Part I: Chapter 2
When Ella finally retrieves her children from the orphanage, Richard is so excited to leave that he only says goodbye to the other children because his mother demands it. In a brief digression from the story, Richard, as author, argues against the popular contention that black people lead particularly passionate, emotional lives. Rather, he believes that what others interpret as emotional depth in black people is really just frenzy and confusion occasioned by living as outsiders in America.
On the way to Elaine, Arkansas, where Ella’s sister Maggie lives, Ella and her sons spend some time with Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. Granny is renting a room to a young schoolteacher, also named Ella. One day, Richard discovers the schoolteacher reading a book and implores her to tell him what the book is about. Hesitantly, Ella begins to describe the novel, Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Richard is utterly enthralled by the fantasy world of the story, but Granny interrupts the reading before Ella can finish.
A strict Seventh-Day Adventist, Granny equates fiction with lies and sin, so she forbids such “Devil stuff” in her house. When Richard protests against his grandmother’s restrictions, she slaps him and declares that he will burn in hell. Richard, however, is so enraptured by Ella’s story that he becomes determined to read as many novels as he can, risk or no risk. He secretly borrows Ella’s novels from her room and tries to read them, but cannot quite make sense of them because his vocabulary is too limited.
When Richard’s mother falls ill, Granny assumes the task of bathing him and his brother. One particular night, while Granny is scrubbing his backside, Richard absentmindedly and uncomprehendingly tells her that when she is done she can kiss him “back there.” Convinced that Richard is a mouthpiece for the Devil, Granny becomes enraged and begins beating him with a wet towel. Richard flees. Upon learning of Richard’s statement, his mother joins in the pursuit to punish him. Richard then crawls under a bed, where not even his grandfather can reach him. The boy remains there until hunger and thirst drive him out, at which point his mother beats him with a switch. To his mother’s frustration, Richard is honestly unable to tell her where he learned the phrase he said. He is not even sure what the phrase means or why it constitutes such a grave insult. Granny, convinced that Richard has learned the phrase from Ella and her books, confronts the young schoolteacher, who decides to pack her things and move out.
Journeying to Aunt Maggie’s in Arkansas, Richard notices separate sections on the train for white and black travelers. Out of naïve curiosity, Richard wants to go look at the white section, but his mother refuses and grows annoyed. He questions his mother about Granny’s ancestry and race, which only annoys Ella further. Richard himself is annoyed that nobody will talk to him about race relations and resolves to learn whatever he can about this tricky issue.
Arriving in Arkansas, Richard discovers that Aunt Maggie and her husband, Hoskins, always have enough food, as Hoskins earns a good living from his profitable saloon. Nevertheless, Richard is so used to hunger that he hoards food all over the house, constantly fearing that the food will somehow run out. On a trip to a nearby town, Hoskins pulls a prank on Richard by jokingly driving the buggy into the Mississippi River. Though Hoskins knows the river is very shallow and safe, Richard is wildly fearful that they will be swept away and drowned. Unfortunately, Hoskins’s joke makes Richard unable to trust his uncle. One night soon thereafter, local whites murder Hoskins because they covet his profitable business. Unable to claim Hoskins’s body or his assets—and in danger of being murdered themselves—Ella, her two boys, and Maggie flee back to Granny’s house.
One day, while playing at Granny’s house, Richard sees a regiment of black soldiers training for World War I and, later, a black chain gang working by the roadside guarded by armed white men. In confusion, Richard thinks that the chain gang is a group of elephants, later realizing that the inmates’ striped uniforms had reminded of him of zebras, which he had then confused with elephants. These sights cause Richard to once again ponder the mysterious division of power between white and black people.
Ella quickly tires of Granny’s strict religious routine, so she, the two boys, and Aunt Maggie move out, resettling in West Helena, Arkansas. While Maggie and Ella work, Richard and his brother entertain themselves by playing with other children and taunting the Jewish proprietor of the corner grocery store.
Richard learns that his landlady runs a curious business and resolves to learn more about it. He peeps over the door dividing his apartment from the neighboring one and sees a man and a woman having sex. Startled, Richard falls from his perch, causing the landlady to come over and scold him for scaring away her customers. The landlady then evicts Richard’s family because his mother refuses to beat him as punishment for his nosiness.
Meanwhile, Maggie begins seeing an elegant man known only as Professor Matthews. Professor Matthews is hiding from the police, so he comes to see Maggie only at night and gives Richard and his brother gifts to ensure their silence. Among these gifts is a little female poodle that Richard names Betsy. After Professor Matthew commits a mysterious crime that seems to involve the death of a white woman, he and Maggie hurriedly flee to the North. Richard is sad to see them go because Maggie is his favorite aunt.
Without Maggie’s income, the family once again falls into hard times. One day, Richard is so hungry that he resolves to sell Betsy for a dollar. He goes door-to-door in the white neighborhood and finds a white woman willing to buy the dog. Richard’s mounting fear and hatred of white people, however, make him run home when the woman says that she has only ninety-seven cents on hand to pay for the dog. One week later, a coal wagon hits Betsy and kills her. Richard buries her mournfully, while Ella coldly reminds him that he should have sold Betsy when he had the chance, because a dead dog is useless.
As World War I draws to an end, racial tensions in the South rise. In hopeless confusion and fear, Richard listens to his neighbors’ stories of violent racial conflict. A tale of a black woman’s vengeance upon the white mob that killed her husband particularly impresses Richard, and he resolves to do something similar if he ever faces an angry mob.
Richard begins attending school again but suffers the same paralyzing shyness. One day, the war’s end is suddenly announced, and the schoolteacher dismisses class early. Running outside, Richard sees a plane flying in the sky. It is the first time he has ever seen a plane, and he thinks it is a bird, refusing to believe the crowd’s assertions that it is man-made. For Christmas that year, Richard receives only an orange.
In this section we see Richard develop an early love of literature that he likens to religious fervor. Bluebeard and His Seven Wives—the novel Ella the schoolteacher describes to Richard—is more a piece of pulp fiction than any literary masterpiece. However, in describing his reaction to the novel, Richard uses some surprisingly rich language, calling Ella’s story “the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. . . . I had tasted what to me was life.” We see Richard’s deep emotional engagement, his punishment-defying certainty, and his life-affirming discovery that literature and writing are his calling. Richard’s words here have an eloquent intensity that seems more suited to describing a religious experience than to describing a reaction upon learning the plot of a pulp novel. This unexpected seriousness places Richard’s literary interests on an equal plane with religion.
Granny’s clash with Ella and Richard over Bluebeard strengthens this idea that Richard’s love of literature is akin to a religion. The violence of Granny’s reaction suggests that, at some level, she believes that Richard’s literary interests are a sincere threat to her faith—a faith that she desperately wants to rule over her household. For Richard, though, the distrust of art and human ingenuity that is inherent in Granny’s faith prohibits true creativity. Granny demonstrates this distrust with her talk of “Devil stuff” and the irrational brutality with which she responds to Richard’s desire to know the rest of the Bluebeard tale. In short, this scene poses Richard’s educational interests as an alternative route to salvation. This conflict plays out in the rest of the novel, and we see that—on earth at least—Richard’s way proves superior.
Wright’s tale of Uncle Hoskins’s river-crossing prank may not greatly affect Richard himself, but it has a great artistic effect on the novel. Though the prank terrifies Richard and makes him unable to trust his uncle, its effects end there. Richard says nothing about the prank’s effects on the rest of his life, so we are led to assume that there are not any. From this biographical perspective, then, the river misadventure seems like a minor episode. However, the seemingly inexplicable prank and Richard’s anxious reaction to it fill the chapter with a sense of unfathomable dread and evil—a sense of what English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “motiveless malignancy.” Wright situates the prank scene in Black Boy so that it immediately precedes Hoskins’s racially motivated murder. Racism, of course, is truly a “motiveless malignancy.” As such, the prank scene foreshadows and underscores the murder’s emotional dimensions, creating the ideal conditions into which it can erupt. From this artistic perspective, the river misadventure is significant and quite powerful—a masterful use of the form of autobiographical fiction.
The juxtaposition of the black soldiers with the black chain gang is an example of situational irony—circumstances that seem the opposite of what we might expect. On the one hand, Wright uses these images to imply that America must be a relatively black-friendly country if there are blacks who willingly volunteer to defend America in battle. When Richard sees the black soldiers, they are preparing to defend their country from “the enemy.” Richard’s mother defines the enemy as “people who want to kill you and take your country away from you,” implying that the soldiers who lay down their lives in defense of their country must live in a very fine country. On the other hand, however, Wright uses the chain gang to demonstrate that black Americans receive unfairly harsh treatment from their country’s justice system, suggesting that they do not in fact live in such a black-friendly land. When Richard sees the chain gang and wonders why so many black men are a part of it, his mother explains that white people are “harder on black people.” These two facts—that black men will risk their lives to defend their country, yet that their country considers them second-class citizens—are difficult to reconcile. Because Wright links them so closely in the text, however, we are forced to try to reconcile them. All that emerges from this absurd attempt at reconciliation is irony.
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