Richard begins attending school again but suffers the same paralyzing shyness. One day, the war’s end is suddenly announced, and the schoolteacher dismisses class early. Running outside, Richard sees a plane flying in the sky. It is the first time he has ever seen a plane, and he thinks it is a bird, refusing to believe the crowd’s assertions that it is man-made. For Christmas that year, Richard receives only an orange.
In this section we see Richard develop an early love of literature that he likens to religious fervor. Bluebeard and His Seven Wives—the novel Ella the schoolteacher describes to Richard—is more a piece of pulp fiction than any literary masterpiece. However, in describing his reaction to the novel, Richard uses some surprisingly rich language, calling Ella’s story “the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. . . . I had tasted what to me was life.” We see Richard’s deep emotional engagement, his punishment-defying certainty, and his life-affirming discovery that literature and writing are his calling. Richard’s words here have an eloquent intensity that seems more suited to describing a religious experience than to describing a reaction upon learning the plot of a pulp novel. This unexpected seriousness places Richard’s literary interests on an equal plane with religion.
Granny’s clash with Ella and Richard over Bluebeard strengthens this idea that Richard’s love of literature is akin to a religion. The violence of Granny’s reaction suggests that, at some level, she believes that Richard’s literary interests are a sincere threat to her faith—a faith that she desperately wants to rule over her household. For Richard, though, the distrust of art and human ingenuity that is inherent in Granny’s faith prohibits true creativity. Granny demonstrates this distrust with her talk of “Devil stuff” and the irrational brutality with which she responds to Richard’s desire to know the rest of the Bluebeard tale. In short, this scene poses Richard’s educational interests as an alternative route to salvation. This conflict plays out in the rest of the novel, and we see that—on earth at least—Richard’s way proves superior.
Wright’s tale of Uncle Hoskins’s river-crossing prank may not greatly affect Richard himself, but it has a great artistic effect on the novel. Though the prank terrifies Richard and makes him unable to trust his uncle, its effects end there. Richard says nothing about the prank’s effects on the rest of his life, so we are led to assume that there are not any. From this biographical perspective, then, the river misadventure seems like a minor episode. However, the seemingly inexplicable prank and Richard’s anxious reaction to it fill the chapter with a sense of unfathomable dread and evil—a sense of what English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “motiveless malignancy.” Wright situates the prank scene in Black Boy so that it immediately precedes Hoskins’s racially motivated murder. Racism, of course, is truly a “motiveless malignancy.” As such, the prank scene foreshadows and underscores the murder’s emotional dimensions, creating the ideal conditions into which it can erupt. From this artistic perspective, the river misadventure is significant and quite powerful—a masterful use of the form of autobiographical fiction.
The juxtaposition of the black soldiers with the black chain gang is an example of situational irony—circumstances that seem the opposite of what we might expect. On the one hand, Wright uses these images to imply that America must be a relatively black-friendly country if there are blacks who willingly volunteer to defend America in battle. When Richard sees the black soldiers, they are preparing to defend their country from “the enemy.” Richard’s mother defines the enemy as “people who want to kill you and take your country away from you,” implying that the soldiers who lay down their lives in defense of their country must live in a very fine country. On the other hand, however, Wright uses the chain gang to demonstrate that black Americans receive unfairly harsh treatment from their country’s justice system, suggesting that they do not in fact live in such a black-friendly land. When Richard sees the chain gang and wonders why so many black men are a part of it, his mother explains that white people are “harder on black people.” These two facts—that black men will risk their lives to defend their country, yet that their country considers them second-class citizens—are difficult to reconcile. Because Wright links them so closely in the text, however, we are forced to try to reconcile them. All that emerges from this absurd attempt at reconciliation is irony.