Richard takes a job in another optical shop, where he cleans and runs errands. The black elevator man, Shorty, amuses Richard, as he is clearly sensible and intelligent but nonetheless totally willing to demean himself for money. Several times Richard witnesses Shorty allowing a white man to kick him for a quarter. A Northern white customer notices Richard’s thin frame and tries to offer him money to buy food, but Richard is too ashamed to accept it. Meanwhile, Bess and Mrs. Moss have finally come to understand that Richard has no interest in joining their family.
To amuse themselves, Richard’s foreman, Olin, and the white employees of a competing optical shop try to instigate a fight between Richard and Harrison, the black employee in the other shop. They tell each man that the other is planning to kill him. Richard and Harrison meet secretly and figure out what is going on, but they still remain suspicious of one another. The white men offer to pay Richard and Harrison five dollars each to box one another. They agree, planning to fake the fight. When the fight starts, however, Richard and Harrison realize that they do not know how to fake it. Their frustrations at being manipulated take over, and they fight each other genuinely and viciously.
I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life.See Important Quotations Explained
Richard reads an editorial in a Memphis newspaper that attacks H.L. Mencken, the essayist and critic. Intrigued that a Southern newspaper would attack a white man, Richard resolves to read some of Mencken’s work. As blacks are not permitted to borrow books from the public library, Richard asks a white Irish Catholic coworker, Falk, if he can use Falk’s library card to check out books. Falk agrees but urges Richard to be careful.
Richard forges a note from Falk to the librarian, asking that she give “this nigger boy” some Mencken books for him. The librarian is momentarily suspicious but gives Richard the books. Mencken’s boldness and verbal swordplay inspire Richard to become a voracious reader. The books bring him an exciting new understanding of life, and he hungers to do some writing of his own. Richard cautiously hides his books from his coworkers, who notice that he has become distant and dreamy. That winter, Richard’s mother and brother join him in Memphis. Alan gets a job, and the family anxiously saves money for the trip to Chicago.
Soon after Richard’s mother and brother arrive, Maggie moves to Memphis because her husband, Matthews—the mysterious “Professor”—has abandoned her. Desiring to reach Chicago as quickly as possible, everyone decides that Richard and Maggie will go first and get a place for the four of them. The other two will follow once they have enough money.
Southern whites do not like it when black people move to the North because it implies that the blacks do not like the treatment they receive in the South. To minimize this friction, Richard waits until only two days before his departure to tell his boss that he is leaving. Moreover, in order to minimize the appearance that he actively wants to leave the South, Richard says that he is leaving only to be near his mother. Richard’s white coworkers at the optical shop appear bewildered by the news and become slightly resentful. Falk, however, gives him a sly smile. Shorty is jealous that Richard is leaving and bids him a bittersweet farewell, lamenting that his own laziness will likely prevent him from following Richard’s lead.