Black Boy

Black Boy Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 11-14

In November of 1925, Richard arrives in Memphis, Tennessee ready to live on his own. He walks down Beale Street - a street notorious for its bad reputation - until he sees a large house with a sign that says: "ROOMS." Not knowing whether it is a boarding house or a whorehouse, he is hesitant to enter until a large "mulatto" woman beckons him to come inside. The woman, named Mrs. Moss, lives with her daughter, Bess, in the house and Richard describes the two as the nicest, simplest people he has ever met. They rent the upstairs room to Richard and invite him to eat meals with them. Richard refuses to eat with them, however, because he is uncomfortable with the loving attitude Mrs. Moss shows toward him. She hopes that Richard will marry Bess, and continuously praises everything he does. Bess instantly declares that she loves Richard, fawning over him and combing his hair. Richard is unimpressed by what he calls her "peasant mentality," but he is tempted to take advantage of her. When he tells Bess that he wishes to be friends, she decides that she hates him.

Meanwhile, Richard has found a dishwashing job at a cafe in Memphis. One day on his way to work, Richard encounters another young black man looking for a friend. The two wander down toward the rivers edge and find a bottle of bootlegged liquor. The two sell it to a white man nearby, agreeing to split the five-dollar profit. But when the other boy does not return with the money, Richard realizes that he has been scammed. The chapter ends with the passage: "Last night I had found a nave girl. This morning I had been a naive boy."

Chapter 11 Analysis:

Although Mrs. Moss and Bess express compassion and love toward Richard, he regards them with a kind of contempt. Similar to the plantation slaves that Richard had encountered in his previous job as an insurance agent's assistant, Mrs. Moss and Bess are simple and uneducated, almost to the point of ignorance. Do they realize what is happening in the world around them? From Richard's point of view, the mother and daughter pair seems to be in a world of their own. With a house of their own, they can afford to live comfortably. Wright never portrays Mrs. Moss or Bess as afraid - or even aware - of the racial bias of the South.

In comparing Bess and Richard, we see juxtaposition between innocence and cynicism. Where Bess has grown under the loving guidance of her mother, Richard has been raised in what he portrays as isolation and distrust. Yet Bess, despite the centered home in which she has been raised, does not appear to be any more individualistic or "free" than other Black Boys and girls that Richard encounters.

Chapter 12 Summary:

Remembering his failed attempt at becoming skilled in the optical trade, Richard decides that he will try to break into the trade in Memphis, thinking that Memphis is not a small town like Jackson. While running errands and washing eyeglasses, he learns how to contain the tension he felt in his relations with whites. "The people of Memphis had an air of relative urbanity that took some of the sharpness off the attitude of whites toward Negroes," but there was tension nonetheless. Richard is afraid that Bess has told her mother about their fight. Mrs. Moss questions Richard why he does not like Bess, saying that she only wishes that her daughter would marry somebody like him. Fed up with her pressures, Richard threatens to move out of the house but both Mrs. Moss and Bess beg him to stay.

With more than he ever had before, Richard is able to buy magazines and books from secondhand bookstores. At his job, he would observe the other Black Boys who work around him. This included Shorty, the fat pale-faced, Chinese-looking boy who operated the elevator. He would entertain the white men by allowing them to kick his behind for a quarter. Other men who worked in the building were: an old man named Edison; his son, John; Dave, the night janitor. They discuss the rules of the whites with a sense of hatred, but accepted their boundaries because they realize the importance of money.

While delivering a pair of glasses to a department store, the counter clerk - a Yankee - asks Richard if he is hungry. Uncomfortable and paranoid, Richard refuses to talk to him, answering the man's questions with lies. Richard even refuses to take the dollar that the man hands to him. What bothers him is that the man knew how he really felt, how hungry he was; Richard feels that the safety of his own life depends upon how well he is able conceal his true feelings from all whites.

One day, Richards foreman - a young white man named Mr. Olin - informs him that another Black Boy named Harrison is going to kill Richard for calling him a dirty name. Harrison worked across the street for a rival optical house, but Richard had only known him casually and never had trouble with him before. When Harrison and Richard confront each other, they find that Mr. Olin is playing a dirty trick by telling each boy that the other is planning to kill him. The stories escalate each day, and Mr. Olin encourages Richard to use a knife to defend himself against Harrison. For a week, the white men egg the two Black Boys to fight each other. Finally, they ask the boys to have a boxing match for five dollars each. Harrison convinces Richard to fight four rounds. In the ring, the two fight harder and harder, despite feeling ashamed and trapper against their will. In fighting Harrison, Richard feels he has done something unclean and wrong.

Chapter 12 Analysis:

To Richard, Shorty's behavior is disgusting. In this chapter, we see Richard examining the roles and actions of those around him. But rather than following the lead of others, Richard is appalled at how other are willing to degrade themselves and their dignities to make money. When the white men try to organize a fight between Harrison and Richard, they treat the boys more like dogs than people. This relates back to the incident where Richard is bitten by a dog and receives no medical attention: the black workers are treated as savages rather than human beings.

In his experience with white men, Richard has become conditioned to shield himself from any white person with whom he comes into contact with. When the stranger offers him a dollar, he is more shocked than grateful because he realizes that the man sees beyond the superficial facade Richard usually dons in his interaction with other whites. We see that Richard is truly isolated - emotionally and intellectually - from those around him, and isolation is what comforts him. The fact that another person can see his true feelings is a sign of weakness to Richard.

Chapter 13 Summary:

Reading the paper one morning, Richard reads an editorial denouncing H.L. Mencken. Curious as to what Mencken wrote to deserve the "scorn of the South," he goes to an Irish-Catholic man named Mr. Falk. Falk lend Richard his library card, and Richard is able to check out any book that he wishes to read. After reading Mencken's A Book of Prefaces, Richard yearns to know more about the authors he alludes to: Conrad, Lewis, Dostoyevski, Flaubert, and more. Richard sits up in his room, eating out of cans while reading great literary works and feeding his hunger.

That winter, Richards mother and brother move down to live with him. His brother obtains a job and the two decide to start saving to move North. Richard tells none of the white men on his job of his plans to move, knowing it would put him in danger. Richard tries to think of a way to live and refuses to stay in the south, to submit and be a slave, to forget what he had read. But his reading makes him conscious of himself and his environment and he wonders how much longer he will have to stay in the South.

Chapter 13 Analysis:

A turning point in Richard's growth and maturation is when he discovers the power of words - a discovery that changes his entire outlook on his own life and those around him. Whereas his hunger had previously consumed him, Richard finally begins to satiate his thirst for knowledge through his reading. What is shocking, however, is that this knowledge would have been denied Richard because of his color. Wright may consider education an integral part of freeing oneself, but only those with privileges are offered the opportunity to actually receive an education.

Richard learns from his reading more than any of his years in formal schooling had ever taught him. Although his reading isolates even more from those around him and the black community, he develops a profound understanding of himself and his environment.

Chapter 14 Summary:

Aunt Maggie's husband has deserted her and she visits the family in Memphis. He visit formed a practical basis for Richards plan to move north. It was decided that Aunt Maggie and Richard would go North first, and Richard told his boss and white co-workers that he was being forced to take his paralyzed mother to Chicago. The white men warn him not to change, that the north is no place for a black man. Shorty tells Richard that he is lucky, recounting his won fate of staying in the South forever until he dies or the whites kill him. Wright recalls: "This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled."

In a northbound train, Richard tries to reflect on the various forces that led him up to that point. He recalls his isolation from the Southern environment, saying that the only thing that had managed to keep him alive were the books he read. But he realizes that he can never leave the South behind emotionally because the South had raised him. The novel ends with Richard heading North: "With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, and that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars."

Chapter 14 Analysis:

There is an interesting comparison between Shorty and Richard. On one hand, Shorty is the white man's clown. He has adapted his own personality and behavior to feed off the perceptions of the average black man: stupid, ignorant, and foolish. Richard has always been defiant, perhaps because he is too hot-tempered or perhaps because he knows his own self-worth. Shorty knows that he will die or be killed in the South, that he can never escape the South. Richard attempts to flee to the North and escape the prejudice he has encountered. But in some ways, Shorty and Richard are the same: they have grown up knowing what it means to suffer. And where both of the boys have been surrounded in the same environment, only one - Richard - has the strength to overcome his obstacles.

In the end of Part I, we see that Richard has struggled to survive on his own. He does not follow in the footsteps of those before by becoming a slave, subservient, or learning to deal with the Southern attitudes. Rather, he flees to discover for himself a world beyond what he already knows. Part I ends with Richard's move from the South because, as we have seen throughout the novel, the South is where Wright was shaped as a writer and a man. In some ways, the ending of Part I of Black Boy is more like a beginning of a new life for Richard and the end of the life that Wright had previously known.