Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 2 Chapter 17 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 2, Chapter 17 : The Horror and the Glory | Summary



Wright despises applying for welfare, feeling he is "making a public confession of ... hunger." But he is interested to see strangers in the relief office sharing stories. A collective awareness is growing.

Wright gets a job as an orderly for a medical research hospital. One of his black coworkers, Bill, is constantly drunk. The other two, Brand and Cooke, hate each other for no reason Wright understands. The white, educated hospital employees treat Wright and his black coworkers with undisguised contempt. Wright cannot suppress his curiosity about what they are doing, but they refuse to explain. "If you know too much, boy, your brains might explode," a white doctor says to him. This attitude frustrates Wright, but his black coworkers also mock him for trying to learn. To them hospital research is part of the white world and has nothing to do with them.

One day Brand and Cooke get into a fight in a locked research room where all four black workers are eating lunch. In their scuffle they knock down some metal shelves that house animal experimentation subjects. All four men, including Wright, work together to put the shelves back up and make the room look as it did before. Most of the animals are running loose, and the men pick them up and replace them at random into cages. They agree to keep the fight a secret, and the doctors never notice any changes in their animal subjects.


The Great Depression is now underway, and the unemployment problem in the United States is devastating. Like many members of the African American working class, Wright is hit hard. When he is forced to apply for welfare, he chafes against the attitudes of the social workers. However, he is heartened to see black people at the welfare office talking rather than keeping their problems to themselves. He wonders if his community can gain anything from what they learn in these conversations. He has always looked for meaning in suffering, and now he is beginning to think seriously about whether and how poor black people can make their lives better.

When Wright gets a janitorial job at a research hospital, he meets fierce racism again. It frustrates him when white doctors refuse to answer his questions. His black skin makes people dismiss the possibility he might be able to contribute more than menial labor. Everyone except his black coworkers treats him with constant and undisguised contempt.

As usual, Wright sets himself apart from the other black workers by resisting the boundaries of race. Bill, Brand, and Cooke, Wright's coworkers at the hospital, have long since accepted that white people do not reward curiosity. Their response is not to feel any. They all seem wounded by their experiences, however. Bill drowns his pain in alcohol, and Brand and Cooke occupy themselves with hatred for each other.

Although Wright's interests set him apart from the other black workers, he is loyal to them—not to the whites. When Brand and Cooke get into a fight and destroy some of the hospital's research, Wright works with them to cover the evidence. He knows his actions might harm scientific research, but he could be fired if he tells his employers the truth. The white people at the hospital consider him less than human, and so he places his loyalties elsewhere—with his appetite, his family, and the other black people who share his struggles.

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