by Richard Wright
Richard's Aunts and Uncles
There are a lot of them. Eight, to be exact. Don’t worry, though, because you really only have to worry about seven, and one of those isn’t even a real uncle.
Aunt Addie is probably Richard’s least favorite aunt. The entire time they live together, it’s like some kind of Mortal Kombat battle, with each one jamming on the buttons for the finishing moves.
Here’s the problem: Aunt Addie is seriously self-conscious and insecure. She is the only teacher of the religious school that Richard is forced to attend, and she seems worried that because they are related the other students will think she is a pushover. She’s "determined that every student should know that [Richard] was a sinner of whom she did not approve, and that [he] was not to be granted consideration of any kind" (1.4.7).
Mission accomplished. She’s super hard on Richard, even when he hasn’t done anything wrong at all. After a while, Richard can’t take it anymore. He pulls a knife on her—granted, she’s chasing him around with a stick—and they become mortal enemies. Even though they live in the same house and eat at the same table, Richard says, "Until she married, years later, we rarely spoke to each other" (1.4.100).
And here’s another problem: Aunt Addie is religious and Richard is not. After the whole knife incident, Aunt Addie basically gives up on Richard unless she’s decided to try to help Granny get him baptized… and that just makes Richard angrier. Fun times at the Wilson household.
Aunt Maggie is in Richard’s life more than any of the other aunts and uncles, and she even goes with Richard’s family to the North. Richard even starts to feel like she’s "another mother" to him (1.2.383). For all that, we don’t know much about Aunt Maggie except that she’s "of an open, talkative disposition" (2.15.171). Good grief, Richard. Can’t you just say that she’s "chatty"?
Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody
After Richard's mom has her stroke, Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody take him in. They run a tight ship. As soon as Richard gets to their house, he gets his list of chores: bring in wood and coal, split kindling, lay a fire, bring in water, and then spend the afternoon studying. It’s not quite like running around the streets of Memphis getting drunk, but we have to say that a little structure might be just what Richard needs.
Unfortunately, Aunt Jody is obsessed with manners, and not in a good way. She’s one of those people that corrects you when you use "can I" instead of "may I" (1.3.225). Yeah, one of those people. So, even though the couple seems to want to help Richard, it doesn’t really work out as a long-term living situation. Eventually Richard gets scared off, and it’s back to sewage-infested apartments and odd jobs.
We seriously do not even know what is wrong with Uncle Tom. His family moves into Granny’s house when she needs some more money for rent, and right away he and Richard "began to get on each other’s nerves" (1.6.110). (Can you think of even one adult guy that Richard gets along with?)
The situation boils over when Uncle Tom takes attitude at Richard’s supposed attitude. They end up outside, and it’s Tom’s wooden switch against Richard’s two razorblades. In the end, Tom loses to this crazy little kid holding razorblades. It’s pretty humiliating for him, because Tom had been a teacher for 30 years—and this is back in the days when kids actually respected their teachers, not like you young folks today. Richard just does not care. Teacher, lawyer, doctor, Communist, President of the United States: Richard will cut you.
Uncle Hoskins doesn’t make much of an impression, but his dinner table sure does: it’s "so loaded with food that [Richard] could scarcely believe it was real" (1.2.183), and he eats until his stomach hurts.
What we do know of Uncle Hoskins makes him seem like a pretty nice guy, even though his sense of humor is a little weird. Uncle Hoskins tries to play a joke on Richard by taking him into the middle of the Mississippi. All he ends up doing is scaring Richard out of his pants and making him never trust him again: "Whenever I saw his face," Richard says, "the memory of my terror upon the river would come back, vivid and strong, and it stood as a barrier between us" (1.2.232).
Richard might have been able to get over it, but he never gets the chance. Jealous white men kill Uncle Hoskins, and the whole family has to flee the city.
"Uncle / Professor" Matthews
This guy is seriously creepy, as we know from his description: "His lips were thin and his eyelids seemed never to blink. I felt something cold and remote in him and when he called me I would not go to him" (1.2.377). (Maybe check to see if his skin sparkles in the sunlight, Richard.)
This dude is full of mystery, and at first Richard only sees him in the dead of night. He’s got a whole bunch of questions: "Why did he always come at night? Why did he always speak in so subdued a voice, hardly above a whisper? And how did he get the money to buy such white collars and such nice blue suits?" (1.2.384).
When he leaves with Aunt Maggie, we get one revelation: he did some thievery and then burned a house—with a woman still inside it—in order to cover up evidence (1.2.396). At least this helps clear up how he has so much money.
One thing isn’t mysterious: Uncle Matthews turns out to be like nearly every other grown man in Richard’s life. He’s brutal, and his abrupt departure destroys Richard’s fragile world.
Aunt Cleo takes in Richard’s family when they flee to the North. Her husband abandoned her, and no wonder: just like his father, Richard says, Aunt Cleo’s husband was "a product of a southern plantation" (2.15.7).
Richard is sad to see that she’s just like all the other people Richard knew in Chicago, who have "stricken, frightened black faces trying vainly to cope with a civilization that they did not understand" (2.15.8). No wonder she develops heart problems.