Richard takes a job at a clothing store where the white bosses humiliate the black customers on a daily basis. Richard sees the shopkeepers beat a black woman who is unable to pay the credit installments on her clothing purchase. One day, Richard’s bicycle gets a flat tire after he makes a clothing delivery. A group of young white men offer to let him ride back to town on the side of their car. When Richard neglects to call one of the white youths “sir,” they smash a whiskey bottle in his face, causing him to fall from the speeding vehicle. He walks back to town.
Not long thereafter, when Richard makes a delivery in a white neighborhood, suspicious policemen force him to the side of the road and aggressively search him at gunpoint. They tell Richard to tell his boss not to send him on delivery runs in white neighborhoods after dark. Eventually, Richard’s boss fires him because he does not like Richard’s silent disapproval of the way he runs the store and treats black people.
Griggs, a former classmate, admonishes Richard for not knowing how to act around white people. He tells Richard that his reputation as a troublemaker has already been spread to many potential white employers. After repeatedly stressing that Richard must swallow his pride and learn to feign humility in order to survive around whites, Griggs helps Richard secure a job with Mr. Crane, a Northerner interested in training a black boy in the trade of optics and lens-making.
Richard is elated and eagerly reports to Crane’s optical shop. However, Richard’s white coworkers, Pease and Reynolds, refuse to teach him how to work the machines, asserting that it is “white man’s work.” They belittle Richard with crude questions about his anatomy and constantly attempt to intimidate him. One day, Pease says that Reynolds has told him that Richard once referred to him as simply “Pease” rather than the more respectful “Mr. Pease.” Richard knows he is in a trap: if he admits to this charge, Pease will punish him for disrespect, but if he denies the charge, Reynolds will punish Richard for implying that he is a liar. Richard knows that the men are trying to drive him out of the shop, so he quits.
Richard feels totally demoralized. The sympathetic Crane calls Richard into his office and asks him what happened, but Richard refuses to tell, out of fear that Reynolds and Pease will gather a mob and kill him. Crane then pays Richard more than he has earned for the week, apologizes for being unable to do more, and tells Richard he approves of Richard’s plan to move to the North. Crane says he understands that blacks lead a hard life in the South, and believes that a move to the North is perhaps Richard’s best hope. Richard feels terribly violated and ashamed. He thanks Crane hastily and leaves, in his own words, as “a blind man.”
Richard drifts from job to job, so exhausted and dispirited by the constant threat of racism that he frequently makes mistakes that get him fired. When the summer ends and many of the other boys return to school, jobs become plentiful. Richard takes a job at the same hotel where his classmate’s brother had worked until he was murdered for consorting with a white prostitute. At the hotel, Richard mops hallways with a group of young black men, including one who amuses Richard because he takes pride in having gonorrhea, which he claims is a mark of manhood. One day, a white security guard fondles one of the black maids, and Richard’s obvious displeasure leads the guard to threaten him with a gun.
Richard hesitates to engage in the thievery rampant among the hotel workers because he does not consider it worth the risk of being caught. He acknowledges, however, that racism encourages such theft, as whites would rather have a dishonest, uneducated black worker than an honest, educated one.
Eventually, Richard changes his mind and decides to steal so that he can raise money to move North, reasoning that living honestly would merely prolong his stay in the South. He leaves his job at the hotel and takes one at a movie theater, where he helps his coworkers steal two hundred dollars by reselling tickets. Burning to leave the South, he steals a gun from a neighbor and pawns it for money. He then resells some fruit preserves that he has stolen from a nearby black college. With this money, Richard goes to Memphis. His stealing pains him, and he vows never to do it again.
In Memphis, Richard rents a room from a black woman named Mrs. Moss. She delights Richard with her kindness and generosity. It immediately becomes clear that, although she has just met him, she wants him to marry her daughter, Bess. Unaccustomed to trusting people, Richard feels stunned and slightly disgusted that Mrs. Moss can so wholeheartedly accept and trust someone she barely knows. Moreover, Bess is not attractive to him; he finds her childish and dull.
The next morning, Richard meets another young black man while sitting on the waterfront. They find some bootleg liquor hidden in a patch of weeds and decide to sell it. A white man says he will give them five dollars for the liquor if they will move it to his car. Richard feels uneasy, but the young black man appears more than willing, and Richard assists. The black man leaves Richard to get change for the five-dollar bill so they can split it, but he does not come back. Richard is annoyed with himself for not realizing that the black man and the white man had been working together and had used Richard to help them move the illegal liquor.
Richard’s inability to meet his family’s expectations throughout the early parts of Black Boy foreshadows the inability to show humility before—and thus avoid confrontations with—the whites that he displays in these chapters. The fundamental source of Richard’s difficulties with his family is his inability to obey their orders: he can never submit to his family’s demands that he humble himself to their authority, so he receives violent beatings as punishment. Here, we see that Richard has similar trouble hiding his pride and judgment in the presence of whites, which results in similar negative consequences. To paraphrase his friend Griggs, Richard’s problem is that when he is around whites he acts as if he does not notice that they are white. He does not bend over backward to humble himself as whites expect him to, and, consequently, he reaps violence. The burst of violent racism in Chapter 9 may startle us, but it fits with the already established pattern of Richard’s family life.
Mr. Crane symbolizes how even well-meaning whites commit subtle acts of racism. At first glance, Crane appears sensitive toward Richard, and when push comes to shove he shows compassion, asking Richard genuine questions about how he was terrorized, giving him more money than he is due, and repeatedly saying that he is sorry about the whole situation. The fact that Pease and Reynolds can only terrorize Richard when Crane is out of the office implies that Crane would defend Richard. At the same time, however, Crane shows signs of the typical white superiority complex in relation to Richard. He makes Richard wait a full half-hour before speaking with him just because he wants to peruse the mail. He also shows his lack of understanding by remarking that life in the South is tough not just for Richard but for himself as well. Though Crane may indeed have a rough time controlling the racial turmoil in his factory, and may face some criticism from fellow whites for his sympathy toward blacks, his troubles cannot begin to compare with Richard’s problems. Crane is unable to do anything to help Richard beyond apologizing and giving him some extra cash. While these are undeniably kind gestures, they merely attempt to compensate Richard for enduring racism instead of trying to redress the racism itself.
It is somewhat difficult to judge the extent of Crane’s genuine sympathy toward Richard because Wright does not comment on it. We can only assume Wright does not comment on Crane’s attitude because he wants us to think for ourselves about how racism—or rather our conceptions of racism—make it difficult to form a definite impression of others’ intentions. Racism is a difficult problem not just because of its overt violence and discrimination, but because it often operates in much more subtle forms. Mr. Crane clearly shows Richard some degree of kindness, but something nonetheless prevents him from treating Richard as an equal.
Chapter 11 is a chapter of reversals. In the overall context of Black Boy, the move to the city itself represents a reversal. Richard’s agonizing small-town life is quickly replaced by a surprisingly comfortable life in the city. In the process, he exchanges despair for hope and antagonistic relationships for easy and trustful ones. Likewise, another reversal occurs when Bess shifts from passionately declaring her love for Richard to passionately declaring her hatred for him. Moreover, Richard does not believe he merits Mrs. Moss’s and Bess’s trust because he is hustling them, but then he himself is hustled when the white and black strangers team up and use him to unload the bootleg liquor. Wright presents these last two events in such away that they achieve a meaningful symmetry—Richard’s “hustling” of Bess and her mother is balanced by his being hustled the next day. At the center of all of these changes lies the city, a setting Wright presents as a highly dynamic place, where tremendous changes and shifts occur in short spans of time.