Part I: Chapter 5
Granny and Addie decide that Richard is lost to the world and finally give up the effort to save his soul. This means that the two women grow cold and hostile toward him, but it also means that he can leave Addie’s religious school for a public school. Granny refuses to pay for Richard’s public school textbooks because she considers them worldly.
On the first day of school, Richard fights two boys simultaneously after one of them knocks his straw hat off his head. As usual, he proves himself and gains acceptance through fighting. Within two weeks, Richard advances from the fifth grade to the sixth. Richard is unable to find a job that does not require him to work on Saturday, a day Granny refuses to allow him to work for religious reasons. Richard’s lack of income prevents him from participating in the social life of his classmates, which revolves around buying snacks at the corner store. He hides his poverty from his peers, all the while yearning to be a part of their group, wanting to eat with them and to get to know them intimately.
A classmate tells Richard that he sells newspapers to make money and suggests that Richard do the same. The classmate has never read the Chicago-printed paper itself, but he likes the stories in the magazine supplement that comes with it. Richard orders a batch of the papers and becomes entranced by the stories his friend has told him about. He makes some money selling these papers for a while, as Granny has permitted him the job because it does not require him to sell on Saturdays.
One day, one of Richard’s black customers takes him aside and asks him if he really is aware of what he is selling. He shows Richard that the paper, which Richard still has never read, is filled with propaganda from the Ku Klux Klan, the vicious white supremacist group. Richard is shocked, knowing that the paper is printed in Chicago, a place, he has heard, where blacks are supposedly equal to whites. Richard immediately stops selling the paper. When the father of Richard’s classmate discovers the content of the paper, he forbids his son to sell it as well. Out of mutual shame, Richard and his classmate never discuss why they stopped selling the paper. Without money from his job, Richard goes hungry yet again.
One day, while Addie and Granny endlessly debate details of religious doctrine, Richard makes an offhand comment that the women deem blasphemous. Granny vigorously lunges to slap Richard, but he ducks the blow, and Granny loses her balance, falling off the porch and injuring her back. Later, Richard wants to ask how Granny is doing, but he cannot let his guard down in front of Addie. Addie confronts him in the hallway and tries to beat him. Once again, Richard fends off the blows, crying hysterically and brandishing a knife from the kitchen. Addie vows that she will give him his due beating one night. Consequently, Richard sleeps with a knife under his pillow for the next month. Wright makes the observation that these constant religious disputes made his family’s household even more quarrelsome and violent than the household of a gangster or burglar.
Richard then takes a job writing for Brother Mance, an illiterate insurance salesman who lives next door. The job entails journeys to plantations, which prove to be eye-opening experiences for Richard, who is alarmed to see the universal poverty, isolation, and ignorance of Southern black sharecroppers. Richard notes the consistently shy nature of the sharecroppers’ children; compared to them, he feels like a civilized man from the big city.
One morning, Richard learns that Grandpa is seriously ill. A Union veteran of the Civil War, Grandpa has been deprived of his pension due to a simple clerical error in his benefits application. One rumor has it that a white Southern officer deliberately made this error to deprive Grandpa of his due. Grandpa has tried to claim his pension for decades, but the War Department never accepts the evidence he submits to prove that he did in fact fight in the Civil War. Eternally bitter at this injustice, Grandpa has remained cold and distant to everyone, including Richard.
When Grandpa dies, the family sends Richard to report the news to his uncle Tom, who now lives nearby. Richard wakes Tom and immediately blurts out that Grandpa has died. Tom takes offense at the indelicate way Richard reports his father’s death, causing Richard to wonder why he never seems to be able to please other people. Richard is not invited to the funeral.
Eventually, Richard’s clothes grow so shabby that he is embarrassed to wear them to school. He forces Granny to let him work on Saturdays by threatening to move out, calling her bluff. Granny and Addie make it clear that Richard is now truly dead to them. Richard’s mother, however, is proud of him for defying them.
In his move to the public school, Richard displays his trademark determination to go his own way against all odds. Public school requires Richard to spend his own money, as Granny forbids him from any job that entails Saturday work—effectively barring him from all employment—and he must pay for the public school textbooks out of his own pocket. Therefore, Richard’s desire to leave Addie’s religious school puts him in a dilemma, as leaving would be satisfying but would mean mounting costs with little means to pay them, while staying would be unsatisfying but would ensure him some degree of financial support for his education. The price of remaining subject to Addie’s scorn and fury, however, is too much for Richard’s character to bear. The problem of paying his way in pubic school has no easy solution, but Richard—feeling like he has been “released from a prison”—is overjoyed to embrace that problem.
Richard’s unwitting distribution of the Klan newspaper is meaningful both in the context of his own life story and in the context of broader black American culture. At a most basic level, it reveals Richard’s naïveté in his belief that racism could never flourish in the North. In this sense, the incident with the paper foreshadows similar surprises Richard experiences when he eventually makes the move North himself. More broadly, we can also see the incident with the paper as a criticism Wright directs at the black American community in general. The man who shows Richard the error of his ways does so gently, but does not shy away from using stern language: “you’re just helping white people to kill you.” Wright implies that he should have known better and should not have been so ignorant. By extension, Wright is warning the black community that they will end up working against their own causes if they fail to educate themselves about the world around them. Wright readily admits that as a youth he was guilty of this error himself.
Richard’s travels with the insurance salesman make his life look rich in comparison to the lives of the sharecroppers. The poverty and illiteracy that mar the lives of blacks on the plantations demonstrate that Richard’s literacy and worldly wisdom—the wisdom gained by moving so frequently from place to place—are real, if hard-won, blessings. However, when we consider the painful, glaring poverty Richard endures, we realize how truly terrible the conditions of the sharecroppers’ existence must be. In this way, Richard’s travels with the insurance man provide an interesting context for thinking about what might have happened to Richard. After all, Richard himself is the son of a sharecropper and could easily have turned out just like the people he visits.
Grandpa’s endless battle with the War Department raises ethical questions about the American government. Although we do not actually see the letters that Grandpa receives after submitting his pension claim, we assume that they use official- and objective-sounding language to assert that Grandpa’s claims are unsubstantiated and must be rejected. Wright’s reference to the rumor that a white Southern officer deliberately misspelled Grandpa’s name, however, adds a sinister aspect to the government action, casting doubt on the supposedly objective nature of its official business. Wright strengthens that doubt by dwelling on Grandpa’s illiteracy, as we realize that bureaucracy and paperwork make it especially easy for the government to take advantage of illiterate people. Wright implies that Grandpa’s bureaucratic troubles might be explained, at least in part, by the fact that he is black, illiterate, and therefore vulnerable to attack in America.
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