The relief authorities install Richard as the publicity agent for the Federal Negro Theater. He recruits a talented Jewish director. Together, they try to persuade the actors to perform works that realistically depict the experiences of black Americans. The black actors, accustomed to vaudeville and musical comedy, resist performing in such a controversial work. In fact, they go so far as to violently demand that the director be fired. When Richard talks in private with the director about how to remedy the situation, the actors brand Richard the “white man’s nigger” and threaten him with knives. Frightened and disgusted, Richard has the Works Progress Administration transfer him to a white experimental theater company.

At the request of some comrades, Richard attends the Party meeting at which Ross goes on trial for a long list of offenses. To establish the context for Ross’s crimes, the trial begins with several speakers who give a detailed picture of oppressed peoples worldwide. The moral force of the presentation stuns Richard. He views the trial as a spectacle of glory, as Ross achieves unity with his comrades by confessing his crimes and asking forgiveness. On the other hand, Richard views the trial as a spectacle of horror, because it implicitly condemns Richard himself. He leaves the trial before it ends, and his former comrades shun him thereafter.

Summary: Chapter 20

The relief station transfers Richard to the Federal Writers’ Project, but the Communists who work with him there agitate for his removal. When his boss tells him not to worry, Richard learns that the Communists had also been responsible for his difficulties at the Federal Negro Theater. With the Communists trying to oust him from his work, Richard decides that reconciliation with the Party is necessary. However, no Party representative will meet with him.

When Richard tries to be part of the May Day parade, he cannot find the group with which he is supposed to march. When a former comrade spots him and encourages him to march with his old comrades, Richard hesitantly agrees. Soon, however, two white Communists pick Richard up and throw him out of the parade, while his black comrades only look on sheepishly. He walks home, angry and bleeding from his fall, convinced that the Communists have been blinded by oppression. Richard believes that mankind can learn only slowly and painfully and that now he must “build a bridge of words” between himself and the outside world.

Analysis: Chapters 19–20

Richard’s independent personality makes his conflict with the domineering Communist Party seem inevitable. As with so many other problematic relationships in Richard’s life—with his family, with Southern whites, with his school principal—his confrontation with the Communist Party stems in large part from his incredibly strong sense of self. Though he has sometimes feared that his insecurity and self-loathing would get the better of him, for the most part he has followed his own interests and played by his own rules regardless of the cost. Such an individual temperament is incompatible with Communism’s emphasis on conformity, so anyone possessed of such a temperament is bound to be a very poor Communist.

Indeed, Richard’s first encounters with Communism foreshadow his eventual troubles with the Party. As we have seen in the preceding chapters, Richard finds many aspects of Communism—especially its economic policies and its more militant supporters—less than satisfying. Nonetheless, the emphasis Communism places on the unity of suffering peoples, along with the John Reed Club’s initial acceptance of writers, appeals to Richard’s passionate nature to change the world through his art. Notable, however, is the fact that we never read of any aspects of Communism that truly appeal to Richard’s intellect. Because Richard enters the Party based on his passion and not his intellect, any commitment he makes to the Party is bound to be fraught with his independent, critical, dissenting thoughts and feelings.