Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 12 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 12 : Southern Night | Summary



Jobs are plentiful in the big city, and Wright settles on working as an errand boy for an optical company. He uses his lunch hour to earn extra money running errands for the white men who work in the shop. Now he is earning more money than ever before, but he eats little and saves up to bring his mother and brother to Memphis. He buys secondhand books and magazines but makes no other unnecessary expenditures.

Wright gets to know the other black workers in his building. One of them, an elevator operator named Shorty, brags he can get any white man to give him $0.25. As Wright watches in horror, Shorty lets a white man kick him in the rear end for a quarter. When Wright asks why, Shorty says, "Listen, nigger ... my ass is tough and quarters is scarce."

One day while delivering eyeglasses Wright meets a white man from the North who, seeing how skinny Wright is, offers him a dollar for food. Wright claims not to be hungry and refuses to take the money. He cannot stand the idea of white Southerners seeing him accept this charity. He is terrified, but he cannot explain his feelings to the Northerner.

On another ordinary day Wright's boss, Mr. Olin, approaches him and tells him a black boy named Harrison wants to kill him. Terrified, Wright goes to see Harrison, who says his boss claimed Wright was out to kill him. Both Wright and Harrison know the whites are playing with them, but they are scared of each other anyway. Later, the white men offer Wright and Harrison $5.00 to box each other. Wright wants to refuse, saying he would "feel like a dog," but Harrison talks him into it. They agree not to hit hard, but in the boxing ring their plan evaporates, and they beat each other bloody. Whites are responsible for "the shame and anger" of their situation, but they turn their feelings on each other.


In Memphis Wright has more money and more freedom. But he is still living in the South, and he faces constant racism and degradation. Here, as in Jackson, there are many black people who embrace the unfairness of the system and use it to their advantage. The elevator operator, Shorty, embodies this attitude most strongly. He makes a lifestyle of inviting abuse from white racists in order to get a little cash. This does not just bring in money; it also gives him safety. Shorty's behavior shows white people he is willing to accept a second-class status, and white people respond with approval.

Although he is horrified by Shorty's behavior, Wright's actions show he has been shaped by racism, too. He does not invite abuse, but he has learned "how to live in the South" as Griggs recommended in Chapter 9. He makes every effort to follow the unwritten rules of his unjust culture. When a white Yankee—a Northerner—steps outside those rules, Wright is paralyzed with terror. The Yankee offers Wright charity, but Wright cannot take it. He claims not to be hungry, even though he knows the Yankee knows he is lying. To Wright, accepting charity seems dangerous. It would accuse white Southerners, through action, of creating an unfair world where a hardworking black man like Wright cannot get enough.

Wright also endures the manipulation of white men who amuse themselves by inciting violence between blacks. When Wright and Harrison discover their white bosses are lying to them and trying to get them to kill each other, they cannot do anything about it. They cannot safely accuse white men of lying, so they cannot confront their bosses or go to the police. Trusting each other is also difficult. They both want to protect themselves, and they are both scared the other will attack.

Black Boy often shows white racism causing black victims to hurt one another. The fight between Wright and Harrison is perhaps the strongest example of this phenomenon. Wright and Harrison let themselves be goaded into a fight for money, and they are frightened and ashamed of themselves because of it. At first they have no desire to fight, but when they feel the pain of each other's halfhearted punches, they automatically hit harder. They have no power over the white men who put them in this position, so they turn their anger on each other.

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