The South During Jim Crow
If you are a black person, this is not the place that you want to be. The Reconstruction has failed, and Jim Crow has taken over. No one likes Jim Crow. Well, what is there to like about discrimination, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan roaming free in the streets?
Understandably, the black people who are in the South want out. That’s a lot of people, so many people that the flight of black Southerners to the Northern Promised Land is called the Great Migration. So Richard’s idea? Not so original.
When Richard is a kid, he gets spooked by a bunch of black soldiers going off to WWI. These guys were the Buffalo Soldiers immortalized by everyone’s favorite Rastafarian songster. (Bob Marley, kids.) Even though they fought just as hard as any other soldiers, these guys weren’t treated well during the war. They were treated even worse when they got home, when race riots broke out all over the South.
You get the picture. The South + Jim Crow + WWI = Not happy times.
Houses, Apartments, and Rooms in the Southern Countryside
Richard spends most of his time hopping from one place to another. Because his family can never make rent, they are always moving to a smaller, dirtier home. At one point, they’re living in "one half of a double corner house in front of which ran a stagnant ditch carrying sewage" (1.2.302). Home sweet home.
All of this moving makes Richard’s home—and the setting—totally unstable. There’s never a particular place that feels like "home," except wherever his mother is. When Uncle Clark insists (kind of sweetly) that his house is Richard’s home, Richard corrects him: "‘I want to go home,’ I said again. ‘But this is your home.’ […] ‘I want to go to my mother’" (1. 3.298).
At the same time, Richard is terrorized by the everyday violence of the South, and especially by the increase of violence during the race riots. No home, no safety, no security: no wonder he wants out.
The North During the Great Depression
And so onward to the North, land of plenty where black and white people live together in equal harmony.
Well, kind of. Or, not really at all. As Richard says, "My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies" (2.15.1).
One major problem is that many of the black migrants aren’t doing so well. Many of these black people don’t have trades or much education at all, and they’re struggling to survive in the big, strange cities up north. To make things worse, Richard arrives in Chicago just in time to experience the Great Depression. His sweet gig vanishes along with millions of other jobs, leaving Richard hungry and poor.
The contrast of these two settings helps dispel the myth that the North is black people’s saving grace. It turns out that the North can be just as bad for black people as the South, or even worse—especially if you get mixed up with…
During the Great Depression, people felt betrayed by the government and by capitalism. Guess who spent a lot of time and effort recruiting unemployed black people during the Great Depression? Yep, that’s right, the Communist Party.
The Communist Party lured people in with promises that they knew the real way to achieve progress and equality. Their rhetoric was especially appealing to black people, like Richard, because they claimed to represent the hopes and dreams of oppressed people and minorities all over the world.
Richard falls for Communism hook, line, and sinker. (In fact, his first book Native Son is a total Communist fan letter.) By the time he’s writing Black Boy, the love affair is over. His Communist Party roller coaster ride is uncomfortably close to the violence he experienced in the South and, by the end of the novel, he wants out. The party has just made him feel even lonelier than before.