Summary: Chapter 19

I would make his life more intelligible to others than it was to himself. I would reclaim his disordered days and cast them into a form that people could grasp, see, understand, and accept.

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Richard joins a unit of black Communists. At the first meeting, he describes his duties at the John Reed Club, provoking giggles and condescending remarks from his comrades. Richard soon learns that they are mocking his eloquence: his intelligent manner of speaking and his ambition to become a writer have branded him an “intellectual.” He also soon learns that the group disapproves of the fact that he reads books not endorsed by the Party. Sadly, Richard begins to understand that his comrades firmly believe that, because Communists know the answers to all questions already, anyone who exhibits curiosity should be viewed with suspicion. Richard concludes that they are ignorant.

Ross, a black Communist facing legal prosecution for rioting, consents to a series of interviews for Richard’s biographical sketches. Word of this activity spreads through the Party. A black comrade visits Richard to warn him that intellectuals do not fit well with the Communist Party, pointing out that the Soviet Union has had to expel and even shoot many of them. Richard is dumbfounded and protests that he is not an intellectual. He says that he sweeps streets for a living, and, in fact, the relief system has just assigned him this job. Richard’s visitor then suggests that a violent confrontation with the police would bolster Richard’s credibility. Richard is dumbfounded. He cannot understand why his ambition to write—to make black suffering intelligible and meaningful through writing—is so controversial.

Ed Green, another black Communist, interrupts a meeting between Ross and Richard to ask if Richard has shown his notes to anyone else. Later, Richard learns that Green has been representing Ross in his indictment proceedings and that he wants to know if Richard has written anything that could be used against his client in court. Again, Richard is dumbfounded at this suspicion. Afterward, Ross becomes cagey and uneasy around Richard. Richard grows increasingly frustrated, as his black comrades suspect his every move. To make matters worse, his white comrades idealize blacks to such a degree that they cannot understand Richard’s struggles with black Party members. He begins to feel an emotional isolation unlike anything he felt in the South.

Ross grows so hesitant that Richard abandons his idea of biographical sketches altogether. Instead, he decides to write a series of short stories based on the details he knows of his black comrades’ lives. Suddenly, the Party charges Ross with “antileadership tendencies,” “class collaborationist attitudes,” and “ideological factionalism.” A group of black comrades visit to inform Richard of the Party’s decision that Richard must stay away from Ross. Richard tells them that he has done nothing wrong and that he feels unable to comply with the decision. They leave him, wearing cryptic smiles.

Richard finds some respite from his political anxieties by working with wild, restless boys at the South Side Boys’ Club. His attempts to write short stories, however, prove frustrating. The John Reed Club organizes a conference to debate the role of writers in the Party. Richard finds the decisions aimed against writers stiff and unrealistic, but his Club comrades urge him to hitchhike to New York City to attend a similar conference. The white comrades there have trouble finding someone willing to house a black comrade, and Richard becomes disgusted. He looks for a hotel in Harlem, but finds only hotels for whites, making him even more disgusted. These troubles seem to him much more pressing than any questions about the left-wing literary movement, so he has trouble focusing on the conference. Over Richard’s vehement objections, the conference moves to dissolve the John Reed Clubs due to their subversive nature as literary societies. When the final vote is taken, Richard casts the sole dissenting vote.

Richard stops attending meetings, as his duties have been eliminated along with the John Reed Clubs. He learns that a slew of lavish accusations have been leveled against him, and he prepares to quit the Party. However, Buddy Nealson, a high-ranking black comrade, calls Richard to a private meeting and convinces him to start organizing a committee against the high cost of living. Richard reluctantly accepts, even though he knows nothing about the topic and it restricts his time for writing. When the Party insists that he drop his writing completely and go to Switzerland to meet with a youth delegation, Richard asks that his membership be dropped. His request is mysteriously deferred. As Richard’s comrades continue to slander him, Richard realizes that they are trying to keep him in the Party so as to assassinate his character and expel him themselves.