Part I: Chapters 12–14
Summary: Chapter 12
Richard takes a job in another optical shop, where he cleans and runs errands. The black elevator man, Shorty, amuses Richard, as he is clearly sensible and intelligent but nonetheless totally willing to demean himself for money. Several times Richard witnesses Shorty allowing a white man to kick him for a quarter. A Northern white customer notices Richard’s thin frame and tries to offer him money to buy food, but Richard is too ashamed to accept it. Meanwhile, Bess and Mrs. Moss have finally come to understand that Richard has no interest in joining their family.
To amuse themselves, Richard’s foreman, Olin, and the white employees of a competing optical shop try to instigate a fight between Richard and Harrison, the black employee in the other shop. They tell each man that the other is planning to kill him. Richard and Harrison meet secretly and figure out what is going on, but they still remain suspicious of one another. The white men offer to pay Richard and Harrison five dollars each to box one another. They agree, planning to fake the fight. When the fight starts, however, Richard and Harrison realize that they do not know how to fake it. Their frustrations at being manipulated take over, and they fight each other genuinely and viciously.
Summary: Chapter 13
I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life.
Richard reads an editorial in a Memphis newspaper that attacks H.L. Mencken, the essayist and critic. Intrigued that a Southern newspaper would attack a white man, Richard resolves to read some of Mencken’s work. As blacks are not permitted to borrow books from the public library, Richard asks a white Irish Catholic coworker, Falk, if he can use Falk’s library card to check out books. Falk agrees but urges Richard to be careful.
Richard forges a note from Falk to the librarian, asking that she give “this nigger boy” some Mencken books for him. The librarian is momentarily suspicious but gives Richard the books. Mencken’s boldness and verbal swordplay inspire Richard to become a voracious reader. The books bring him an exciting new understanding of life, and he hungers to do some writing of his own. Richard cautiously hides his books from his coworkers, who notice that he has become distant and dreamy. That winter, Richard’s mother and brother join him in Memphis. Alan gets a job, and the family anxiously saves money for the trip to Chicago.
Summary: Chapter 14
Soon after Richard’s mother and brother arrive, Maggie moves to Memphis because her husband, Matthews—the mysterious “Professor”—has abandoned her. Desiring to reach Chicago as quickly as possible, everyone decides that Richard and Maggie will go first and get a place for the four of them. The other two will follow once they have enough money.
Southern whites do not like it when black people move to the North because it implies that the blacks do not like the treatment they receive in the South. To minimize this friction, Richard waits until only two days before his departure to tell his boss that he is leaving. Moreover, in order to minimize the appearance that he actively wants to leave the South, Richard says that he is leaving only to be near his mother. Richard’s white coworkers at the optical shop appear bewildered by the news and become slightly resentful. Falk, however, gives him a sly smile. Shorty is jealous that Richard is leaving and bids him a bittersweet farewell, lamenting that his own laziness will likely prevent him from following Richard’s lead.
Analysis: Chapters 12–14
Richard’s interactions with Harrison show that the burden of racism sometimes prevents the oppressed from acting rationally or humanely. When the two of them meet, they establish that neither wants to kill, or even fight, the other. This reconciliation should neutralize any tension between them, but Richard realizes that considerable suspicion remains. Similarly, their boxing match makes little sense from a rational perspective, as both Richard and Harrison understand that they are no threat to each other. To help us understand this odd situation, Wright emphasizes how Richard and Harrison are unable to escape the emotional pressures of racism enough to truly care about the other man. Olin’s rumors about the impending threat of murder infect Richard and Harrison to such an extent that they remain suspicious of one another. Moreover, during the actual fight, Richard and Harrison, wanting to avoid an angry white response, are anxious to show that they believe the rumors on some level. As Richard’s society punishes black insubordination with severe violence, or even death, the powerful instinct to stay alive and avoid harm compels blacks to do anything possible to avoid the appearance of insubordination. Richard and Harrison hate themselves for being so easily manipulated, but the violence inherent in racism precludes them from acting on their humane impulses. Racism and violence simply breed more violence.
The transformation of Richard’s outlook through his reading of H. L. Mencken resonates in numerous similar transformations in other texts, including autobiographies by other African-American writers. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes her fascination with literature, poetry, and drama. Literature serves as her inspirational escape from the evils of the racist and hateful society in which she lives. Though she sometimes isolates herself from the world by spending hours at the library, the positive effects of reading ultimately outweigh the negative effects of isolation. Literature abounds with other such examples of people not only enraptured by what they read, but transformed so deeply that the world seems a richer, more stimulating place. When Wright says that he “concluded [reading] the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life,” he links his story to this tradition of transformative readings. At the same time, however, Wright’s statement also highlights the fact that Black Boy stands out as a critique of the African-American family and its folk traditions. Wright looks back on his childhood with regret, and only fully realizes the importance of literature in his life at the end of his autobiography. Angelou, in contrast, does not show regret for her exposure to folk traditions, and though she does not overlook the negative aspects of black life, she primarily focuses on its positives.
Wright also implies that hateful cultures often contain the seeds of their own undoing. Though he focuses primarily on the prejudice whites show toward blacks, he does not ignore the other forms of prejudice that he encounters in his youth. One such prejudice is anti-Catholicism. Catholic-Protestant hostility dates back centuries, and many people in the predominantly Protestant South regard Catholics with suspicion. Richard hears the other white men refer to Falk as a “Pope lover”—an insult against the Catholic faith. As Richard is likewise the butt of such contemptuous language, he feels a sort of solidarity with Falk. This fraternal feeling leads Richard to reason that Falk may be willing to help him. Luckily, in this case Richard is correct, and the help he receives from Falk not only illuminates the complex system of prejudices in Richard’s world, but also suggests a way to challenge these prejudices. Out of a shared sense of injustice, the groups excluded by the majority culture form relationships and find ways to circumvent the rules that restrain them. We see Richard applying this notion of using certain aspects of racism to one’s own advantage when he includes the word “nigger” in his forged note to the librarian. Richard inverts a term that is normally used to abuse him in order to get what he wants. Wright seems to approve of exploiting these racist elements as an effective means of resisting common oppression.
The fact that Southern whites fear and discourage black migration to the North exposes the degree to which their pride—and even their very economic welfare—depends on the presence of blacks. Racism is a means to an end, as oppressors employ racist measures in order to achieve power over another group. Wright shows numerous times throughout the novel that racism breeds irrational actions, times when Southern whites abuse blacks for no reason other than to vent their own frustration. This abuse and subordination of blacks also serves an economic function for the whites, as the blacks are the menial laborers who almost single-handedly support the white economy, for meager pay. Whites abuse blacks in order to keep them in a position where their service would empower whites. Therefore, Wright provides a sort of dismally humorous lesson in the reactions of Richard’s white coworkers when they learn he is moving to Chicago. Their stupid and sour comments plainly reveal the frustration they feel that Richard is escaping his punishing existence for a freer one in the North.
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