[T]he meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
Richard becomes friends with the other black boys in his Arkansas neighborhood, finding that they share the same hostility to white people and the same racial pride. Wright remarks that he and the other boys did not entirely understand their motivations at the time. He reproduces one of their typical conversations along with a running commentary on the words the boys speak, which show that race is always the fundamental concern of the boys’ interactions. The local black boys and white boys seem to assume their conventional racial roles “by instinct,” meeting at the boundary of their respective territories for bloody battles fought with rocks, broken glass, pieces of iron, and anything else that can be thrown. In one fight, a broken bottle gives Richard a deep wound behind the ear that requires stitches. His mother takes him to the doctor for stitches but beats him when they get home, making him promise not to fight again. Richard feels he cannot honor his promise because these neighborhood fights are a matter of personal honor.
Ella becomes too ill to work, forcing her to move the family to a series of different apartments in an attempt to meet the rent payments. Richard works a variety of menial jobs to help with expenses. Ella suffers a paralytic stroke, and, though the neighbors assist in caring for his mother, Richard writes to Granny for help. The world around Richard, which heretofore had seemed somewhat harmless, suddenly appears bleak and hostile to him, and he begins to wonder what will happen if Granny doesn’t come.
Though starving, Richard refuses the food offered by his neighbors, as he is ashamed to feel like an object of charity. When Granny arrives, Richard is glad that someone else will handle his mother’s affairs, but he retains an understanding that he must now “face things alone.” Richard helps the illiterate Granny by writing letters requesting money and support for Ella from her eight other children. Money from these aunts and uncles begins to arrive by mail. Ella, her sons, and Granny return to Granny’s house in Jackson.
Back at Granny’s house, Richard experiences terrible nightmares and fits of sleepwalking, which Granny treats by giving Richard more food and making him take naps in the afternoon. All of Richard’s aunts and uncles come to Granny’s house to help resolve the problem of how to care for Richard and his brother. The aunts and uncles decide to separate the two boys, as it would be too much of a burden for any one of them to care for both boys simultaneously. They decide to send Alan to live with his aunt Maggie in Detroit. To his surprise, Richard’s aunts and uncles give him a choice of where he wants to live. He chooses to live with his uncle Clark in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi, so as to remain near his mother.
Richard feels nervous when Clark assigns him a long list of chores as soon as he arrives, but he feels better when he wakes up the next morning. That morning, Richard is mildly rebuked by Clark’s wife, Aunt Jody, for failing to say good morning to her when he enters the kitchen. Richard then heads off to school, where he successfully fights another boy on the playground in order to gain acceptance from, and the respect of, his peers. That afternoon, Richard finds a ring in the street, removes the stone, and bends the ring’s sharp prongs outward, making it into a weapon. He puts on the ring, expecting to have to fight again, but it proves unnecessary.
Just as Richard feels he is finally settling into his new life, he learns that the son of the previous occupant of Uncle Clark’s house died in the bed that Richard now uses. Richard immediately grows terrified of the room and cannot sleep at all. Clark and Jody refuse to let him sleep on the sofa, and Richard’s insomnia persists, bringing him to the edge of nervous exhaustion. Unable to endure the situation any longer, Richard asks to return to Granny’s house. One day, while waiting for Granny’s response to Clark’s letter, Richard accidentally curses in front of Jody. After Clark punishes him with a beating, Richard begs so persistently to return to Jackson that Clark sends him right away.