Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 2 Chapter 15 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 2, Chapter 15 : The Horror and the Glory | Summary

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Summary

Part 2 opens with an epigraph from a Negro folk song.

Wright arrives in Chicago in 1927 at age 19. Full of gray and smoke, the city is far uglier than a place of refuge should be. But he does not want much—just a job and enough to eat. He does not expect fun or warm relationships with others. He has never in his life had "a single satisfying, sustained relationship with another human being," and previously it had not occurred to him to want one.

In Chicago there are no signs saying "FOR WHITE—FOR COLORED." When Wright shops, he does not have to wait for white customers to be served before him. When he rides the bus, he can sit next to white passengers. But these differences do not bring relief. Instead, Wright worries because he does not know how to behave. To him Chicago seems "governed by strange laws" he may never learn.

Although Wright easily finds a job at a delicatessen, uncertainty dominates his life. He sees more possibility in Chicago than he ever saw in the South—but he begins to suppress his dreams and question his desire to write. Soon he sees an opportunity to take a test to qualify for a job as a postal clerk, but he worries his delicatessen bosses, who are Jewish, will resent him for attempting to get a better job. He worries for days and then simply stays away from work for a while. When he returns, he lies and says his mother died. His bosses accuse him of lying and seem hurt he does not trust them with the truth. He is sorry, but he cannot admit it or see a way to make it up to them. He quits the job soon after.

Wright's next job is as a dishwasher in a café. The white waitresses there touch him casually and chat with him in the course of their work, and he is amazed this is allowed. One day Wright sees a white cook, Tillie, spitting in the food. He is disgusted but afraid he will not be believed if he tells on her. Paralyzed by uncertainty, he does nothing until a black girl is hired. He confides in her and begs her to tell the boss. The black girl is also worried about losing her job, but she reports Tillie and gets Tillie fired.

Wright passes the post office examination and gains a temporary position there—the best job he has held in his life. But he cannot be hired full-time without passing a physical examination. The minimum weight for a full-time employee is 125 pounds, and Wright is so chronically malnourished he weighs far less. He begins overeating but cannot gain weight.

Wright reads voraciously. This habit amuses white strangers and confuses his family. When Wright fails the physical examination for the post office, his family is furious. Aunt Maggie in particular regards Wright as worthless and a failure. Although he is very poor, he decides to move to a squalid, vermin-infested apartment away from her. He returns to his café job and spends his days struggling to feed himself, his mother, and his brother. But in his mind he is consumed by hunger "for insight into my own life and the lives about me."

Analysis

The epigraph to Part 2, from a Negro folk song, asks whether "other people wonder ... just like I do." This quotation sets the tone for the second half of Wright's life story, which describes a young man who is full of questions about society, inequality, and the human experience. The wistful words of the song suggest a strong disconnect between Wright and the rest of the world. Like Wright, the speaker in this song wants to know what other people think and feel but is not quite able to ask. It sets a very different tone for the second part of the book than the quote from Job does for the first part. The quote from Job focused on his suffering rather than his quest to find its reason, whereas this epigraph emphasizes the collective search for answers.

Wright's first sight of Chicago disappoints him. All his life he has thought of the North as an idyllic place, the opposite of everything he has known. But now the North is stepping out of his imagination and becoming real, and he finds it dirtier, scarier, and more foreign than he expected.

Racism is less overt in Chicago, and Wright regularly marvels at the freedom he has. In the South white people—even strangers—constantly monitored his behavior. In the North white people mostly ignore him. This is not because he is black, but because everyone in Chicago ignores everyone else. Even though Wright has always lived at a distance from others and has never had close personal relationships, he finds the impersonality of Chicago strange.

In Chicago white people do not abuse Wright for failing to behave as expected. As a result he cannot figure out how to behave at all. In his uncertainty he maintains a distance from people who could become allies. His bosses at his first job, at a delicatessen, work quickly and have no patience to stop and explain their culture to Wright. Wright does not yet know that this is simply how people in Chicago behave, and he wonders if his bosses' brusque exterior is a sign of contempt. Afraid to admit he wants a better job, he lies instead. His fear is understandable because of his experiences with white violence. But his lies damage his relationship with his bosses, and Wright, who has little experience repairing interpersonal problems or asking for forgiveness, quits and moves on. This episode illustrates Wright's isolation and his unpreparedness for life in the North.

During this period Wright begins to question his dream of becoming a writer. In the South, where white people told him he could not succeed, he held tight to his dream. But in the North, where nobody tells Wright anything, he is not so sure of himself. The habit of living with white hatred has taught him to hate himself, and this makes it difficult to become the person he wants to be.

In the South Wright was treated as if he were contaminated. White people would not touch him, sit next to him, let him use the same bathroom, and so on. In the North these barriers are not there. But fear of racism still dominates his behavior, and reasonably so. Racism and unfairness do exist in the North. For example, when Wright's boss at the café sees him reading an intellectual magazine, she laughs at the idea of a poor black man thinking complex thoughts.

Wright's inability to pass the physical examination for a permanent post office job is a subtler example of unfairness. The system is rigged to favor people who have grown up with a life of sufficiency, not the poor. Perhaps most unjustly, even tragically, his failure to pass the exam upsets his family, the ones who have failed to feed him sufficiently, causing him to further isolate himself.

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