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Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 9 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 9 : Southern Night | Summary



Wright takes a job at a clothing store where he witnesses the white owners abusing a black woman who cannot pay her bill. The police see this happening but do not object. Instead, they arrest the black woman for drunkenness. The white bosses laugh at Wright's evident shock and offer him a cigarette, which he takes as a signal he will not be abused if he keeps quiet about what he has seen.

Once in the course of making deliveries for this job, he is brutally beaten by white men on the street because he fails to call one of them "sir." After they stop hurting him, the white men call him a "lucky bastard" because he could have been "a dead nigger." On another occasion, while making deliveries after dark, Wright is searched and terrorized by police. Wright keeps working, always fearful, until he is fired because the white boss says he doesn't "laugh and talk like the other niggers."

Wright tries other jobs but holds none for long. Sometimes he quits, and sometimes he is driven away. He begins to fear he will never be able to move out of Mrs. Wright's house. Eventually he appeals to his friend Griggs, who says Wright cannot keep a job because he does not know "how to live in the South." Griggs says Wright needs to act more servile and learn "how to get out of white people's way."

Griggs finds Wright a job with an optical company owned by a northerner who wants to help a black man learn the optical trade. This is a major opportunity for Wright, a chance to learn a professional skill. The white boss, Mr. Crane, orders his white employees, Pease and Reynolds, to teach Wright what they know. For a month the men behave as if Mr. Crane never gave this order. When Wright asks Pease and Reynolds to help him learn, they say their jobs are "white man's work." Soon after, they threaten to kill Wright and force him to quit.

When Wright goes to Mr. Crane for his last paycheck, Mr. Crane asks why Wright quit. Knowing he may be murdered if he accuses white men of anything, Wright is unable to speak. Terrified and numb, he takes his pay and walks out, stepping "into the sunshine ... like a blind man."


At 17 Wright is essentially an adult. He cannot afford to go any further in school, so he enters the working world full time. Now the realities of life in the Jim Crow South affect him more than ever before. He must interact with white people daily, and he is big enough and old enough to seem threatening to them. He is also a proud, ambitious young man, and this shows in his behavior. Over and over he is punished for it. He encounters white people who beat him, insult him, threaten him with imprisonment and death, and force him to pretend acceptance of their brutality.

All of Wright's black acquaintances fit into the Jim Crow system better than he does. They participate in the conspiracy to keep African Americans down, acting stupid and servile, behaving like the inferior human beings their society assumes them to be. This may seem strange, but the alternative is to live like Wright, beaten and hungry and constantly at risk of death. Wright's friend Griggs explains this in detail, making a rational argument for playing the role of a bumbling idiot. In the process Griggs admits he hates whites.

Wright knows he cannot live the way Griggs suggests, and he is realistic about what that means. If he goes on this way for too long, he will end up dead or in jail. All he wants is to earn enough money to move out of town and away from his family. At first the opportunity with the optical company seems ideal. The white boss is a northerner, someone who will not insist Wright always play the idiot. But Wright's white co-workers prevent him from bettering his life. To them Wright's ambitions are a threat. They thwart his attempts to learn their trade and push him back into unemployment.

All the southerners Wright knows, friends and enemies, strangers and family, black and white, assume the right to police his actions and punish him for stepping out of line. When Pease and Reynolds threaten Wright, they claim he has been disrespectful. This scene has many similarities to the scene in Chapter 6 when Uncle Tom called Wright disrespectful and threatened to whip him. The difference, though, is Pease and Reynolds could kill Wright—or spread rumors to get him killed. This time Wright cannot fight back because a whole culture is united against him.

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