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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.
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