by Richard Wright
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Valhalla. The Elysian Fields. Spring Break in Key West. Every culture has a place where everything is awesome, and everyone is eternally happy. (In some of those cultures, unfortunately, you have to die to get there.) In the Jim Crow South, that place was the North.
More than just a geographical location, the North is a magical place of possibility and opportunity. As soon as you cross the border, everything about your mundane life will be awesome. Maybe trees will even start singing songs.
It’s hard to separate truth from fiction about the North. Are the buildings really 40 stories high? Can black people really live freely? Do the buildings sway in the breeze, like tree branches? Even the truth sounds fantastical to the black boys from the South. Besides being magical, the North also becomes a place of refuge in Richard’s imagination after his aunt and brother flee to Chicago.
It’s no wonder that the white people around Richard don’t want him to go to the North. They tell him, "Boy, you won’t like it up there," and "the North’s no good for your people, boy" (1.14.5, 1.14.28).
The (Disappointing) Reality
If you want a happy ending, or an ending that suggests that the North is the Promised Land for black people, you will want to stop reading at the end of the first section. That’s how the book’s first readers experienced it, since the Book of the Month Club made him cut out the whole second section.
And, really, you can see why. The book’s second section tears apart all Richard’s dreams about the North. Once he gets there, Chicago seems "an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie" (2.15.1). Racism may not be the problem that it is down South, but everyone seems stressed out and preoccupied.
Not to mention that Richard experiences the same problems that he faced in the South. After spending so much time getting himself there, he ends up poor, threatened, and bullied. Again. In the end, he asks himself, what was the point of coming here?
Good question, Richard.