Black Boy

Black Boy Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 15-17

On first arriving in Chicago with Aunt Maggie, Richard is taken about by the city-life and its new social codes. On the streetcar, a white man sits down next to him without thinking about Richard's color. The next day, Richard finds a job as a porter in a delicatessen owned by a Jewish couples: Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman. After working for short time, Richard hears of a job opening for a postal clerk. The job required him to take an examination on the following Monday, and Richard is unsure of how to approach his bosses to ask for a day off. Instead, he simply skips a day of work and lies to the Hoffman, claiming that his mother had died in Memphis. The Hoffmans know he is lying and are aware that Richard is used to living in the South. But Richard eventually leaves his job with them because he cannot stand their pity.

After a week, Richard obtains a job as a dishwasher in a North Side café that had just opened, where several white waitresses worked. One day of the white girls accidentally bumps against Richard and in another incident, he is asked to tie another waitress's apron for her. He realizes that these girls are not conscious of black and white.

Richard observes that even in Chicago, his actions are tuned by the social lessons he has learned in the South. After reading a magazine called American Mercury, the boss lady enters the kitchen and asks him where he found it and if he understood it. Richard lies, saying he "found" it instead of saying that he had purchased it. Thereafter, he keeps his books and magazines wrapped in newspaper so that no one would question him.

One day, when walking buy the kitchen stove in the café, Richard notices that Tillie ­ the Finnish cook ­ had spit into a pot of boiling soup. Afraid that the boss will not believe him, he instead tells another black girl who works at the café. At first the girl is in disbelief, but she spies on the cook herself. Both are afraid that the boss lady will not believe them. At first, the boss tells the girl that she is crazy. But after she spies on Tillie, who proceeds to spit in the food, she fires the cook.

In June, Richard is called in for temporary duty in the post office. But in order to have a permanent appointment, he must pass a physical examination where the weight requirement is 125 lbs. No matter how much he eats, he is unable to gain weight. Richard is forced to look for another job. Meanwhile, his mother and brother come to live in Aunt Maggie's apartment. Aunt Maggie constantly criticizes Richard's reading and studying, and after he loses his postal job, she regards him as a failure. So Richard decides to invite his Aunt Cleo to share an apartment with himself, his mother, and his brother. At night, he reads books and tries to satisfy his hunger for insight on his won life and the lives around him.

Chapter 15 Analysis:

Part II begins with Richard's arrival in Chicago. Wright separates Black Boy into two parts particularly to emphasize a transition in lifestyle and age. First, dividing the autobiographical novel reflects the theme of duality between the North and the South. Throughout his childhood, Richard has been exposed to what he describes as the brutal environment created by the South. The title of Part I ­ Southern Night ­ insinuates the violent and dark tone of Richard's childhood. The North, however, has represented opportunity and freedom for Richard. Second, Part II represents a change in the narrative style of Black Boy. Rather than simply recalling events, Wright appears more analytical. Part II is comprised of may instances where Wright will make use of parentheses to inject a personal sidenote or analysis of the event being described. Similarly, Wright will present interesting juxtapositions between events that happen in Chicago with events from his childhood in the South.

In Chicago, Richard must learn to adapt to a new environment, where "color hate" is less prominent and racial boundaries do not control him. When he takes a job under the Hoffmans, he lies to them and leaves his job because he still feels he must abide by Southern social rules that are applied to blacks. Richard says that he lies to cover his own insecurity; his insecurity stems from his inability to comprehend any social interaction with whites beyond the brutal and hateful relationships he has witnessed in the South.

The title of Part II ­ The Horror and the Glory ­ can be interpreted as a reflection of the environment of the North. Whereas Richard is finally able to see instances where people are not blinded by race, he is presented with other problems. In the chapter to some, Richard must learn that prejudices are easily adopted. He is subject to mistreatment because of his education, his intellect, his socioeconomic background, as well as his political stance. Again, the juxtaposition of the North and the South brings out the question on which is worse, according to Wright: the open brutality of the South or the hidden and horrifying prejudices of the North.

Chapter 16 Summary:

Richard is finally able to obtain a night job as a postal clerk after forcing himself to eat; the increased pay allowed them to move into a larger apartment and buy better food. During the day, he experiments with stream-of-conscious writing and attempts to understand the "many modes of Negro behavior" through his writing. Richard also befriends an Irish young man with whom he has a lot in common with, sharing their cynicism and beliefs.

Richard also begins to examine several black groups. He meets a black literary group on Chicago's South Side and finds them almost bohemian and too absorbed with sex. Richard also meets a group called the "Garveyites," an organization of black men and women who seek to return to Africa. Richard observes their passionate "rejection of America," an emotion that he shares. But despite their similar emotional dynamic, Richard pities them because they are unable to see that Africa is really not their home. He views the Garveyites as naïve for not realizing that Africa is under European imperialism, and that they have already merged too much with the West to return to native Africa.

Meanwhile, Richard also begins to hear of the Communist Party's activities, but pays no heed. When the 1929 stock crash occurs, his pay decreases and there are no positions open for a regular clerk. He loses his job at the post office, but is rehired the following summer for temporary work. Aunt Cleo suffers from a cardiac condition, his mother becomes ill, and his brother develops stomach ulcers. A distant cousin offers Richard a job selling insurance, which he accepts. During the year, Richard works for burial and insurance societies catered toward blacks. His job allows him, for the first time, to explore the lives of black people in Chicago. Most policyholders were illiterate and poor; like many other salesmen, Richard also accepts sexual favors from women who are unable to make regular insurance payments. He has a long affair with a young woman obsessed with seeing the circus. The only relationships she had were sexual and Richard observes that her intelligence is simple and limited. Not only did the insurance agents view women as property, but they participated in swindles that would cheat illiterate policy owners out of money by switching policy deeds. Wright writes: "I was in and out of many Negro homes each day and I knew that the Negroes were lost, ignorant, sick in mind and body."

Richard begins to visit the Washington Park after collecting his premiums in the afternoon, where many unemployed black people gather to listen to Communist speakers. He is baffled and angered by the black Communist movement, noticing that in appearance, speech, and mannerisms they attempt to copy from white Communists. Richard criticizes the fact that the speakers adopt from the styles of black preachers and tend to over-dramatize the militancy of the masses. Wright questions the understanding of the Communists as well as the abilities of black men and women to solve their social problems.

When election time came around, Richard takes a small job rounding votes for a black Republican precinct captain. On election day, he stands in the polling booth and realizes the corruption of the entire political process. On the face of his ballots, he scribbles: "I Protest This Fraud." Meanwhile, the depression grows worse and Richard is forced to move his family into a small dingy rented apartment. One morning, his mother tells him there is no food for breakfast, and he must go to the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare to beg for bread.

Chapter 16 Analysis:

In Part II, we see that Richard begins to assess his social isolation rather than simply accept it. We see that his isolation follows him into manhood; just as he found no comradery among other black children as a boy, Richard is unable to fit in to any black political or social group. He considers himself more similar to his Irish postal worker friend than to the members of the Garveyites or the Negro literary group. This isolation from these black political communities falls into Wright's criticism of his own race. Throughout Black Boy, Wright questions whether the black community is educated enough and strong enough to unify themselves and overcome racial barriers and oppression. Here, he conveys a tone of disappointment because he doubts whether the majority of the black community possesses enough insight regarding their social situation. To him, the Garveyites are naïve in their wish to return to Africa. To him, the Negro literary group are passionless and twisted, and he even refers to them as "boys and girls" as if to emphasize their immaturity. But when Wright writes that he "caught a glimpse of the potential strength of the American Negro," he shows that he has not lost all hope yet.

But Richard seems to be constantly discouraged by the black culture that exists in his environment. As in his childhood, he acts as an insurance agent selling policies to illiterate black families, men, and women. Like the plantation families of the South, he regards the people he encounters in Chicago as simpletons. The young woman obsessed with the circus is portrayed as childish and almost stupid. It is ironic that Wright puts special meaning in her want to see the "animals" in the circus, for he treats the black community almost like a circus. He observes them like animals that exhibit only the basic emotions. For instance, he portrays the young black girl with whom he has an affair as simple, stupid, and only capable of sexual relations ­ similar to the way in which animals eat, sleep, and procreate.

Richard's first impression of the Communist movement is one that will characterize his later relationship with the party. He views their propaganda and tactics as embellished lies and impossible promises. His comparison between the Communist speaker and the black preacher is important particularly because throughout Black Boy, Wright seems to denounce any kind of religion. This comparison suggests that, like the church, Communism is nothing but blind faith. He blatantly questions the success of the Communist Party, asking if "the NegroŠ could possibly cast off his fear and corruption and rise to the task." By the word "task," Wright means overcoming racial oppression and achieving unity.

Richard's gesture, writing "I Protest This Fraud" on his voting ballot, reflects his undaunting will. But it is ironic that his gesture of protest is so small. He even says that his action was "futile" and nothing but a "determined scrawl" across his ballot. So, despite Richard's desire to rise and overcome, the reader should question whether Richard is as strong-willed as he thinks he is.

Chapter 17 Summary:

At the welfare station, Richard is embarrassed at first, but becomes aware of the bonding experience that is happening around him: individuals sharing their experiences, unifying themselves. He leaves the relief station with a new kind of hope: the possibility that a new understanding of life could be given to those he had met at the relief station. Richard sheds some of his cynicism with a want to understand the common black man.

Christmas comes and Richard works at the post office temporarily, where he again talks to his Irish friend about current events. When his postal job ends, he seeks employment in a medical research institute at one of the largest and wealthiest hospitals in Chicago. He is immediately aware of the racial division set by the hospital authorities. Along with three other black men, Richard is restricted to the basement corridors (as to not mingle with the white workers) and cleans operating rooms and the animal cages. A boy Richard's age, named Bill, worked with him at the hospital and was usually sleepy or drunk. Richard is amazed and shocked by Bill's extremely simple and brutalized mind. The two other black workers were older and had been employed at the institute for a longer period of time: Brand and Cooke. Unlike the others, Richard takes an interest in what the doctors are doing. One day, one of the doctors leaves a bottle of Nembutal ­ an anesthetic ­ out. Curious, Richard opens the bottle and smells it. Brand pretends that the Nembutal is poisonous and scares Richard by telling him to run or he'll fall dead. Once, the authorities send a young Jewish boy to time Richard as he cleans a room. After timing him, the boys calculates how long it will take Richard to clean all the rooms and five flights of steps. From then on, Richard feels like a slave, trying to work against time.

At the hospital, Brand and Cooke do nothing but feud with each other. One day, the two begin to argue over what year the last coldest day in Chicago was. Cooke pulls a long knife from his pocket and Brand seizes an ice pick to defend himself. The two ensure in a physical battle and although no one is hurt, the animal cages topple over, letting dogs, mice, guinea pigs and rats run loose everywhere. The four black workers spend the rest of their lunch break trying to sort the animals out, randomly placing mice and rats in their cages, not knowing whether they were the cancerous rats or the ones injected with tuberculosis. None of the doctors notice that anything is wrong and neither of the workers tells the director about the disaster. Richard notes that because of the way in which the black workers are treated, they learn to form their own code of ethics, values, and loyalty.

Chapter 17 Analysis:

Again in Chapter 17, we see that Richard and his family are still plagued by hunger. With the depression in full swing, we also see that hunger plagues the entire community. But for Richard, the hunger again manifests itself in a hunger for knowledge, not just food. In the medical institute, Richard longs for the education that he sees other white young men receiving. Instead, his questions are ignored and the doctor even replies that Richard's "brains might explode" should he "know too much." Even in Chicago, he is still being denied access to education.

Richard also begins to sense that he is not alone in his plight and poverty. At the relief station, he begins to see that there is an entire society that has been rejected by society itself or as Richard puts it, he is "not alone in [his] loneliness." There is a strength in numbers that Richard begins to realize. This comes into play when the black workers are trying to fix the mess they make in the medial institute; Richard realizes that within the black community ­ among his fellow workers ­ there existed a separate moral code.