Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 14 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 14 : Southern Night | Summary

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Summary

Aunt Maggie's husband leaves her, and she visits Wright in Memphis. She, Wright, and Wright's brother spend their spare time planning a trip north. They do not have enough money to move everyone, and they all know they could spend forever wishing and planning. Eventually they agree Maggie and Wright will go first and send for the others when they can.

Wright is terrified of telling his bosses he is moving north. He writes, "I knew that southern whites hated ... Negroes leaving to live ... where the racial atmosphere was different." To avoid danger Wright waits until just before leaving to give notice. Then he lies and says he wants to stay in the South but needs to leave to be with his aunt and mother.

Wright spends his last days on the job "feeling like a criminal" and assuring white coworkers he does not really want to go north. He assures them he will not like it there, will not change the way he behaves, will not speak to white women, and so on. The only white man who seems to approve is Mr. Falk, who accepts the return of his library card with "a quick, secret smile."

On Wright's last day Shorty the elevator operator seems bitter and envious. "Sometimes I get so goddamn mad I want to kill everybody," he says. He also wants to leave the South, but he claims he is "lazy." He says with resignation, "I'll die here. Or maybe they'll kill me."

As Wright finally leaves, he is afraid he will wake up and find out he is not really going. As Part 1 of Black Boy ends, he writes, "This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled."

Analysis

Wright's family acts suspicious of some of his dreams, but they share his goal to get out of the South. As Wright plans a move north with Aunt Maggie, his mother, and his brother, he is working together with his family for once, rather than in isolation.

It is not safe for Wright to tell white Southerners he wants to move north. This leaves him in a delicate position when he needs to quit his job. He waits until the last moment and then pretends he is moving only because his mother and aunt are taking him, not because he wants to go. He pretends to accept the white Southerners' authority over his behavior, assuring him he will always act as they would wish.

When Shorty sees Wright leaving, he drops his usual façade of foolishness and admits his rage at society. He claims he is too "lazy" to leave the South, but his real reasons for staying are probably more complicated. Aside from the difficulty of saving money, he would have to face white suspicion if he tried to leave, and he would have to adjust to a different world in the North. For some people the unhappiness of a bad situation is preferable to the uncertainty of a new one. Shorty stays in the South even though he knows his choice puts him in danger of being killed.

The first part of Black Boy concludes as Wright boards a train north. He is achieving a long-held dream, but his culture has taught him he cannot achieve dreams. Because of this, he is gripped by a sense of unreality, as if he is in a dream. The final sentences of the section reflect back on the story as a whole, reflecting on the terrifying society that both shaped the author's personality and forced him to flee.

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