents of the boys rushed into the streets and threatened me, and for the first time in my life I shouted at grown-ups, telling them that I would give them the same if they bothered me. I finally found my grocery list and the money and went to the store. On my way back I kept my stick poised for instant use, but there was not a single boy in sight.

That night I won the right to the streets of Memphis.

DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16

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