The Awl Bookmobile: 'Black Boy'

BLACK BOYIn the spring of 1925, a 16-year-old Jackson, Mississippi, schoolboy named Richard Wright wrote his first story. He took it to the new black paper in town, the Southern Register, showing it to the editor, Malcolm Rogers, who promptly published it. Shortly thereafter, Wright, who worked as a local paperboy for the Chicago Defender, graduated from eighth grade at Smith Robertson Elementary School as valedictorian. He would go on to attend the new local black high school for only a few weeks before dropping out to work. On his way to school, Wright and a friend would bicycle through the white section of town and dig through the garbage cans for magazines and books to read. This excerpt from Black Boy, originally published in 1945, talks about that first publication.

The eighth grade days flowed in their hungry path and I grew more conscious of myself; I sat in classes, bored, dreaming. One long dry afternoon I took out my composition book and told myself that I would write a story; it was sheer idleness that led me to it. What would the story be about? It resolved itself into a plot about a villain who wanted a widow’s home and I called it The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre. It was crudely atmospheric, emotional, intuitively psychological, and stemmed from pure feeling. I finished it in three days and then wondered what to do with it.

The local Negro newspaper! That’s it… I sailed into the office and shoved my ragged composition book under the nose of the man who called himself the editor.

“What is that?” he asked.


“A story,” I said.

“A news story?”

“No, fiction.”

All right. I’ll read it,” he said.

He pushed my composition book back on his desk and looked at my curiously, sucking at his pipe.

“But I want you to read it now,” I said.

He blinked. I had no idea how newspapers were run. I thought that one took a story to an editor and he sat down then and there and read it and said yes or no.

“I’ll read this and let you know about it tomorrow,” he said.

I was disappointed; I had taken the time to write it and he seemed distant and uninterested.

“Give me the story,” I said, reaching for it.

He turned from me, took up the book and read ten pages or more.

“Won’t you come in tomorrow?” he asked. “I’ll have it finished then.”

I honestly relented.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll stop in tomorrow.”

I left with the conviction that he would not read it. Now, where else could I take it after he had turned it down? The next afternoon, en route to my job, I stepped into the newspaper office.

“Where’s my story?” I asked.

“It’s in galleys,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked; I did not know what galleys were.

“It’s set up in type,” he said. “We’re publishing it.”

“How much money will I get?” I asked, excited.

“We can’t pay for manuscript,” he said.

“But you sell your papers for money,” I said with logic.

“Yes, but we’re young in business,” he explained.

“But you’re asking me to give you my story, but you don’t give your papers away,” I said.

He laughed.

“Look, you’re just starting. This story will put your name before our readers. Now, that’s something,” he said.

“But if the story is good enough to sell to your readers, then you ought to give me some of the money you get from it,” I insisted.

He laughed again and I sensed that I was amusing him.

“I’m going to offer you something more valuable than money,” he said. “I’ll give you a chance to learn to write.”

I was pleased, but I still thought he was taking advantage of me.