Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 13 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 13 : Southern Night | Summary

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Summary

Wright reads as much as possible. In a newspaper he sees a "furious denunciation" of a writer named H.L. Mencken. Curious, Wright wants to read a book by Mencken, but there is no library for blacks in Memphis. He borrows a library card from a bookish white man named Mr. Falk.

Wright reads Mencken and finds him "shocking." Mencken mocks and attacks Wright's whole social order, and as he reads Wright realizes words can become "weapons." Timidly, he wonders if he can use words to attack the social order, too.

In the months that follow, Wright reads obsessively. He feels "vaguely guilty" about this, especially when his white coworkers see a change in him. "You act like you've stolen something," says his boss, Mr. Olin. Black people, meanwhile, treat Wright's reading as strange and threatening.

That winter Wright is able to bring his mother and brother to live with him. When his brother finds a job, they begin saving to move north. Wright feels leaving the South is his only chance. He does not know exactly what he wants except escape, and he cannot afford to get away yet. In the meantime he is tense and terrified.

Analysis

Wright's first foray into serious literature is inspired by a feeling of rebellion. He figures that if a white, southern newspaper editorialist hates the author H.L. Mencken, then he, Wright, probably likes him. But the Jim Crow South makes it difficult for Wright to get his hands on any books by Mencken. There are no public library facilities available to black people, so Wright has to find a white person who is willing to break the rules for him.

H.L. Mencken was a satirist and a fierce critic of society. His books show Wright how powerful words can be, and they rekindle his desire to write. Mencken's books mention many other authors, and as Wright looks up some of them, he grows addicted to serious literature. He also feels guilty for reading, and it shows. This puts him at risk because white people grow suspicious of him.

Although Wright has always lived in emotional isolation, he treats his family with loyalty and respect. He wants to move north, but he makes the wellbeing of his mother and brother a higher priority. Only after Wright rescues them from Granny's house does he begin saving to leave the South.

Reflecting on this period of his life, Wright admits he did not know what he wanted from a life in the North. Although books gave him a window into ideas outside his immediate experience, he did not know what the world had to offer him. All he wanted was to get away.

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