Part II: Chapters 19–20
Summary: Chapter 19
I would make his life more intelligible to others than it was to himself. I would reclaim his disordered days and cast them into a form that people could grasp, see, understand, and accept.
Richard joins a unit of black Communists. At the first meeting, he describes his duties at the John Reed Club, provoking giggles and condescending remarks from his comrades. Richard soon learns that they are mocking his eloquence: his intelligent manner of speaking and his ambition to become a writer have branded him an “intellectual.” He also soon learns that the group disapproves of the fact that he reads books not endorsed by the Party. Sadly, Richard begins to understand that his comrades firmly believe that, because Communists know the answers to all questions already, anyone who exhibits curiosity should be viewed with suspicion. Richard concludes that they are ignorant.
Ross, a black Communist facing legal prosecution for rioting, consents to a series of interviews for Richard’s biographical sketches. Word of this activity spreads through the Party. A black comrade visits Richard to warn him that intellectuals do not fit well with the Communist Party, pointing out that the Soviet Union has had to expel and even shoot many of them. Richard is dumbfounded and protests that he is not an intellectual. He says that he sweeps streets for a living, and, in fact, the relief system has just assigned him this job. Richard’s visitor then suggests that a violent confrontation with the police would bolster Richard’s credibility. Richard is dumbfounded. He cannot understand why his ambition to write—to make black suffering intelligible and meaningful through writing—is so controversial.
Ed Green, another black Communist, interrupts a meeting between Ross and Richard to ask if Richard has shown his notes to anyone else. Later, Richard learns that Green has been representing Ross in his indictment proceedings and that he wants to know if Richard has written anything that could be used against his client in court. Again, Richard is dumbfounded at this suspicion. Afterward, Ross becomes cagey and uneasy around Richard. Richard grows increasingly frustrated, as his black comrades suspect his every move. To make matters worse, his white comrades idealize blacks to such a degree that they cannot understand Richard’s struggles with black Party members. He begins to feel an emotional isolation unlike anything he felt in the South.
Ross grows so hesitant that Richard abandons his idea of biographical sketches altogether. Instead, he decides to write a series of short stories based on the details he knows of his black comrades’ lives. Suddenly, the Party charges Ross with “antileadership tendencies,” “class collaborationist attitudes,” and “ideological factionalism.” A group of black comrades visit to inform Richard of the Party’s decision that Richard must stay away from Ross. Richard tells them that he has done nothing wrong and that he feels unable to comply with the decision. They leave him, wearing cryptic smiles.
Richard finds some respite from his political anxieties by working with wild, restless boys at the South Side Boys’ Club. His attempts to write short stories, however, prove frustrating. The John Reed Club organizes a conference to debate the role of writers in the Party. Richard finds the decisions aimed against writers stiff and unrealistic, but his Club comrades urge him to hitchhike to New York City to attend a similar conference. The white comrades there have trouble finding someone willing to house a black comrade, and Richard becomes disgusted. He looks for a hotel in Harlem, but finds only hotels for whites, making him even more disgusted. These troubles seem to him much more pressing than any questions about the left-wing literary movement, so he has trouble focusing on the conference. Over Richard’s vehement objections, the conference moves to dissolve the John Reed Clubs due to their subversive nature as literary societies. When the final vote is taken, Richard casts the sole dissenting vote.
Richard stops attending meetings, as his duties have been eliminated along with the John Reed Clubs. He learns that a slew of lavish accusations have been leveled against him, and he prepares to quit the Party. However, Buddy Nealson, a high-ranking black comrade, calls Richard to a private meeting and convinces him to start organizing a committee against the high cost of living. Richard reluctantly accepts, even though he knows nothing about the topic and it restricts his time for writing. When the Party insists that he drop his writing completely and go to Switzerland to meet with a youth delegation, Richard asks that his membership be dropped. His request is mysteriously deferred. As Richard’s comrades continue to slander him, Richard realizes that they are trying to keep him in the Party so as to assassinate his character and expel him themselves.
The relief authorities install Richard as the publicity agent for the Federal Negro Theater. He recruits a talented Jewish director. Together, they try to persuade the actors to perform works that realistically depict the experiences of black Americans. The black actors, accustomed to vaudeville and musical comedy, resist performing in such a controversial work. In fact, they go so far as to violently demand that the director be fired. When Richard talks in private with the director about how to remedy the situation, the actors brand Richard the “white man’s nigger” and threaten him with knives. Frightened and disgusted, Richard has the Works Progress Administration transfer him to a white experimental theater company.
At the request of some comrades, Richard attends the Party meeting at which Ross goes on trial for a long list of offenses. To establish the context for Ross’s crimes, the trial begins with several speakers who give a detailed picture of oppressed peoples worldwide. The moral force of the presentation stuns Richard. He views the trial as a spectacle of glory, as Ross achieves unity with his comrades by confessing his crimes and asking forgiveness. On the other hand, Richard views the trial as a spectacle of horror, because it implicitly condemns Richard himself. He leaves the trial before it ends, and his former comrades shun him thereafter.
Summary: Chapter 20
The relief station transfers Richard to the Federal Writers’ Project, but the Communists who work with him there agitate for his removal. When his boss tells him not to worry, Richard learns that the Communists had also been responsible for his difficulties at the Federal Negro Theater. With the Communists trying to oust him from his work, Richard decides that reconciliation with the Party is necessary. However, no Party representative will meet with him.
When Richard tries to be part of the May Day parade, he cannot find the group with which he is supposed to march. When a former comrade spots him and encourages him to march with his old comrades, Richard hesitantly agrees. Soon, however, two white Communists pick Richard up and throw him out of the parade, while his black comrades only look on sheepishly. He walks home, angry and bleeding from his fall, convinced that the Communists have been blinded by oppression. Richard believes that mankind can learn only slowly and painfully and that now he must “build a bridge of words” between himself and the outside world.
Analysis: Chapters 19–20
Richard’s independent personality makes his conflict with the domineering Communist Party seem inevitable. As with so many other problematic relationships in Richard’s life—with his family, with Southern whites, with his school principal—his confrontation with the Communist Party stems in large part from his incredibly strong sense of self. Though he has sometimes feared that his insecurity and self-loathing would get the better of him, for the most part he has followed his own interests and played by his own rules regardless of the cost. Such an individual temperament is incompatible with Communism’s emphasis on conformity, so anyone possessed of such a temperament is bound to be a very poor Communist.
Indeed, Richard’s first encounters with Communism foreshadow his eventual troubles with the Party. As we have seen in the preceding chapters, Richard finds many aspects of Communism—especially its economic policies and its more militant supporters—less than satisfying. Nonetheless, the emphasis Communism places on the unity of suffering peoples, along with the John Reed Club’s initial acceptance of writers, appeals to Richard’s passionate nature to change the world through his art. Notable, however, is the fact that we never read of any aspects of Communism that truly appeal to Richard’s intellect. Because Richard enters the Party based on his passion and not his intellect, any commitment he makes to the Party is bound to be fraught with his independent, critical, dissenting thoughts and feelings.
Whereas Richard has spent much of Black Boy either running away from troubles or reacting to them cynically or unproductively, the closing scene shows that he now has a more positive outlook on life. Richard’s travails with the Party could have proven supremely disheartening and debilitating for him. Motivated by high idealism, Richard has sincerely desired to unite the suffering peoples of the world and affect change through Communism. As he becomes immersed in the imperfect politics of Party life, frustration and bewilderment begin to displace his hopes, culminating with his personal condemnation and his physical ousting from the May Day parade. Richard could easily give up or succumb to paralyzing cynicism in the face of such a turn of events. However, rather than debilitating himself through self-loathing—as he does when he quits his jobs with Mr. Crane and with the Hoffmans—he now has enough self-confidence and self-respect to trust that he will find a way to work through his troubles. Richard uses his troubles to achieve a new understanding of humanity, saying, “perhaps that is the way it has always been with man. . . .” Moreover, rather than berating himself as a failure, he reaches a positive decision on how to proceed within the less-than-ideal world: Richard says he will proceed as an artist, “with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity.” He develops a sense of himself within an imperfect world, lowering his expectations in order to give himself the power to persevere.
Richard has finally come to think of himself as a thinker-artist, accepting the difficulties and limitations associated with such a profession. His independent, challenging, and creative tendencies have always caused him trouble, but he hopes that things will be different in Chicago. He hopes to find an environment more accepting of his love of reading, learning, and writing. Yet, even in the more cosmopolitan setting of Chicago, Richard’s reading chafes his family, annoys his employers, and provokes suspicion among his Communist peers. Instead of despairing, however, Richard reaches a new understanding of the imperfect world that surrounds him, and of his place in that world as a thinker-artist. He knows that he will never find an environment totally in tune with his fiercely inquisitive and creative nature. When he writes of his determination to “hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo,” Richard seems settled on a vision of himself as a thinker-artist fundamentally at odds with his world, “this darkness.” After all, if he lived in an environment that embraced him fully, he would no longer need to challenge that world through writing. Instead, within this imperfect world Richard must create challenging, insightful works of art, throwing them into the environment to “wait for an echo,” an indication that what he says has resonated with someone, somewhere. As with many artists, Richard’s artistic sense of duty might lead to a lonely existence, but perhaps his commitment to that duty is what carries Wright to the artistic maturity needed to write his great novels.
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