Part II (The Horror and the Glory): Chapter 15
Our too-young and too-new America . . . insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black. . . . Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character!
Richard arrives in Chicago and finds the city startling. The city’s bleak industrial landscape depresses him and fills him with fears for his success. The casual interactions between blacks and whites bewilder him. He gets a room in the building where his aunt Cleo lives. He goes looking for a job the next morning, and finds one as a porter in a delicatessen owned by the Hoffmans, an immigrant Jewish couple. The work is easy, but Richard has a great deal of trouble understanding the Hoffmanses’ thick accents. Richard wrongly assumes that their occasional impatience with him stems from racism.
Richard muses on the dehumanizing social status of black Americans. He notices that the Hoffmans own and operate their store in a whites-only neighborhood. Tortured by the perpetual uncertainty of his fate, Wright discusses his constant fear that he will inadvertently offend the whites who tolerate his presence in the neighborhood. This fear brings Richard closer to sympathizing with other black people who appear to surrender to racism—people like Shorty. Richard does not approve of such surrender, but he now understands why it occurs.
Chicago inspires in Richard new dreams and desires, but he wonders which, if any, can come true. Rather than focusing on “external events” like lynchings, Richard comes to understand that being black in America is a life of constant “psyche pain,” not merely physical pain. He thinks that few blacks can fully comprehend or tell the story of their pain.
Richard takes an examination to be a postal clerk. Out of fear that the Hoffmans will fire him if he dares to look at another job, he simply stays away from work for three days while he rests and takes the examination. When he returns, he explains his absence with the lie that his mother died in Memphis and that he had to go the funeral. The Hoffmans tell him they know he is lying, but they let him stay because they like him. They insist that they are not like Southerners. Richard is ashamed that he has lied out of fear, but he still cannot admit his lie. He quits his job the following Saturday, without telling the Hoffmans anything, because he is too ashamed to work there any longer.
Richard gets a job as a dishwasher in a café. His white female coworkers seem ignorant, careless, and shallow, but pleasant enough. They occasionally brush against him as they maneuver around the restaurant, which stuns him, because a black man touching a white woman, even inadvertently, is a dreadful offense in the South.
Richard’s white female boss is amused when she finds him reading the American Mercury—the magazine H. L. Mencken edits. Richard is horrified to discover that Tillie, the Finnish cook, spits in the food, and he tells a black girl, recently hired as a salad chef, about it. Richard and the girl want to tell the boss, but they wonder if she will believe them in light of the fact that they are black. The girl finally decides to tell the boss, and Richard confirms her testimony. The boss observes Tillie spitting and fires her immediately.
Meanwhile, Richard takes a temporary job with the post office. The work is ideal, as it pays well and affords him time to write. However, he must meet a weight requirement of 125 pounds in order to obtain a permanent appointment, but he currently barely weighs 110. Richard eats and sleeps heartily, but he gains no weight and fails the physical examination for the job.
Richard has no friends but does not feel the need for any. His mother and brother have arrived, and he shares an apartment with them and Maggie. His voracious reading still puzzles his family, and they think he is wasting his time with books. Richard’s attempts at writing frustrate him, as he is unable to match the high quality of the novels he reads. Having failed the weight requirement, Richard needs a new job and resumes his job at the café. He learns that another postal examination is scheduled for spring. Determined to make weight, he begins forcing food down, eating to the point of feeling ill. Meanwhile, he reads Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past and despairs that he will never be able to write so eloquently about his own experiences.
Just as Richard’s journey from the countryside to Memphis marks a great series of reversals for Richard, the move from Memphis to Chicago forces him to make numerous revisions in his outlook on the world. Richard’s difficulty interacting with the Hoffmans indicates that he needs to revise his attitudes toward white people. He has come to Chicago ascribing to the Southern code of relations with whites, and he attempts to cling to this code despite its inappropriateness in the North. Richard’s strategy for taking time off for the postal examination—to take the time without asking and then later make up lies to justify it—would have been appropriate in the South, where the relationship between blacks and whites is, in Wright’s word, “paternalistic.” However, as the relationship between blacks and whites is different in Chicago, Richard’s strategy fails. Though the Hoffmans are white, they are kind, calm people genuinely interested in Richard—a far cry from the whites he grew up obeying and fearing. Admittedly, Crane showed Richard some degree of care, attention, and respect, but his motives do not seem as genuine as the those of the Hoffmans. We sympathize with Richard’s uneasiness around the Hoffmans, but we are aware that he will need to overcome this instinct if he ever wants to trust white people in the future.
The episode with Tillie, in addition to being thrillingly nasty, represents an important step in the development of Richard’s new relationship with whites. The episode would have played out very differently in the South: Richard would never have informed on a white coworker for fear of violence, and even if he had, a white boss would likely have dismissed Richard’s testimony solely because of his race. These thoughts are clearly on Richard’s mind after he sees Tillie spit, as he does not tell his boss right away. When he and his coworker finally do tell on Tillie, it is satisfying that the risk he takes translates into a just outcome. It is through moments such as these that Richard can learn that some whites will in fact treat him fairly.
Richard’s move to Chicago prompts him to rethink his position on the willingness with which some blacks seem to accept their degradation. When Richard is in the South, he feels only contempt for people such as Shorty, who fully accept the degradations imposed upon them by a racist culture. However, when Richard arrives in the North, full of anxieties and uncertainties, he begins to think that “perhaps even a kick was better than uncertainty.” In other words, Richard begins to have sympathy for blacks who lower their standards in order to get by. He shows that he is beginning to understand the psychic pain of the black community. He is now able to see hidden meanings rather than simply relying on the face value of actions.
Richard’s anxiety about his inability to write like Proust illustrates his desire to provide a voice for the psychic pain blacks experience. Just as he hungers to gain weight to meet the postal requirement, he ravenously longs to write eloquently about the people in his environment. Richard does not desire to write fantasy stories or mystery novellas, but describes his longing to write as a “[hunger] for insight into my own life and the lives about me.” Wright ends Chapter 15 by asserting that he wants to use his “fiercely indrawn nature” to the advantage of his community, not merely to his own advantage. He views writing as his responsibility to both forgive and assist the world around him. Richard also senses that his environment itself is making demands upon him, forcing him to use his silent and observant nature—which has often been his weakness—as a tool to break out of his pattern of mediocre existence and better the world around him.
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