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Black Boy

Black Boy Summary


Here you will find a Black Boy summary (Richard Wright's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Black Boy Summary Overview

At the tender age of four, a quiet and bored young boy accidentally sets his family home aflame in Natchez, Mississippi. Rescued from under the burning house by his father, Nathan, the boy is harshly punished by his mother, Ella, to the point of unconsciousness and illness. Soon after this incident, Nathan abandons the family for another woman, leaving Ella to grapple with raising their sons in poverty and persistent hunger. Their situation worsens as Ella's health declines, leaving the boy, Richard, to take on any odd jobs he could to support the family despite his tender age. Life briefly improves for the family when they move to Arkansas to live with Ella's sister, Maggie, and her husband, Hoskins, who runs a prosperous saloon. However, racial tensions rise, leading to Hoskins's murder and the family's flight to West Helena. When Maggie escapes to Detroit with her lover, the responsibility of caring for the family falls solely on Ella again. The family's situation worsens when Ella suffers a serious stroke, leading Richard's grandmother to take the family in. Richard finds himself in a strict religious household that shuns his love for reading and writing, leading to constant friction. When his defiance earns him regular beatings from his aunt Addie, he learns to defend himself using a knife. As Richard grows older, he excels in school despite his challenging home life and frequently clashes with the deeply entrenched racism he encounters upon entering the adult working world. After enduring a particularly demoralizing incident at an optical shop, Richard decides to move to the North, stealing and swindling to raise the money for his journey. In Memphis, he finds a generous landlady and a job in another optical shop, where he faces mind games from a seemingly benevolent coworker aimed at inciting violence between him and another black coworker. Determined to write, Richard reads obsessively with the help of a kindly coworker who lends him his library card. His family joins him in Memphis and they plan to move to Chicago, where Richard continues to grapple with poverty, racism, and his own moral compromises. Drawn to communism and its promise to protect the oppressed, Richard joins the party, but soon becomes disillusioned by its inner politics and leaves, vowing to continue to write as his link to the world.

chapter 1

At four years old, Richard Wright is stuck at his grandparents' home in Mississippi, where he sets the curtains on fire out of boredom. The fire quickly escalates and he hides under the house out of fear of punishment. His father, Nathan, saves him and his mother, Ella, beats him to unconsciousness, causing him to hallucinate for several days. Upon recovering, the family moves to Memphis where his father works night shifts at a drugstore. Richard kills a kitten on his father's command but is later punished by his mother. Nathan leaves the family for another woman, leaving them in a constant state of hunger. Richard's bitterness towards his father grows as he associates him with their hunger. Richard stands up to a gang of boys who repeatedly rob him, leading to a confrontation with their parents. Ella finds work as a cook and takes her kids along to avoid trouble. Richard, always hungry, grows resentful of the well-fed white family she works for. To amuse himself, he starts going to a local saloon, where he is coerced into swearing for drinks. He develops a drinking problem, which his mother eventually breaks by leaving him and his brother under the strict supervision of an older woman. Richard picks up reading and numeracy from children's books and a kind deliveryman but struggles to understand race relations and the difference between black and white people. His confusion is deepened by his grandmother's fair complexion and an incident of a white man beating a black child. Starting first grade, Richard learns swear words from older boys and writes them on neighborhood windows. His mother forces him to wash them off, but he remains puzzled and curious about the world around him.

chapter 2

Ella collects her sons from the orphanage, much to Richard's delight. Richard, the author, disputes the notion that black individuals lead especially intense, emotional lives, believing this perception arises from the tumultuous experience of living as black Americans. Their journey to Maggie's house in Elaine, Arkansas includes a stay with Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. Here, they share a house with a schoolteacher, also called Ella, who introduces Richard to literature via the book Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Richard becomes captivated, despite Granny viewing fiction as sinful and prohibiting it in her home. Unperturbed by Granny's threats of damnation, Richard sneakily tries to read more novels, hindered only by his limited vocabulary. When Richard's mother falls sick, Granny takes over bathing duties. One night, Richard absent-mindedly makes an inappropriate comment, resulting in him being chased and beaten. Fearful of more punishment, he hides under a bed until hunger and thirst force him out, leading to another beating. Richard's inability to explain where he learned the offensive phrase leads Granny to blame Ella and her books, prompting the young schoolteacher to leave. En route to Arkansas, Richard's curiosity about racial segregation on the train annoys his mother. His queries about race remain unanswered, leaving him determined to learn more about this complex subject. In Arkansas, they live with Aunt Maggie and her husband, Hoskins. Despite their prosperity, Richard's past experiences lead him to stash food around the house. Hoskins' ill-judged prank involving a shallow river undermines Richard's trust in him. Hoskins is soon murdered by locals envious of his successful saloon. Unable to claim his body or assets and fearing for their lives, the family returns to Granny's house.

chapter 3

Richard befriends local black boys in his Arkansas locality, sharing their collective resentment towards whites and mutual racial solidarity. Although they didn't fully comprehend their feelings, conversations inevitably focused on race. The black and white boys often battled along racial lines, using rocks, glass, and iron as weapons. During one quarrel, Richard receives a deep cut requiring stitches. His mother is angry and makes him promise not to fight, though Richard knows he cannot keep the promise due to the fights being a matter of personal honor. When Ella falls ill and is unable to work, they move between apartments to keep up with rent. Richard takes on odd jobs to help with costs. After Ella has a stroke, Richard seeks his grandmother's assistance. The world suddenly seems harsh and unwelcoming to him as he wonders what will happen if Granny doesn't arrive. Despite hunger, Richard declines food offered by neighbors due to his humiliation of feeling like a charity case. Granny’s arrival brings some relief, but Richard realizes he must confront his difficulties independently. He assists his illiterate grandmother by writing letters to Ella's other children asking for financial assistance. They return to Granny’s home in Jackson once help starts to come. At Granny's, Richard suffers nightmares and sleepwalking, treated with more food and afternoon naps by his grandmother. A family meeting decides that Richard and his brother will be separated to ease the caregiving burden. Alan is sent to Detroit to live with his aunt Maggie, and Richard chooses to stay with his uncle Clark in Greenwood, Mississippi to stay close to his mother. Clark gives Richard numerous chores, causing him some anxiety. However, he feels better the following morning and manages to establish respect among his peers on the school playground. He finds a ring on the street, modifies it into a weapon, but never needs to use it. Just when Richard is starting to adjust, he finds out that a previous occupant's son had died in his bed, causing him sleepless nights from fear. His aunt and uncle refuse his request to sleep on the sofa, and his insomnia worsens. Exhausted and scared, Richard requests to return to Granny's house. After a punishment for using offensive language, his desperate pleas to return to Jackson are heeded. Back at Granny's, Richard yearns to be old enough to support himself. His mother's health improves but she suffers another stroke during an operation. Richard realizes she will never recover, and her suffering becomes symbolic of his own childhood struggles. He concludes that life's meaning comes from a struggle with pain that is meaningless.

chapter 4

Once again, Richard struggles with hunger after he returns to Jackson. His meals mostly consist of mush made from flour and lard, and dinner of greens cooked in lard. He finds temporary relief from his hunger by drinking large amounts of water until his stomach feels bloated. Aunt Addie teams up with Granny in an attempt to save Richard's soul, causing more clashes. Richard is forced to attend the religious school where Addie teaches and is unimpressed by the obedient and uninteresting students. Trouble escalates between Richard and Addie when she inaccurately accuses him of eating walnuts in class. The real culprit was another student, but Richard refuses to snitch. His attempt at self-defense inadvertently makes Addie angrier when he slips and calls her by her familial title instead of her professional one. She punishes Richard publicly, stirring his fury and the guilty student remains silent. He is determined that Addie will not beat him again despite her threat. At home, Richard reveals the real offender, but this leads to Addie deciding to punish him again for not admitting this in class. Richard reacts frantically, warding her off with a knife. He manages to protect himself, but his relatives side with Addie, increasingly certain that something is off with Richard. He recalls a single occasion when Addie laughed at school - when he was hurt playing a game she recommended. While Richard is moved by certain aspects of religion, he can't bring himself to believe in God intellectually. Despite Granny forcing him to attend lengthy prayer meetings, he's more fascinated by the church elder's wife than the elder's sermons. With a religious revival approaching, Richard's family gently encourages him to attend, seeing it as their final opportunity to guide him. Richard sees through their intentions and remains unaffected. Granny enlists local boys to help persuade Richard to find faith, but he remains unconvinced, seeing through their words. He can't articulate to his peers his lack of belief in God, placing his faith instead in everyday experiences rather than divine order. At a church sermon, Richard jokingly tells Granny he'd believe in God if he saw an angel. She mishears him and announces to the congregation that he's seen an angel. Embarrassed by her misunderstanding, Richard corrects her publicly, provoking her anger. In an attempt to ease her wrath, Richard promises to pray daily, but fails to do so. Instead, the act of prayer makes him laugh. To occupy himself during his prayer time, he writes a story about a suicidal Indian maiden. He excitedly shares the story with his neighbor, a young woman, who is surprised that he wrote a story for pleasure, leaving Richard satisfied with her confusion.

chapter 5

Granny and Addie abandon their attempts to save Richard's soul, leading to their coldness towards him, but also his transfer from Addie's religious school to a public school. Granny doesn't fund his textbooks due to them being secular. On his first school day, Richard's fight with two boys, initiated by his hat being knocked off, ends in his acceptance through proving his strength. In two weeks, he moves from fifth to sixth grade. Unable to find a job not demanding Saturday work, a day Granny forbids him to work, Richard cannot engage in the social activities of his classmates, revolving around purchasing snacks at the local shop. He conceals his poverty from them, while yearning to be part of their group. A peer suggests Richard sell newspapers for income. The peer enjoys the magazine stories included with the Chicago-printed paper but has never read the paper itself. Richard begins selling the papers, permitted by Granny as it doesn't involve Saturday work. One day, a black customer reveals to Richard that the paper he's selling contains Ku Klux Klan propaganda, leaving Richard shocked. He quits selling the paper, knowing it's printed in a city where blacks are supposedly equal to whites. The peer's father finds out about the paper's content and also stops his son from selling it. With the job gone, Richard is left hungry again. During a religious debate between Addie and Granny, Richard's remark deemed blasphemous results in Granny attempting to slap him. He dodges, causing Granny to fall off the porch and hurt her back. Later, Addie tries to beat him up, but Richard defends himself with a knife and ends up sleeping with it under his pillow for a month, due to Addie's threat of beating him up. Richard observes that religious disputes make his family more violent and argumentative than a gangster's household. Richard starts writing for Brother Mance, an illiterate insurance salesman living next door. This job involves trips to plantations, providing Richard with insights into the poverty, isolation, and ignorance of Southern black sharecroppers, making him feel more civilized and city-like compared to the shy children of the sharecroppers.

chapter 6

Richard finds work with a white family whose matriarch questions his honesty, which offends him. Despite the meager wages and meals, he accepts the job. However, he grows resentful towards his employer for serving him stale food and belittling his aspiration to become a writer, leading to his hasty resignation. Richard's subsequent employment with another white household is equally distasteful, marked by their ungrateful and snobbish attitude. Nevertheless, he stays, stealing food surreptitiously and enduring the emotional toll to fit into his social circle. With his earnings and anecdotes about his employers, he assimilates into his peer group. As Ella's health stabilizes, Richard starts going to a Methodist church with her. During a religious revival, he and a few similarly skeptical youngsters succumb to societal pressure and get baptized, even though they harbor doubts about their faith. Their post-baptism discussions reveal shared feelings of unchanged spiritual beliefs. Following another one of Ella's stroke episodes, finances become strained. To help with expenses, Granny permits Uncle Tom and his family to move in. One day, a disagreement over timekeeping escalitates into a heated argument with Uncle Tom, who threatens Richard with a severe punishment, perceiving his casual attitude as rudeness. Richard defends himself with razors, leaving his uncle stunned and ends his tyranny.

chapter 7

Richard spends his summer before entering eighth grade as a water carrier and brick collector at a local brickyard. One day, he gets bitten by the boss’s dog, causing him fear as he recalls several co-workers falling sick after similar incidents. He voices his concerns to the boss who dismisses him with, “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” Luckily, his wound, though inflamed, recovers on its own within days. Upon starting eighth grade, Richard feels gloomy as he realizes that his education has not equipped him with any practical skills. He is consumed by thoughts of racism, which he views as a broad, global injustice, unlike his classmates who talk about racism only as personal grievances they have suffered. During this time, Richard authors a short story titled “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre” and convinces a local black publication to print it. His classmates fail to understand his motives for writing and publishing a story for the sheer want of it. His family, too, is unresponsive and antagonistic. Granny and Addie consider fictional literature as lies, while Ella fears that Richard's writing could make people perceive him as mentally weak, affecting his employability. The only person who applauds him is the newspaper editor. Reflecting back, Wright contemplates that had he known the multitude of hurdles he would face in his journey to becoming a writer, he might have given up the pursuit.

chapter 8

Over the summer, Richard seeks employment at a nearby sawmill but quickly departs when he sees a worker with three fingers missing on his right hand, showcasing the hazards of the job. He later finds out that a white mob has murdered the brother of a black schoolmate, accusing him of fraternizing with a white sex worker at the hotel where he was employed. This act of violence weighs heavily on Richard, emphasizing the harsh reality of racial oppression. Richard discovers that his Uncle Tom perceives him as a negative influence on his own children, instructing them to steer clear of Richard at home. This revelation fuels Richard's desire for independence. When Alan, Richard's brother, comes to visit, Richard is disheartened as Alan quickly picks up the family's critical views of him. Richard earns the honor of being his class's valedictorian but is informed that he will not be able to deliver his own speech at the ceremony. The principal, aware of the white attendees, writes a speech for Richard and tells him that if he doesn't read it, he won't graduate. Despite pressure from his family, friends, and classmates to accept and read the principal's speech, Richard firmly refuses. On the graduation day, Richard goes against the grain and delivers his own speech. He exits the auditorium immediately afterward, not acknowledging the applause or invitations to parties. He is filled with disgust for the community, the event, and the confused state he's been living in for seventeen years. Wright reflects that it was at this point he decided to leave behind his confusing existence and "faced the world in 1925."

chapter 9

Richard secures employment at a retail store where he observes regular mistreatment of black customers by the white proprietors. He even witnesses a black woman being physically assaulted because she can't keep up with her payments. After a day of work, his bicycle tire goes flat, and a group of white youngsters offer him a ride. When he doesn't address one of them as 'sir', they break a whiskey bottle on his face, causing him to fall off their car, and he is forced to walk back home. Soon after, while delivering in a predominantly white area, the police stop him, search him at gunpoint, and warn him against making deliveries in white neighborhoods after dark. His employer fires him because of his silent objection to the store's management and the treatment of black customers. Richard's old schoolmate, Griggs, scolds him for his inability to behave subserviently around whites. He informs Richard that his notoriety as a troublemaker has reached potential white employers. Griggs emphasizes that Richard must suppress his pride and feign humility around whites for survival, and helps him find employment with Mr. Crane, a Northerner looking to train a black boy in lens-making. Excited, Richard reports to Crane's optical shop, but his white colleagues, Pease and Reynolds, refuse to train him, considering it "white man's work." They belittle him and try to intimidate him constantly. When they accuse him of disrespect, Richard feels trapped and chooses to leave the shop. Richard is left disheartened. Crane, in sympathy, summons Richard and tries to understand the situation, but Richard stays silent fearing retaliation from Pease and Reynolds. Crane pays Richard more than his weekly wage, apologizes for his helplessness and supports Richard's plan to move North for a better life. Feeling violated and humiliated, Richard thanks Crane and leaves, describing himself as "a blind man."

chapter 10

Richard finds himself in a continuous cycle of employment and unemployment, due to the racial discrimination that leads to slip-ups causing his dismissal. When his peers go back to school after summer, job opportunities increase. He then works at a hotel where his schoolmate's brother was killed because of his interaction with a white sex worker. Richard's role at the hotel involves cleaning corridors alongside other young black men, one of whom humorously prides himself on having gonorrhea, referring to it as a symbol of masculinity. One day, Richard displays open contempt when a white security officer molests a black maid, prompting the officer to intimidate Richard with a firearm. Although hotel workers often resort to theft, Richard originally resists due to fear of being apprehended. Yet, he recognizes the role of racism in driving such dishonesty, as white employers prefer dishonest, illiterate black staff over honest, literate ones. As time passes, Richard decides to resort to theft as a means to finance his plan to relocate to the North, justifying this as a way to escape the South faster. He exits his job at the hotel for a position at a movie theater, where he and his colleagues swindle $200 by reselling tickets. Overwhelmed with a desire to leave the South, he pilfers a gun from his neighbor and hocks it. He also resells jam stolen from a local black college. With this accumulated money, Richard moves to Memphis. Despite his successful move, he remains guilt-ridden by his thefts, promising himself to never steal again.

chapter 11

Richard begins renting a room in Memphis from Mrs. Moss, a kind and generous black woman. Astonishingly, she desires Richard to wed her daughter Bess, despite their recent acquaintance. This notion leaves Richard feeling both shocked and repulsed given his unfamiliarity with such trust. Additionally, Bess' immature and lackluster personality does not appeal to him. During a morning by the waterfront, Richard encounters a young black man. They discover and plan to sell some illicitly stashed alcohol. They attract a white buyer who offers them five dollars if they transfer it to his vehicle. Despite his discomfort, Richard assists, guided by the black man's eagerness. The black man departs with the money, promising to return with Richard's share, but fails to reappear. Richard scolds himself for not foreseeing the scam, realizing that the two men had conned him into aiding their illegal activity.

chapter 12

Richard begins work at a different optical shop, doing cleaning and errand tasks. He finds amusement in Shorty, the black elevator operator, whose intelligence contrasts with his readiness to humiliate himself for money. Richard sees Shorty let a white man kick him for a quarter more than once. One customer, a white man from the North, sees Richard's frailty and offers him money for food, but pride stops Richard from taking it. Meanwhile, it dawns on Bess and Mrs. Moss that Richard has no intentions of becoming part of their family. Meanwhile, to entertain themselves, Richard’s boss, Olin, along with the white workers from a rival optical shop, manipulate a potential conflict between Richard and Harrison, the black worker from the other shop. By falsely claiming that each wants to harm the other, they successfully plant seeds of mistrust. Despite figuring out the deceit, Richard and Harrison still remain wary of each other. The white men propose to give Richard and Harrison five dollars each to stage a fight. They agree to this, intending to merely pretend, but when the fight commences they realize they can't convincingly fake it. Overwhelmed by the frustration of being used, they end up in a real, brutal fight.

chapter 13

Richard comes across a critical article about H.L. Mencken in a local Memphis newspaper. Surprised at a Southern publication criticizing a white individual, he decides to explore Mencken's work. However, due to racial restrictions, he can't borrow books from the public library. He convinces his white coworker, Falk, to allow him to use his library card. Richard pens a note on behalf of Falk to the librarian, requesting her to lend Mencken's books to “this nigger boy”. Despite the librarian's initial reluctance, she hands over the books. Experiencing Mencken's bold writing style sparks a reading frenzy in Richard. These books provide a fresh perspective on life, inspiring him to try his hand at writing. He carefully conceals his books from his colleagues, who notice his increasingly introspective behavior. During that winter, Richard is joined in Memphis by his mother and brother. His brother secures employment, and they begin to accumulate funds for their journey to Chicago.

chapter 14

After the arrival of Richard's mother and brother, Maggie sets off for Memphis, abandoned by her husband Matthews, also known as "The Professor". To reach Chicago swiftly, the decision is made that Richard and Maggie will depart first, finding accommodation for the entire group. The remaining two will join them once they've saved enough money. Southern whites harbor resentment towards African Americans who migrate north, interpreting their departure as dissatisfaction with the southern lifestyle. To avoid this tension, Richard only reveals his travel plans to his employer two days prior to his departure. To further avoid suspicion, he claims his move is solely to stay close to his mother. His sudden news leaves his white colleagues at the eyewear shop puzzled and somewhat bitter. Falk, conversely, shares a knowing smile with him. Shorty, envious of Richard's departure, bids him a sorrowful goodbye, acknowledging that his own lack of motivation will probably keep him from following Richard's path.

chapter 15

Upon reaching Chicago, Richard is taken aback by the grim industrial surroundings and the unexpected casualness between black and white individuals. He moves into his aunt Cleo's building and soon secures employment at a delicatessen run by the Hoffmans, an immigrant Jewish couple. Richard struggles to comprehend their strong accents and mistakenly attributes their occasional impatience to racism. He begins to reflect on the lowly social standing of black Americans like himself, taking note of the Hoffmans' business location in a predominantly white neighborhood. His constant fear of offending the whites in the neighborhood leads him to understand why some black people seem to succumb to racism. Chicago fuels Richard's aspirations but also leaves him pondering which dreams could be realized. He recognizes that being black in America means enduring continuous mental anguish, not just physical suffering. He believes that few blacks can fully understand or articulate their personal torments. Richard decides to sit for a postal clerk exam. Fearing the Hoffmans might sack him for seeking another job, he stays away from work for three days under the false pretense of attending his mother's funeral. Upon his return, the Hoffmans confront his lie but allow him to continue working at the deli. Feeling guilty for lying and fearing further confrontation, Richard abruptly quits his job. He finds work as a dishwasher at a café, where his white female colleagues surprise him with their unthinking, light-hearted demeanor. He's taken aback when they casually touch him, an act considered a serious violation in the South. One day, Richard is shocked to discover the Finnish cook, Tillie, spitting in the food. He and a black girl, recently employed as a salad chef, decide to report this to their boss, who promptly fires Tillie after witnessing her actions. Richard takes a temporary job at the post office, which he enjoys for its reasonable wage and writing time. However, he falls short on the weight requirement for a permanent position. Despite his best efforts, he fails to gain weight and consequently, the physical exam. Richard's family, including his mother and brother, join him in Chicago. His constant reading baffles them and they perceive it as a waste of time. Richard's efforts at writing leave him frustrated and the need for a new job forces him to return to the café. He hears of another postal exam in the spring and commits to meeting the weight requirement, eating till he feels sick. Meanwhile, he reads Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past, which only intensifies his doubts about his writing abilities.

chapter 16

After putting on some weight, Richard manages to secure a job at the post office. He finds camaraderie with an unnamed Irish coworker due to their mutual love of reading. This friendship leads Richard to a group of Irish, Black, and Jewish intellectuals, who share a cynical and witty demeanor. Richard also attempts to socialize with a black literary group but is put off by their shallow, sex-driven behavior. He later encounters Garveyites, followers of black leader Marcus Garvey. Although their teachings don't resonate with Richard, he appreciates their fervor and self-respect. However, when the Great Depression hits, Richard's work hours at the post office get slashed, eventually leading to job loss. This coincides with his aunt, mother, and brother falling sick, increasing his desperation for work. He reluctantly joins an insurance company notorious for exploiting poor black families in Chicago. As part of his job, Richard is forced to engage in an unethical scheme where he and a coworker switch policy papers of customers during house visits. Richard observes his colleagues at the insurance company accepting sex as an alternate form of payment from housewives. Following suit, he enters into a sexual relationship with an illiterate single mother client. Initially, he feels repulsion towards her ignorance, but then he despises himself for such feelings. After relocating to a new neighborhood, a coworker tricks Richard into avoiding an attractive woman by falsely claiming she has gonorrhea. While working for the insurance company, Richard encounters a group of Communists giving public speeches. Like the Garveyites, while he admires their zeal, he finds their ideology lacking substance. He mocks their militant atheism and criticizes their intellectual intolerance. During the election, Richard vents his frustration by writing “I PROTEST THIS FRAUD” on his ballot. The Depression escalates, leading to Richard losing his insurance job and being forced to move to cheaper accommodation. Overcome with humiliation, he resigns himself to accepting food donations from a government relief station, which leaves him feeling defeated and desperate.

chapter 17

Richard finds solace amidst the desolate crowd at the relief station, realizing he is not the only one suffering the harsh reality of poverty. Observing the downtrodden group, he envisions the potential of collective power against their oppressors. He speculates that the most threatening members of society to the elite are those who don't desire societal rewards. He places black Americans in this context, asserting that the violent white reaction to black advancement might push blacks to forgo societal progression and form their own communities. Richard secures a job as an orderly at a medical research institute through a federal relief program. The stark segregation at the workplace, with white health professionals and black workers performing menial jobs, is immediately apparent. Despite genuine interest, Richard's inquiries about the research are coldly dismissed by the white doctors. Richard shares his workspace with three black co-workers. Bill, a similar age, shocks Richard with his radical thoughts, including a violent solution for racial issues. The other two co-workers, Brand and Cooke, despise each other, primarily due to their limited life experiences. Dogs, used for research at the hospital, become the subjects of Richard's sympathy. The hospital silences them with a drug, Nembutal, symbolizing silent suffering for Richard. Intrigued by the drug, he attempts to smell it, causing Brand to overreact. Although Brand later confesses it was a prank, Richard isn't pleased. Richard's feeling of being a slave is heightened when his superior assigns a Jewish boy to monitor his work pace. His irritation intensifies when the white staff carelessly tread on his freshly cleaned steps, making his work harder. A petty argument between Brand and Cooke over weather leads to a physical fight, causing chaos and toppling numerous animal cages. Despite managing to clean the mess, the uncertainty over the correct placement of animals remains. Richard wonders whether this mishap might have ruined vital scientific studies.

chapter 18

Richard partakes in a political conversation with his post office friends and is startled to learn many hold membership in the Communist Party. One friend persuades Richard to join a John Reed Club meeting – a gathering of revolutionary artists. The white attendees' warm reception confuses him, but they encourage him to participate in an editorial meeting for Left Front, their magazine. They also give him back issues of Masses and International Literature magazines. Richard spends the night engrossed in these publications, fascinated by their vision of unity for the oppressed and suffering. Previously unimpressed by the Communist movement’s economic utopianism and radical message, Richard now finds himself drawn to its hopeful essence. He pens a raw poem about revolutionary subjects. His mother's horrified response to the aggressive illustrations in the magazines alerts Richard to the Communists' failure in mass communication. His attempts to address this concern at a meeting leads to futile arguments. Richard thus decides to use his writing skills to find a more appealing language. The more Richard attends the John Reed Club meetings, the more he grows comfortable with the white members and starts to feel completely included. He starts working on biographical sketches of black Communists to aid other African Americans in understanding Communism. Richard soon uncovers a heated conflict between the Club's painters and writers. Despite his reluctance, the writers vote him in as executive secretary, planning to use him as a means to oust the painters. Richard subsequently becomes an official Communist Party member. However, the constant squabbles among the painters, writers, Party and non-Party members take a toll on Richard and the Club. During this political chaos, a man named Comrade Young joins the Club, claiming to be a Communist Party member from the Detroit John Reed Club. Young swiftly accuses Swann, a promising Club artist, of working with the police against the Party. Everyone assumes Young to be a significant Party leader, but his background remains unverified, creating confusion. When Young vanishes, a search through his possessions uncovers a note revealing him as an escapee from a Detroit mental institution and a long dissertation titled “A Pictorial Record of Man’s Economic Progress”. The discovery deeply embarrasses Richard and the Club officials who decide to keep it hidden from the group.

chapter 19

Richard becomes a member of a black Communist group. His intelligent speech and aspirations to be a writer earn him the label of an “intellectual” and mocks from his fellow members. They also chastise him for his reading choices, which are not Party-approved. He comes to realize that the group sees him as suspicious due to his curiosity and desire to question. Richard interviews Ross, a fellow black Communist facing prosecution, for a series of biographical sketches. However, this brings him under suspicion from the Party, with one member warning him about the dangers intellectuals pose within the Communist Party. Richard is baffled by this, as he only aspires to understand and articulate the struggles of black individuals through writing. A fellow black Communist, Ed Green, disrupts Richard's meeting with Ross with suspicions about Richard's notes. Richard becomes increasingly frustrated by the mistrust from his comrades and feels misunderstood by his white comrades. Ross's reluctance eventually leads Richard to abandon his biographical project and instead, he decides to write short stories about his comrades' lives. However, Ross is accused by the Party of being disloyal, and Richard is instructed to stay away from him. Richard finds reprieve from his political worries while working with troubled boys at the South Side Boys’ Club. He attends a conference debating the role of writers in the Party, but finds it unrealistic. Richard travels to a similar conference in New York City, but is dismayed by the racism he encounters. He eventually stops attending meetings after the John Reed Clubs are disbanded. Accusations against Richard pile up and he considers leaving the Party. However, he is persuaded to stay and lead a committee against high living costs. When the Party demands that he stop writing and travel to Switzerland for a meeting, Richard requests to leave, but his request is put off. He realizes his comrades are slandering him to expel him from the Party themselves. Richard becomes the publicity agent for the Federal Negro Theater and recruits a Jewish director. They attempt to stage realistic representations of black experiences, but face resistance and threats from the actors. Fearing for his safety, Richard transfers to a white experimental theater. Upon his comrades' request, Richard attends Ross's trial for numerous offenses. While he is moved by the solidarity shown during the trial, he also feels implicitly condemned by the proceedings. He leaves before the trial concludes, and is henceforth shunned by his former comrades.

chapter 20

Richard gets transferred to the Federal Writers’ Project from the relief station where the Communists, who are also his colleagues, seek to get him removed. He then discovers that the Communists had a hand in his previous problems at the Federal Negro Theater. With the constant pressure from the Communists to get him fired, Richard believes mending ties with the Party is essential. But, any attempt to meet a Party representative falls flat. Attempting to join the May Day parade, Richard fails to locate his designated group. He agrees to march with his old comrades when a former ally spots him and suggests it. However, two white Communists forcefully remove Richard from the parade, as his black comrades passively observe. He returns home, battered from the fall and angry, believing that the Communists are blinded by oppression. Richard concludes that humanity learns gradually and painfully, and he must now “build a bridge of words” to connect with the broader world.

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