Part II: Chapter 16
Richard’s intense eating regimen gives him the fifteen extra pounds he needs, and he gains the position at the post office. At work, he befriends an unnamed Irish man on the basis of their common interests, particularly their love of reading. Richard meets the Irish man’s friends, and they form a casual, cynical, witty gang of Irish, black, and Jewish intellectuals. He also tries to associate with a black literary group, but finds them finicky, sex-obsessed, and superficial. Finally, Richard meets a group of Garveyites, black Americans who follow the teachings of Marcus Garvey, a black leader who advocated the return of all African-Americans to Africa to form an independent nation. The Garveyites’ doctrines do not appeal to Richard, but he admires their dignity and passion.
Following the stock market crash that begins the Great Depression, Richard’s hours at the post office dwindle. He loses his job entirely just when his aunt, mother, and brother fall ill. Now in dire need of a job, Richard somewhat unwillingly joins an insurance agency that exploits poor black families all over Chicago. At one point, the agency decides that their existing policies are too generous and that they must be stricter. Richard is required to participate in a con scheme: when he and the superintendent go to a home on what is supposedly a routine inspection, one of them distracts the customer, while the other switches their policy papers. Richard tries not to ponder the moral implications of his actions.
Many of the men working for the insurance company accept sex from housewives as a valid form of payment. Following their lead, Richard begins a sexual relationship with one of his clients, a single mother whose main aspiration in life is to go to the circus. Richard realizes that she is totally illiterate when she tries to read a book upside down. Richard is disgusted with her ignorance, but then becomes disgusted with himself for being disgusted with her. When Richard begins a rotation in a new neighborhood, a coworker tells him that one of the most attractive women on the route has gonorrhea. Richard later learns that his coworker was lying in order to keep the woman for himself.
During his rounds with the insurance company, Richard hears a group of Communists giving speeches in the street. As with the Garveyites, Richard respects the Communists’ passion but thinks their ideas sound weak and vague. He finds their militant atheism amusing but juvenile and believes that Communism increases ignorance through the intellectual intolerance it often requires of men. Richard concludes that these black Communists do not even understand the problems of American racism, much less those of the global class system.
On election night, Richard amuses himself by writing “I PROTEST THIS FRAUD” on his ballot. Meanwhile, the Depression worsens. Richard loses his insurance job and must move to cheaper housing. Burning with shame, he forces himself to accept food donations from the government relief station, which causes him to feel spent and desperate.
Richard’s stint with the corrupt insurance company shows how the burdens of life can force people to lower their ethical standards. In the preceding chapters, Richard has proven himself to be a principled person. He resists theft until despair drives him reluctantly to steal, he cares for his mother and supports his family, and he vigorously protests hypocrisy within his family and at his graduation. Numerous episodes have demonstrated that Richard has a highly developed sense of justice. Here, however, we are surprised to see him fully participate in the dirty dealings of the insurance agents, particularly their mistreatment of women and their illegal policy swaps. Before we can condemn Wright’s actions too strongly, however, he is careful to outline why he chooses to work at the insurance company: “I could quit and starve. But I did not feel that being honest was worth the price of starvation.” Wright suggests that at a certain point of physical desperation, ethical behavior becomes an unaffordable luxury. In a sense, this statement is an extension of Wright’s assertion in Chapter 10 that black theft and dishonesty are justified in light of the unfairness of their economic arrangements with whites. Yet Wright is making a different point here. In Chapter 10, he is concerned with the survival of the entire black race in America, saying that blacks sometimes have no way to get ahead aside from defrauding their white oppressors. Here, however, Wright is more concerned with personal survival, asserting that each person’s will to survive can lead to unfair action against any group, even his own race.
Richard’s inability to identify fully with any of the groups he encounters in this chapter—the black literary group, the Garveyites, or the Communists—is an extension of the problems he experiences with the black community in the South. Throughout his life in the South, Richard struggles with a black culture that tries to reshape him according to what it believes he should be: in Richard’s case, he should be less bookish, more obedient, and more religious. Richard has too strong a sense of self to suffer an identity imposed from without, so he eternally appears out of step with his home community. A similar situation occurs in Richard’s interactions with these new groups in Chicago. In order to join the black literary group, the Garveyites, or the Communists, he must commit himself entirely to sexual obsessions, a nostalgic desire to return to Africa, or an ardent belief that revolution is the only solution. Richard cannot reduce his identity to any one idea, however, and therefore once again finds himself unable to march in step with a group.
The final paragraphs of this chapter create an apocalyptic mood. The apocalyptic writing found in the Bible describes a time of decadence, corruption, and suffering as the necessary precursor to the inauguration of God’s rule on earth—in essence, an expression of the folk proverb “It’s always darkest before dawn.” At the end of this chapter of Black Boy, the new apartment to which Richard moves his family is described as “dismal,” with cracking plaster and sagging stairs. Richard feels “bleak” and worries that he has not “done what I had come to the city to do.” Moreover, when he finally resorts to getting food at the relief station, he feels that he has “come to the end of something.” The image of the drooping, rotting apartment combines with the language of finality and despair to create an apocalyptic mood. In light of the biblical definition and the proverb about dark and dawn, this mood suggests that a significant change in Richard’s life may be imminent.
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