Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 2 Chapter 16 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 2, Chapter 16 : The Horror and the Glory | Summary

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Summary

By spring Wright, now 20 years old, gains enough weight to earn a full-time post office job. For over a year he works nights and spends days reading and writing. At work Wright meets intelligent, interesting people, both white and black. He makes a few friends, first with racially diverse cynics who enjoy making fun of everything, and later with upper class black writers whom he finds petty and obsessed with sex, and still later with a group of black people who seek to return to Africa and build a new country.

In 1929 Wright sees a headline announcing the crash of the stock market. He is unconcerned—until he learns people are not sending as much mail. His post office hours get cut, and soon he is laid off. Most of his family is now ill or otherwise dependent on him, and he is desperate for a job. Eventually, a distant cousin hires him as an insurance salesman. The company is corrupt, and Wright hates cheating his poor black customers. But he sees no other way to feed himself, his mother, his brother, and Aunt Chloe, who is living with him now. He participates in the scams and begins a casual relationship with a strange, petty woman who buys insurance from him.

During this period Wright often wanders through city parks and hears speeches by Communist activists. He finds the logic of these speeches suspect but is vaguely attracted by the idea of rising up and throwing off the chains of the working class.

When Wright cannot sell insurance anymore, he falls into a depression. One morning there is no food left in his small apartment, so he goes out to apply for welfare.

Analysis

Wright's post office job provides enough money to support him and his family easily. It also introduces him to new people. His coworkers at the post office have more wealth and education than virtually any of his peers from previous periods of his life, and some socialize in mixed-race groups. Wright has long engaged with complex ideas in books, and now for the first time he is able to talk to other people about them. He embarks on an odyssey through a variety of intellectual social groups, trying on each one's ideas and attitudes. Looking back, Wright is dismissive of some of his habits—such as a tendency to use sarcasm—during this period. But his experimentation with varying ideas helped him define his identity.

Wright only experiences a brief period of relief from hunger and want. In 1929 the stock market crashes, the event that sparked the Great Depression, a period of economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. As poverty spreads, Wright ends up unemployed again.

Although Wright has little emotional connection to his family, he supports several family members financially. This puts him under pressure to earn money, and he accepts work as an insurance salesman for a corrupt company. Although he dislikes the work, it is a good opportunity for a young man trying to become an author. He has become a keen observer of human behavior, and he has ample opportunity to watch people when he stops by their houses to collect insurance payments.

The Great Depression causes social and political upheaval, and one result is increased American interest in communism. As Wright travels through city parks and neighborhoods, he often hears Communist activists speaking. He thinks the activists do a poor job of appealing to the black working class. Also, his experiences with racism leave him with little conviction that poor blacks have any hope of organizing and fighting for change.

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