While waiting in line at the relief station, Richard notes the impoverished, hungry mass of people sharing their experiences of privation and suffering. He remarks that they no longer appear to be individuals, but rather a community that could organize to throw off the oppressive forces ruling over them. Richard no longer feels that he suffers alone, realizing that millions of others are in the same lot of poverty and desperation.
Richard’s cynicism vanishes. He begins to muse about revolutions and other acts of social change. He senses that the members of society most dangerous to the ruling class are not those who try to defend their rights, but rather those who have no interest in the prizes their society offers. Richard believes that black Americans fit into this inactive category of people. When whites react with violence and terror whenever blacks try to make something of their lives, they unknowingly encourage blacks to abandon any interest in social progress. Richard considers that the oppressive whites could be in great danger if blacks begin to form their own way of life as a community, as he watches them do at the relief station.
Through a federal relief program, Richard obtains a job as an orderly at a medical research institute in a wealthy hospital. He immediately notices the segregation of labor: the health professionals are all white, while the menial workers are mostly black. Richard becomes interested in the research that takes place at the hospital, but the white doctors rudely rebuff his questions.
Richard works in the hospital basement with three other black men. One, Bill, is about Richard’s age, and a drunk. He terrifies Richard with his brutal ideas, at one point advocating a solution to the race problem that entails guns, bullets, and the phrase “Let us all start over again.” The other two workers, Brand and Cooke, are older and passionately hate each other. Richard muses that their ignorant, narrow lives force them to invent a reason to hate each other so that they can indulge in passionate emotions.
The lab uses dogs, among other animals, for research purposes. To minimize noise in the hospital, the doctors cut the dogs’ vocal cords, using a drug called Nembutal to sedate them. Upon regaining consciousness, the dogs howl silently, and Richard sees the dogs as symbols of silent suffering. He is intrigued by Nembutal and one day decides to smell a vial of it. When he does so, Brand panics, frantically yelling that Nembutal is poisonous and that they must find Richard a doctor immediately. Brand soon reveals that he is joking, but Richard is not amused.
Later, Richard’s boss sends a Jewish boy to time him while he cleans, making him feel more like a slave than he ever has before. Richard grows more irritated when he is cleaning the steps and not one white employee shows him the courtesy of not stepping on the steps that he is cleaning. Dirty water gets tracked everywhere, forcing Richard to repeatedly start anew.
One day, Brand and Cooke get in a trivial argument about the weather, which eventually escalates into a physical struggle that knocks over dozens of animal cages. The four workers frantically clean up the mess, but they have no idea which animals go into which cages. They keep the accident a secret, but Wright wonders if it has destroyed any important scientific research.
My life as a Negro in America had led me to feel . . . that the problem of human unity was more important than bread, more important than physical living itself. . . .
Richard joins some of his friends from the post office for a political discussion, and he is surprised to discover that many of them are now members of the Communist Party. At the request of one of these friends, Richard reluctantly attends a meeting of the John Reed Club, a revolutionary artists’ organization. The white members welcome him—which makes him uneasy—and invite him to attend an editorial meeting of their magazine, Left Front. They also give him back issues of the magazines Masses and International Literature. Richard goes home and reads these magazines through the night, greatly intrigued by their promise of worldwide unity among oppressed and suffering masses. This hopeful aspect of Communism begins to appeal to Richard, even though the movement’s economic idealism and deliberately subversive message have failed to attract him before. He writes a crude, free-verse poem on revolutionary themes. When his mother reacts in horror to the fierce cartoons in the magazines, Richard realizes that the Communists have not yet found the right language for mass appeal. When he tries to discuss this deficiency at a John Reed meeting, however, a fruitless argument ensues. Richard decides that he can put his writing to use by finding the right language for speaking to the masses.
After several meetings with the John Reed Club, Richard begins to trust the motives of the white members and finally feels genuinely accepted. He begins planning a series of biographical sketches of black Communists, which he believes would help other black people understand Communism. Richard quickly detects a bitter dispute between the painters and the writers in the Club. The writers elect him executive secretary of the Club against his will, hoping to use him to expel the painters. Richard then officially joins the Communist Party. The bickering between the painters and the writers, and between the Communist Party members and the non-Party members, however, taxes the energies of Richard and the Club.
In the midst of this political turmoil, a man named Comrade Young appears and joins the Club, identifying himself as a member of the Communist Party and the Detroit John Reed Club. Young immediately accuses Swann, one of the Club’s most promising artists, of being a police collaborator and enemy of the Party. Everybody assumes that Young is an important Party official, but no one can verify this assumption, so no one knows exactly what is going on. When Young disappears, the Club members search his belongings and find a note identifying him as an escapee from a Detroit mental institution, along with a dissertation titled “A Pictorial Record of Man’s Economic Progress” written on a twenty-yard scroll of paper. Deeply embarrassed, Richard and the other Club officials decide to keep this information from the rest of the group.
Chapters 17 and 18 fulfill the promise of a new era in Richard’s life foreshadowed by the apocalyptic mood at the end of Chapter 16. While Richard waits in the relief line, he suddenly feels the sense of community that exists between all suffering people. At the same time, he sees that others have begun to sense this kinship themselves: “their talking was enabling them to sense the collectivity of their lives.” These experiences replace Richard’s cynicism with hope, but he is still not quite capable of articulating this hope. He knows that it has something to do with the power and promise of needy people coming together to comprehend the meaning of their suffering and their capacity for change. Communism soon provides him with the appropriate vocabulary for expressing this hope and furnishes him with a sense of purpose as a black writer.
Richard’s experiences as a hospital orderly illustrate three different forms of irony. First, narrative irony, which, as the name suggests, occurs when the mood created at one point in a narrative quickly shifts. Immediately preceding the story of his work in the hospital, Richard stands in line at the relief station, watching the black men and women talk with each other and swooning with visions of the unity of all oppressed people worldwide. From this optimistic mood, Wright immediately brings us into the hospital basement, where Brand and Cooke appear as absolute jewels of pettiness and buffoonery. Richard’s vision of hope is thus ironically replaced by an immediate experience of utter hopelessness.
Second, situational irony refers to circumstances that seem the opposite of what one would expect. In these chapters, situational irony arises from the racial segregation of employees in the hospital. Richard has moved to the North because of the promise that Chicago would be free from racism. Yet he finds racism anyway—though perhaps not in as overt a form—most ironically in a hospital, a scientific institution ostensibly devoted to the public good.
Third, dramatic irony occurs when we as readers know something that a character does not. At the hospital, Richard, predictably, is interested in the research. Yet when he tries to learn about it, a doctor says to him, “If you know too much, boy, your brains might explode.” These words are quite ironic, for there is a decent chance that Richard actually knows more than this snobby doctor: not about medicine, but about literature, sociology, history, politics, and other disciplines. Readers of Black Boy know Richard’s ambitious self-education and his future as a prominent writer and intellectual. The doctor does not, which makes his words comically misguided and ironic.
Though Richard embraces Communism as a means to organize and express his hope for the unity of oppressed peoples, we immediately see hints that Communism will not be the ultimate answer he has been looking for. Richard is discouraged when the Communist cartoons horrify his mother, as he notes that it is difficult to lead the masses when addressing them in a manner that they cannot understand. Moreover, the petty bickering within the Party disheartens him, leading him to bemoan the fact that if the John Reed Club cannot unite itself, it will never be able to unite the masses. The episode with Comrade Young is perhaps the most obvious indication that Communism will not meet Richard’s hopeful expectations. Young’s sudden appearance and seizure of power is quite funny, but it makes Richard wonder: “what kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step into it and help run it?” He is right to ask, because this incident, more than any other, serves to undermine the integrity of the movement in which he has so much faith.