One day, Brand and Cooke get in a trivial argument about the weather, which eventually escalates into a physical struggle that knocks over dozens of animal cages. The four workers frantically clean up the mess, but they have no idea which animals go into which cages. They keep the accident a secret, but Wright wonders if it has destroyed any important scientific research.
My life as a Negro in America had led me to feel . . . that the problem of human unity was more important than bread, more important than physical living itself. . . .
Richard joins some of his friends from the post office for a political discussion, and he is surprised to discover that many of them are now members of the Communist Party. At the request of one of these friends, Richard reluctantly attends a meeting of the John Reed Club, a revolutionary artists’ organization. The white members welcome him—which makes him uneasy—and invite him to attend an editorial meeting of their magazine, Left Front. They also give him back issues of the magazines Masses and International Literature. Richard goes home and reads these magazines through the night, greatly intrigued by their promise of worldwide unity among oppressed and suffering masses. This hopeful aspect of Communism begins to appeal to Richard, even though the movement’s economic idealism and deliberately subversive message have failed to attract him before. He writes a crude, free-verse poem on revolutionary themes. When his mother reacts in horror to the fierce cartoons in the magazines, Richard realizes that the Communists have not yet found the right language for mass appeal. When he tries to discuss this deficiency at a John Reed meeting, however, a fruitless argument ensues. Richard decides that he can put his writing to use by finding the right language for speaking to the masses.
After several meetings with the John Reed Club, Richard begins to trust the motives of the white members and finally feels genuinely accepted. He begins planning a series of biographical sketches of black Communists, which he believes would help other black people understand Communism. Richard quickly detects a bitter dispute between the painters and the writers in the Club. The writers elect him executive secretary of the Club against his will, hoping to use him to expel the painters. Richard then officially joins the Communist Party. The bickering between the painters and the writers, and between the Communist Party members and the non-Party members, however, taxes the energies of Richard and the Club.
In the midst of this political turmoil, a man named Comrade Young appears and joins the Club, identifying himself as a member of the Communist Party and the Detroit John Reed Club. Young immediately accuses Swann, one of the Club’s most promising artists, of being a police collaborator and enemy of the Party. Everybody assumes that Young is an important Party official, but no one can verify this assumption, so no one knows exactly what is going on. When Young disappears, the Club members search his belongings and find a note identifying him as an escapee from a Detroit mental institution, along with a dissertation titled “A Pictorial Record of Man’s Economic Progress” written on a twenty-yard scroll of paper. Deeply embarrassed, Richard and the other Club officials decide to keep this information from the rest of the group.
Chapters 17 and 18 fulfill the promise of a new era in Richard’s life foreshadowed by the apocalyptic mood at the end of Chapter 16. While Richard waits in the relief line, he suddenly feels the sense of community that exists between all suffering people. At the same time, he sees that others have begun to sense this kinship themselves: “their talking was enabling them to sense the collectivity of their lives.” These experiences replace Richard’s cynicism with hope, but he is still not quite capable of articulating this hope. He knows that it has something to do with the power and promise of needy people coming together to comprehend the meaning of their suffering and their capacity for change. Communism soon provides him with the appropriate vocabulary for expressing this hope and furnishes him with a sense of purpose as a black writer.