Study Guide

Black Boy

Black Boy Summary

Black Boy begins with a bang, literally, when four-year-old Richard sets his house on fire. Then it’s out of the fire and into a long story of poverty, suffering, and—just maybe—a little bit of happiness.

First off, Richard’s dad leaves when he’s young. And then, his mother is sick all the time. Richard basically runs wild. Uncles, aunts, and even orphanages do try to raise him, but Richard does whatever he wants. Sounds great, right? He learns to fight, to curse, and—oh yeah—becomes an alcoholic before he’s six. Maybe not so great after all.

Richard grows up fast, and he starts taking jobs when he is just eleven. That’s sixth grade. That’s barely middle school! When he starts working for white people, he figures out that something is wrong with his world—something called racism. He dreams about moving north, where rumor has it that racism doesn’t exist.

Something else keeps Richard going. When he’s living with his Granny, he hears a fairy tale. Just one, but that’s enough. He becomes obsessed with everything relating to reading and writing. By the time he graduates high school, Richard has two dreams: to become a writer, and to move up north.

Richard steals, cheats, and lies his way into enough money for a ticket to Memphis, but not enough for a ticket to his ultimate goal of Chicago. Still, Memphis is awesome—at first. He meets some super nice people, and also some super prejudiced people. When Richard is almost assaulted just for wanting to learn, he decides that is the last straw and he finally makes his way to Chicago.

Ah, the North. It’s no Emerald City, but he sure likes it a whole lot better than the South. After his initial shock at the tall buildings and white people treating him like an equal, life is smooth sailing.

And then comes the Great Depression. Richard and nearly everyone else is out of a job. Suddenly, Communists yelling about oppression started making a lot more sense.

Richard decides that the Communist Party is going to be the great savior of the black race and can’t figure out why everyone else hasn’t already accepted it, too. Here’s a hint: rumors, backstabbing, and cultish insularity make the Communist Party a pretty scary place to be, especially if you’re like Richard and don’t take too well to other people ordering you around.

In the end, Richard decides to use another tool to connect with other people. Heck, he doesn’t need Communism; he just needs a pen and some paper. So, Richard sits down to write.

  • Chapter 1

    • We begin with our noble protagonist at four years old warming himself by the fire in his home.
    • The house is so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. All day, his mom has been telling him to shut up so that his sick grandmother can rest. (Someone yelling at a four-year-old to be quiet probably isn’t too restful. Just sayin’.)
    • Even though he’s not supposed to touch the fancy white curtains, he pushes them aside to look out at sweet, sweet freedom.
    • His brother is quietly playing with a toy, but when a bird flies by the window our bored protagonist shouts.
    • His mom comes out and tells Richard to shut his face. His brother says I told you so, and Richard tells him to shut his face. (Four-year-olds are working with a limited vocabulary.)
    • So, basically there is nothing fun to do and Richard is super bored. Then he sees the fireplace. We’re pretty sure this isn’t going to end well.
    • Richard starts playing a game called "Hey let’s put stuff in the fire and watch it burn!" It’s the best game ever. He starts by burning some straws from a broom, but that’s just a gateway drug and soon Richard needs a bigger fix. Bigger like, say, curtains. Those would look pretty on fire, right?
    • So, Richard sets the curtains on fire. We know what’s going to happen and so does his brother, who at the tender age of three already seems smarter than his brother—as evidenced by the fact that he runs away as soon as he sees the curtains go up.
    • Not so, Richard. He doesn’t figure out that this is a bad idea until the fire reaches the ceiling. No duh, Sherlock.
    • While most people would want to get out of a burning house, Richard is more concerned about getting beaten for starting the fire in the first place. Naturally, he hides underneath the house as it goes up in flames.
    • Richard hears yelling. He wonders if his family will die in the fire.
    • His mother calls out his name. She even looks straight at him, but she can't see him through the smoke. It’s starting to look like this is going to be a really short book.
    • Finally, Richard’s dad, who apparently has better smoke-o-vision, spots him. Still, Richard refuses to budge. His dad has to crawl under the house and pull him out.
    • Luckily, no one has died. Richard’s little brother told his mom about the fire soon enough for everyone to run out, carrying Granny on a mattress.
    • The good news ends there. Richard’s mom whips him so hard that he nearly dies. Afterwards, he lies in bed hallucinating while the doctor covers him in ice packs to keep the fever down.
    • When he recovers, Richard tells us about the everyday moments of his life. He tells us about horses running, veggies growing, and dew in early morning.
    • The series of passages is very sweet and we can see what it must have been like for this four-year-old to be experiencing things for the first time. His words paint pictures like the HD NatGeo channel. Twenty-two paragraphs of it.
    • One day, Richard’s mom tells him that they’re moving to Memphis on a boat called the Kate Adams. Richard can’t wait. Not for Memphis—for the fancy boat.
    • When he sees the Kate Adams, Richard is disappointed that it’s not as awesome as he imagined. He cries like a baby because, well, he is one.
    • His dad takes him below deck, where Richard sees people drinking, dancing, and partying. Richard stops crying.
    • In Memphis, the family moves into a small apartment. Remember all the pretty nature that Richard described a little while ago? Yeah, Memphis doesn’t have any of that. Richard hates Memphis.
    • Richard has never paid much attention to his dad, but now he starts to notice things. Things like, his dad’s a fat night porter who drinks beer from buckets and makes everyone be quiet during the day so he can get his beauty rest. Nice guy, right?
    • One morning, Richard and his brother find a cat meowing. Their dad says, "Kill that damn thing" (1.1.88), which any rational person would not take literally. Since Richard hates his father, plus he hasn’t exactly manifested any natural aptitude for rationality, he decides that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
    • Long story short, Richard hangs the cat on a tiny noose. He proudly tells his brother what he did, and, as with the fire, his brother tells on him. (Probably a good thing on both accounts, we have to say.)
    • When his dad threatens to beat him, Richard point out that he was just following orders. And it’s true. His dad knows that Richard will never take him seriously again if he’s punished.
    • Luckily for future sociopaths, Richard’s mom is a bit craftier than his dad and goes for psychological torture rather than physical brutality. She scares the pee out of him by making him dig the cat a grave in the middle of the night.
    • Something about burying the cat creeps Richard out (hm, wonder what?) and he starts freaking out. Maybe the cat will haunt him! Maybe it will try to kill him in revenge! Maybe it will pee on the carpet! (Legitimate fear: cat pee never goes away.)
    • To top it off, when Richard finishes burying the cat, his mom makes him say a prayer hoping that he won’t suddenly die in his sleep.
    • This possibility has apparently never occurred to Richard, and he runs screaming out into the night. Satisfied, his mom lets him go to bed.
    • So. Richard is hungry. Like really hungry. Like he has personified hunger and it is a dude looking at him. He doesn't really understand hunger, or why he is hungry, he just knows that he doesn’t like being hungry.
    • One day Richard tells his mom that he is hungry. She tries to joke about it because she feels bad that he has nothing to eat, but Richard can't take a joke for the life of him and ends up making his mom cry.
    • Turns out, Richard’s dad has been M.I.A. for some time now and Richard didn't even notice. He did notice that no one yelled at him to be quiet anymore, but he didn't quite connect that with why he was hungry. Richard still doesn’t really get it, but his mom says that his dad was the one with a job making money and bringing food and he’s gone now. Richard has to wait until she gets a job so that they can eat.
    • Soon after, Richard’s mom gets a job as a cook. Great! But she has to leave Richard and his brother alone in the apartment. Not great. She comes home depressed every night, telling the kids that they’ve got to take care of themselves now that their father’s gone.
    • The kids have no idea what these talks are about, but they get the feeling that it’s not good.
    • One evening, Richard’s mom says that he has to get food. He’s excited. Going to the store all by himself makes him feel like a real grownup.
    • Turns out, running errands isn’t so great after all. Some boys jump him, beat him up, and steal his money.
    • He tells his mom, she gives him more money, and they jump him again. When he comes back this time, his mom is fed up. She gives him a stick, shoves him outside, and she says that he can’t come home until he’s gotten the groceries.
    • Richard thinks this is crazy talk, but his mom actually locks the door behind him and won’t let him back in.
    • This time when the boys try to jump Richard, he swings his stick like a lunatic until he hits someone. Surprise: it works. The boys leave him alone and he can walk in peace. Also, his mom got her groceries so everyone wins. Well, everyone except for the boys. Although, maybe they learned their lesson, in which case—win for everyone!
    • During the summer, Richard goes out with the other black kids to look up at people pooping from outhouses. This is what passes for entertainment in a world before YouTube. (Now, we can just watch videos like that on YouTube, instead of having to go out and actually find a working outhouse. If you think you’re getting a link, think again. Go find your own link to that.)
    • They watch for hours, and sometimes the two- and three-year-olds get so excited that they actually start eating poop. This is the grossest thing in the book, so at least we got that out of the way.
    • Eventually a white policeman is stationed under the Porta-Potties, so no more looking at people pooping for the kids.
    • To keep the kids out of trouble (i.e., looking at people pooping) and in her sight, Momma Wright takes them with her to work. Even though it’s fun to go with her and get scraps of leftover food, Richard gets upset that he can’t eat the delicious food that his mom is preparing for other people. He wonders why other people can eat and he can’t.
    • Wandering around the neighborhood while his mom is working, Richard happens to discover a bar just a block from his house. You know what bars have: lots of drunk people who aren’t being too careful with their money.
    • Richard goes to the bar to beg for pennies and peeps under the door to watch the drunken grownups. Drunk people are almost as fascinating as poop, especially when men vomit and drunk ladies ("ladies" in a loose sense of the word) pee themselves while walking home. It’s not actually that different from an episode of Jersey Shore.
    • Anyway, one day he gets caught peeping under the door. A man pulls him in and all the drunkards get it into their heads that it would be super funny to get a six-year-old drunk. (There was no official minimum drinking age in 1914, when Richard would have been six, but we’re pretty sure that drunk kids were still frowned on.)
    • They laugh as Richard runs around the bar drinking from each of the men’s cups, which is, by the way, a great way to get oral herpes.
    • The drunkards decide to have some more fun with their new toy, so they give him a nickel to say some bad words that they whisper to him. He does it and he has no idea what he is saying, but he’s super excited by everyone’s shocked reactions. Apparently this last stunt crosses the line, because someone finally speaks up and says they should let him go home.
    • Richard quickly moves from social drinker to full-on six-year-old alcoholic. His mom begs the owner of the bar to keep him out, she can’t stop drunken men from giving him drinks on the street.
    • Eventually his mom is so fed up with the situation that she beats him and hires an old lady to make sure he can’t sneak off back to the pub.
    • For a story about a little kid there is one thing that seems to be missing. Did you notice? Yep—school.
    • There are a lot of school kids where Richard lives. While they play, Richard thumbs through their books and wonders at the mysterious black marks.
    • Richard learns to recognize some words, and then later he figures out how to read a little. As he reads more and more, he gets super curious about everything around him, so curious that his mother eventually refuses to answer his constant questions.
    • One morning, Richard has to pay for coal when his mother’s at work. When he pays, he doesn’t know how much change he needs back. The coal man is shocked that a kid his age can’t count, so he teaches him to count to one hundred.
    • Richard is so excited that he jumps up and down on the bed counting. When his mom returns home, she’s shocked to realize he knows how to count. Finally, she teaches him how to read properly, and then they spend their Sundays reading the newspapers. This is just the cutest.
    • Unfortunately, Richard doesn't stay cute for long. He asks questions, questions that adults don’t want to (or can’t) answer—like about race.
    • One day, everyone’s upset because a white man beat a black boy. Richard figures the man must be the boy’s father, so what’s the big deal? His mom tells him. First, the man’s not his father. Second, it was more like "beat him to a pulp" than "gently whip for punishment."
    • When Richard asks why the white man did this, his mom says that he’s too young to know.
    • Finally, someone gets the boy to school. At first, Richard is so scared that he can’t even remember his name.
    • He gets over it. He’s still shy in class, but outside of class he starts hanging out with a group of older boys with dirty mouths. He can't remember anything from class, but he sure can remember all the bad words he learned form his new friends. How’s that for a selective memory?
    • Richard is so excited to share all the things that he’s learned at school that he runs and writes a bad word on a shop window in soap as soon as he finishes his dinner. A lady sees his beautiful artwork and tells his mom, who forces him to wash it off in front of everyone. Richard basically dies from the embarrassment.
    • Since his dad has been gone, Richard’s life has been getting more religious. Every weekend his mom takes him to Sunday school.
    • One day Richard’s mom invites a preacher over for dinner and Richard is excited because she is serving chicken. Richard has to finish his soup before he can have any chicken, but it’s slow going.
    • By the time Richard even starts eating the soup, the preacher is chowing down on chicken. Soon the other adults finish their soup and eat the chicken too.
    • Richard just sits and stares at him, like he can’t imagine that this is really happening. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it starts to make a lot less when Richard freaks out. He jumps up and starts running around screaming that the preacher is going to eat all of the chicken. (Here’s a wild guess: maybe it’s a little thing called the Oedipus Complex, where chicken = Richard’s mom. Just a thought.)
    • When it’s all over, Richard doesn’t even get any chicken because his mom doesn’t let him have dinner after his stunt. Way to go, Dick.
    • Another morning, Richard wakes up to hear that his mom is taking him and his brother to an alimony hearing. His dad is there, looking quite pleased with himself while his mom bawls her eyes out.
    • His dad just laughs, and, if you weren’t sure before, this is where we figure out that he is definitely a poophead. So is the judge, because he sides with Richard’s dad.
    • After the hearing, Richard’s mom gets sick. Richard gets hungrier than ever. Eventually, his mom sends Richard and his brother to an orphanage.
    • The orphanage is small, the meals are meager, there are tons of angry children, and the whole thing is presided over by Miss Simon, a creepy lady who apparently wants Richard for her own purposes, whatever those might be.
    • Here’s a weird thing: since the school is too poor for a lawnmower, it uses the abundant resource of free child labor. The children pluck out the grass of the lawn by hand each morning after breakfast.
    • At first, Richard’s mom visits every day. When the visits suddenly stop, Richard learns that Miss Simon told her that the visits were "spoiling" them. Richard, rightfully, wants to get out of her clutches, but his mom says that he has to wait until she gets enough money to move them back to Arkansas.
    • Miss Simon still tries to win Richard over, but it doesn’t work at all. Instead, he becomes distrustful of everyone.
    • One day Miss Simon tells Richard that he’ll be working with her in the office. She wants him to blot her papers, which for some reason terrifies him so much that he ends up running out of her office in tears.
    • That’s it for Richard. He is so out of there, and, unlike most kids who say they’re going to run away, he actually does. The problem is that he has no idea where he has run away to.
    • Cut to poor lost Richard. He cries in the middle of the street until a white policeman finds him. He worries the policeman might hurt him, but instead he just takes Richard to the station and gives him a meal. Richard falls asleep.
    • Later, another policeman asks him questions very politely. Richard forgets that the policeman is white, so he isn’t scared anymore and he answers all the questions.
    • The policeman takes him back to the orphanage where Miss Simon is waiting for him. As soon as the police leave, she beats him.
    • When Richard’s mom finds out that he ran away, she gives him two options: A) stay at the orphanage, or B) ask your dad for money. Richard figures his dad can’t be worse than Miss Simon, so he chooses B.
    • So, later Richard’s mom takes him to see his dad. Dad has a swanky new pad and a girlfriend, and laughs when Richard’s mom says that he needs to support his children.
    • Richard’s dad offers him a nickel, or about 67 cents, to "help." Gee thanks Dad. That will totally help pay rent.
    • When Richard leaves, he feels dirty, and we do too.
    • Flash forward 25 years. Richard is all grown up. He is a stranger to his father because his life has been totally different from his dad’s. His dad is old and toothless and Richard realizes that his dad’s life was pretty much the opposite of awesome. Richard forgives him, although still we can’t muster up much sympathy for the guy.
    • And now, Richard is going to the city that his father ran away from.
  • Chapter 2

    • One afternoon, Richard’s mom breaks the news that they’ll be moving to Elaine, Arkansas, and visit their grandma in Mississippi on the way.
    • Richard is crazy excited. All he can think about is leaving. He rushes to pack and even leaves a shirt behind because he just doesn't care. He wants to get outta there.
    • His mom forces him to say goodbye to the kids at the orphanage, and then he’s out.
    • In the middle of all this excitement, here are two paragraphs of grown-up Wright’s thoughts plastered onto the story. He’s thinking that even though people say that black people are full of emotion, it’s not true. He thinks that the only emotions they have are fear and hate.
    • When they get to Mississippi, Granny’s house is awesome. It’s huge, there are lots of places to play hide and seek, and Richard and his brother can show off their worldliness to the country kids in the neighborhood.
    • Granny needs some help paying the rent on her new place, and so she rents out a room to a schoolteacher named Ella. Of course, Richard has the hugest crush on her. Gosh, we practically have a crush on her.
    • Ella is always reading, and one day Richard asks Ella what she is reading. She hesitates at first, but then she tells him. Ella reads the story of Bluebeard and his wives to Richard. His mind is blown, sorta like how people reacted when Avatar came out in 3D.
    • This lovey-dovey scene is interrupted by Granny, who screams at Ella and calls her a devil worshipper because she read to Richard. Obviously. The one with the book is the evil one.
    • This scene is the beginning of Richard’s fascination with books and literature. Because Granny stops Ella before the story is over, Richard pledges to get as many books as he can.
    • One day, Richard’s mom is very sick, and Grandma is taking care of the kids. Richard and his brother are supposed to be taking a bath, but they are more concerned with splashing each other than anything else. Eventually Grandma has had enough of their foolishness and starts to bathe Richard herself.
    • Now, this is the part of the story that makes us question Richard as a narrator—heck, as a person with two brain cells. When his grandma is washing his butt, Richard tells her to kiss his you-know-what when she’s done. Feel free to throw the book down along with us.
    • Why did he do it? We don’t know. He doesn’t even know. But as soon as he says it, you just know what’s coming.
    • What’s coming is a several-page-long chase scene that Richard loses. Massively. Suffice it to say that Granny doesn’t take too kindly to Richard's words, and neither does anyone else. He gets one heck of a beating from nearly the whole household.
    • Grandma decides that this whole to-do is the fault of the evil books. She blames Ella and kicks her out of the house.
    • This is the first time that Richard realizes that words are important, and saying the wrong words can make bad things happen.
    • After this exciting scene, Richard gives us a montage about the rest of the days at Granny’s. He tells us about bees, drinking milk, and the feeling of freedom with evocative language. And then finally the family heads off to Arkansas.
    • At the train station, Richard notices that people have to stand in two lines: one for black people and one for white people. He wants to go peep in the white people’s cabin, which is obviously a bad idea, and his mother tells him to shut up.
    • Richard keeps at it, and they end up having a "conversation" about Richard’s grandmother. Richard is mad, because he can tell that his mom really doesn’t want to be having this conversation right now.
    • When they reach Arkansas, Richard sees that Aunt Maggie’s house is nice and cozy. There’s a dusty road with lots of flowers, and nice dirt to play in.
    • He also enjoys smashing bees in his hands. This is a dangerous pastime and it’s not surprising what happens next. A bee stings him when he fails to smash it thoroughly. At least he learns his lesson and never smooshes one again.
    • Aunt Maggie’s husband, Uncle Hoskins, works in a saloon so they have tons of moolah and Richard can finally eat.
    • He’s so hungry that he eats until his stomach hurts. Then, because he’s afraid the food will disappear, he takes some and hides it in his pockets and around the house like some kind of hoarder. Finally he gets that the food will still be there tomorrow and the day after and calms down.
    • Richard and Uncle Hoskins are riding in a horse and buggy one day (remember, this is still the beginning of the twentieth century) when Uncle Hoskins asks Richard if he wants to see his horse drink out of the middle of the Mississippi River.
    • Duh, Richard says. The horse can't do that.
    • So Uncle Hoskins leads the horse—still pulling the buggy—into the river. The water is up to its neck and it’s freaking out. Also freaking out: Richard, who nearly jumps into the river. Do your uncles ever make these kinds of jokes? You know, those ones that are never funny and kind of weird? Ours do, but this is pretty crazy, even for a weird uncle joke.
    • At the end of it all, Uncle Hoskins doesn’t get why Richard is so scared. Never mind that he thought he was going to die. When they get on land, Richard rushes off of the buggy. The two walk home, and Richard, in a recurring theme, never trusts his uncle again.
    • Just like Richard’s dad, Uncle Hoskins sleeps during the day. Unlike Richard's dad, he doesn’t mind noise and he sleeps with a gun over his head. Why? Because white men want to kill him.
    • One morning, Uncle Hoskins doesn’t come home from work. By nighttime, Aunt Maggie is freaking out.
    • Eventually a boy brings them the bad news. Uncle Hoskins has been shot. Not only that, but his killers are coming after all of his relatives, too.
    • Time to move. Again. The family hurriedly packs their bags and gets out of town. Uncle is buried, but no one sees him: no funeral, no mourning, nothing. Just fleeing town. And let us point out that Richard has not even had one full year of school yet.
    • The sisters end up back in the warm, slightly paranoid safety of Grandma’s bosom. A few days later Richard is playing in a field by digging in the dirt with a knife (you know, the usual games) when something crazy happens. He hears a noise and looks up to see a wave of identical-looking black men coming at him in unison. He is so scared that he can’t even scream.
    • We’re pretty scared too, because we have no idea what is going on and it reads like something out of a sci-fi movie. We really feel the confusion a kid who is seeing something for the first time might feel.
    • When Richard gets home his mom tells him that they are soldiers who will be fighting the Germans in World War I. She tries to explain but Richard is too young to really get it.
    • Another day Richard sees a herd of elephants. Yeah, we know what you’re saying: "Elephants aren’t native to Arkansas, Shmoop." Well, you know that, and we know that, but Richard doesn’t know that.
    • Richard isn’t scared of the elephants like he was with the soldiers, which is surprising because we’d be pretty freaked out if elephants were chilling on our street.
    • Hang on, because this next bit is pretty trippy:
    • The elephants have faces of men, and white men are watching them. Richard asks one of the elephants what’s up, but the elephant doesn’t answer. The elephant gestures to the white guys that are watching them. Richard is scared of the white guys (although not of the elephants that can understand English), and he runs home.
    • This scene reads like something out of Alice in Wonderland—but there’s a rational explanation. Richard tells his mom that there are elephants in the street, and like any good mom she looks at him like he has gone crazy. She looks out and tells him that they aren’t elephants, but a chain gang.
    • Richard, who is disturbingly precocious, thinks it’s a bit strange that he sees only black men in the chain gang since he’s pretty sure that white men commit crimes, too. His mom’s excuse is that people are harder on the black men.
    • Oh yeah, why did he think they were elephants? Because they wore stripes, which he associated with zebras, which he connected to elephants, which then became a chain gang. Simple, right?
    • Some time later, Richard’s mom decides that it is time to move again. Everyone is tired of Granny’s religiosity, so they decide to move to a place called West Helena.
    • But Granny’s religiosity was probably better than their new apartment, which is infested with vermin, not exactly in the nicest of neighborhoods, and plain nasty-smelling. Welcome home, Wright family.
    • Richard and the other kids in the neighborhood sneak into the trains in the locomotive yard in front of their house when no one is looking and pretend they are driving. They also play in the sewage with metal, old toothbrushes, and dead animals. This is pretty gross and sounds like a good way to get a whole range of diseases, especially before routine immunization, but at least they’re not zoned out on their PS3s. We guess.
    • Richard’s mom and his Aunt Maggie work all day, leaving Richard and his brother a dime each to get them through the day. Every day, the brothers go to the corner store and buy some cookies and soda for lunch. Sugar is the best part of the food pyramid.
    • You would guess that because he faces racial oppression, Richard would be totally understanding about other races and ethnicities. You would be wrong. He and the other kids have a whole repertoire of racist songs that they sing every time they see a Jewish person, and Richard shares them with us just in case our repertoire of racist songs is getting stale.
    • One afternoon, a girl suggests that something is going on in the house next to Richard's. Richard has no idea what she’s talking about, because he is, as usual, clueless. Now he’s curious. Three guesses, but you’ll probably only need one: prostitution. Or, at least, a room in which a revolving cast of people get it on. So yeah, probably prostitution.
    • Richard isn’t the sneakiest of kids, so the people he spies on notice that someone is lurking around. Soon the landlady is after him. She tells him to open the door, and in another of those mind-blowingly stupid moments, he opens it.
    • Eventually his mom and aunt (who also had no idea what was going on, so maybe cluelessness runs in the family) get in on the spying action. In the end the landlady kicks them out because his mom won’t punish Richard.
    • Now, something else strange is happening. At night a strange man, who seems to be dressed like Malcolm X, is sneaking into the house. When Richard asks his mom about it, she tells him that he was dreaming. Later Richard finds out that this guy is his "new uncle," and that he and his aunt Maggie are going to the North.
    • Apparently white people are after his "uncle," which scares the bejeebers out of Richard. In order to make sure the boys keep their mouths shut, "uncle" bribes them with presents like a poodle called Betsy. (Here’s a hint: never give someone a present that requires food and water.)
    • One night Richard wakes up to craziness.
    • His mom is packing, Aunt Maggie is crying, and "uncle" is looking out the window. Here’s what happened: he stole some money, which is bad enough. There was a witness, which is worse. And his rational solution is to knock her unconscious and burn everything, which is just so bad that we can’t even come up with a word for it. Anyway, "uncle" and Aunt Maggie ride off into the sunset—or sunrise—and neither Richard nor we ever figure out what happened.
    • After Aunt Maggie leaves, his mom is all out of money, and Richard is hungry. Again. So, Richard decides to sell his dog. He goes into a white neighborhood alone for the first time, and finally one lady wants to buy the dog. The thing is, Richard remembers that white people killed his uncle and made his aunt run away. In the end, Richard refuses to sell Betsy.
    • A week later, Betsy was crushed to death under a wagon. Now he has no food, no dog, and no money. It’s a bit ironic in the Alanis Morissette kind of way, which is actually not ironic at all but just kind of frustrating and depressing.
    • Richard tells us about the magic possibilities of life. He lists a long collection of myths and old wives tales, including classics such as "If your ear itches then someone was talking about you," and "Breaking a mirror gives you seven years of bad luck."
    • He tells us that he thinks about these magical things because he has no power, and magic allows him to imagine that he does.
    • Meanwhile, the South is going race crazy. Richard is becoming more and more frightened of white people.
    • One evening, he hears a story of a woman whose husband had been killed by a white mob. As she pretended to cry over her husband’s body, she used a gun wrapped in his burial sheet to shoot four of the white people who killed him. Richard imagines that this is what he would do: kill them before they kill me.
    • Okay, so maybe he’d never actually do that, but it’s soothing to think about—especially because Richard is growing more and more afraid of white people.
    • One good thing happens about now: Richard’s mom gets a high paying job at a doctor’s office, and he can go to school again.
    • The thing is, Richard still has a crippling shyness. When he’s called to the blackboard, everyone laughs behind his back because he can’t even write his own name.
    • Another day, Richard is sitting in class and all of a sudden there are bells and whistles and class is dismissed early. What is going on here? Apparently WWI is over. Whatever, early release! Woo hoo!
    • On the way home, Richard sees a plane for the first time, but he doesn’t believe that it’s a plane. He thinks it’s a bird until his mom tells him otherwise.
    • That year Richard has the saddest Christmas ever. All he gets is an orange, when everyone else gets cool toys. All day and all night he eats that orange. Since it is his only present, he makes it last all day. Sad, sad, sad. Someone get that kid a Tickle Me Elmo or a Wii or something.
  • Chapter 3

    • Richard is a big kid now, hanging out with the tough guys. And by big and tough we mean 11 years old, but whatever. They hate white people together, speak in deep voices together, and call each other the n-word (see, they did this back in 1919, don’t blame hip-hop). These are his bros. Bros for life.
    • Richard and his bros talk smack constantly. He gives us an example and they almost speak according to a script, like this charming example:
      "Crush that nigger’s nuts, nigger!" 
    • "Hit that nigger!" 
    • "Aw, fight, you goddamn niggers!" 
    • "Sock ’im in his f--k--g piece!" 
    • "Make ’im bleed!"
      (1.12.271)
    • Whew. And that little selection doesn’t even include the poop jokes, the humorous asides about war and death, and the constant wondering why white people hate them so much. It would read like a high-quality HBO show if it weren’t so sad.
    • On Sundays the bros go to church. They’re not into it for the religion, but they do like making fun of the hymns and Bible. They replace "Amazing Grace" with parodies á la "Jingle Bells."
    • When they’re not in church, they’re fighting white boys. The two groups have battles that are every bit as epic as the Hunger Games. Unlike the Hunger Games, these battles aren’t broadcast on national TV. In fact, the boys have to hide their battle scars so they don’t get in trouble with their moms.
    • One time, Richard gets a huge gash on his head from a broken bottle and has to go to the hospital. He promises his mom that he will stop fighting, but he’s totally lying. The law of the street comes before the law of the mom.
    • When Richard’s mom gets sick again, he starts his first job at the tender age of 11, carrying lunches for workers.
    • Carrying lunches turns out not be a particularly lucrative career, so the family has to move three times because they can’t pay the rent. Each place they move to is worse than the last.
    • Meanwhile, Richard’s mom is getting sicker. One morning, she doesn’t answer them when they call her.
    • Neighbors come to help out and realize that she’s had a stroke. It gets worse. She’s paralyzed now and needs constant medical attention.
    • Richard has the genius idea to write to his grandmother and complain that his childhood is like totally over now. Grandma actually comes through for him and asks her kids (all nine of them) to throw in some cash to take care of the family. They do more than send cash: they descend on Richard and his brother to help out.
    • This is great. His mom’s going to get the care she needs, Richard won’t have to work, and both boys are going to be able to go to school. Awesome, right?
    • Too bad that Richard is still ruinously antisocial, because he starts acting up when he’s not cowering in a corner.
    • He does try to be good; really, he does. Unfortunately, his brother is staying up north with Aunt Maggie (the nice one). Richard decides to stay with Uncle Clark, who lives closer to his mom.
    • Uncle Clark and his wife are not exactly welcoming. Let’s put it this way: if they were running a bed and breakfast, they’d have one star on Yelp. Richard wonders if he made the right decision. (We’re going with no.)
    • The next day he goes to a new school. It’s awesome. His teacher loves him and he makes a new friend right away. Ha! No, actually he gets into a fight. Someone pushes a guy into him and it’s on. What is wrong with this guy?
    • The fight ends in a draw, but Richard has proven that he is no pushover. He is accepted and doesn’t have to fight anymore. Things are all good, and it seems like Richard might actually have a chance—which makes this next scene so depressing, but also, let’s face it, kind of funny.
    • Uncle Clark’s landlord, Mr. Burden, tells Richard that his son died in the bed that Richard sleeps on. Uncle Clark is in the background, going like, "Naw, man, don’t tell him that!" but it’s too late. No more sleeping for Richard.
    • Uncle Clark tells him to get over it, but he obviously doesn’t know Richard. After a week, a sleep-deprived Richard asks to go home.
    • At first, Uncle Clark wants him to wait out the school year, but he changes his mind pretty quickly when Richard curses. This scene is actually really impressive. We can’t even curse like that (not that we would want to, or anything. Ahem.).
    • Richard is super excited to see his mom, who’s about to have another operation. Unfortunately, all the operation reveals is that she has a clot in her brain.
    • And finally, here comes the moral of this chapter: his mother’s suffering changes Richard. When he grows up, he tries to find meaning in suffering.
  • Chapter 4

    • Richard is living with Granny again, and he’s getting a little fed up with all the religiosity. He doesn’t mind listening to the sermons, but once he’s out of church he thinks it’s all a big joke.
    • On top of this, Richard is hungry. Like super hungry. Like fantasizing-about-vanilla-wafers and drinking-water-so-that-he-can-feel-full-hungry. Granny seems to only serve lard-based meals, and the occasional Tofurkey look-alike, which gives the whole family a constant case of heartburn and indigestion.
    • Richard can pretty much ignore Granny’s constant nagging him to get "saved" until she recruits a sidekick, Aunt Addie, who is fresh from religious school.
    • Guess who else is going to religious school, very much against his will? Richard. And guess who the teacher is? Aunt Addie.
    • Aunt Addie—we mean, Mrs. Wilson—isn’t going to win any teaching awards. One day she accuses Richard of dropping some walnuts on the floor and whops his hands when he (truthfully) denies it.
    • At home, she tries to beat Richard again, but Richard has just about had enough. Little 11-year-old Richard whips out a knife and chases his aunt while she runs after him with a wooden switch. Total slapstick gold. It’d be even funnier if this weren’t an autobiography and if it didn’t seem to happen to Richard all of the time.
    • Granny gets involved, Richard's mom gets involved, Grandpa gets involved, and of course they all take Aunt Addie’s side before Richard has even said a thing. Grownups, go figure.
    • Richard doesn’t back down, so we guess it’s a draw. After that, Aunt Addie ignores him.
    • So, Richard said before that Granny was pretty religious, but now he goes into detail about how their whole days are arranged according to her religious regime. He develops a method to avoid kneeling that involves complicatedly balancing on his tiptoes, which doesn’t really seem any better to us, but at this point we’re pretty much on his side no matter what he chooses to do.
    • At church these days, Richard ignores the sermon to focus on the preacher’s wife. Sounds like someone is going through puberty.
    • Granny has caught on that whipping doesn’t work, so now she’s trying a different tactic to save his soul: cult-style recruitment. Suddenly, everyone is all nicey nice trying to get him to become Christian. Everyone in the neighborhood is involved, even kids who have never talked to Richard before.
    • The thing is, it’s not that Richard thinks God doesn’t exist. It’s just that he doesn’t care either way.
    • Eventually, Richard is so fed up that he tells his grandma that, if he saw an angel, he’d join the church. Apparently she doesn’t have the best hearing, because she hears him saying that he saw an angel and he believes.
    • Ensue misunderstandings. The whole church ends up thinking that Richard saw an angel, and they’re just about to welcome him into their fold (One of us! One of us!) when Richard opens his big mouth to announce that he didn’t see an angel after all.
    • Granny is bummed, but she settles for making him promise to pray, and being a good boy.
    • He tries, not too successfully. Then, he thinks that maybe writing new hymns is just as good as praying. From hymns, it’s a short step to writing a story about a girl.
    • It’s the first story he’s written, and he’s so proud that he decides to show it to some other random girl. The girl is super confused (and we kind of are, too). Why did he write it? Where did the idea come from? What is he going to do with it?
    • Picture Richard slicking back his hair and saying, with his best nonchalant hipster air, "Oh, its nothing."
    • Right, Richard. Sure.
  • Chapter 5

    • So, Richard doesn’t have to worry about being converted anymore, and he can finally go to a non-religious school. He has no money for books, and his clothes are dirty and disgusting, not to mention so last season—but school is school.
    • Before this, he only had one year of unbroken schooling, and he only ends up getting four more. For comparative purposes: by the end of high school you’ll have at least three times the amount of education this guy had. Where’s your award-winning autobiography?
    • Anyway, on the first day of school Richard gets into a fight. Of course. It’s not really his fault, but he gets in trouble for it anyway. Probably because he hit the other guy in front of the teacher. Smooth move, Dick.
    • After starting off in fifth grade at first, Richard works his way up to sixth grade in two weeks. Everyone is astounded, and Richard decides that he’s going to become a doctor and change the world.
    • All the other kids have jobs, but Granny won’t let Richard work on the Sabbath (which is Saturday for her Seventh-Day Adventist church). Since Richard has no money, he’s always hungry at school.
    • One of Richard's classmates suggests that he sell papers. This is a great idea, because Richard gets money and something to read at the same time. Until…
    • A family friend tells him that the magazine he has been selling is racist. He shows Richard what the writers think a black president would look like, and it’s not very inspirational. Richard, who only reads the comics, is as usual clueless. But he does stop selling the paper.
    • Without a job, Richard has more time for his favorite hobby. No, it’s not looking at people pooping. It’s studying. Surprise! It turns out that Richard is totally the kid who does all of the homework for the semester in the first week.
    • One day during the summer, Richard is lazing around and listening to his mom, Aunt Addie, and Granny argue. Richard has the audacity to join in, and Granny swats at him. When he dodges, she falls down the stairs. Totally Richard’s fault, everyone agrees.
    • Aunt Addie and Richard get into it again, and Richard threatens to cut her if she touches him. Not to be so easily outdone, she says she’ll get him when he’s unarmed. For a month Richard sleeps with a knife under his pillow.
    • Richard points out that the level of violence seems a wee bit high for a religious household.
    • Towards the end of summer, Richard gets a strange kind of job. He becomes the assistant of an ex-janitor-turned-insurance-agent. It pays beaucoup bucks, and for the first time in his life he has money. Suddenly, everyone at home likes him. Everything is awesome until Brother Mance, the agent, dies. Then it’s back to poorsville for Richard and everyone hates him again.
    • One day Richard discovers that his grandfather is very sick. Now we get a little backstory on Grandpa, who served in the Civil War but refuses to talk about it. Grandpa also never got his disability pension because his name was misspelled on his military files. He spent years trying to get the error fixed without success.
    • A few days later, when Richard comes home from school, Aunt Addie tells him to go say goodbye. At this tender moment, Richard gets beaten again for not being able to understand what his dying grandfather is saying.
    • Richard gets in trouble over this again when, following orders, he runs to tell Uncle Tom that Grandpa has died. Uncle Tom is more upset that Richard just blurted it out than the fact that his dad is gone. Priorities, man.
    • Around this time Richard's clothes become so bedraggled that he threatens to leave the house if he can't hit up Abercrombie with Granny’s credit card. Ha! Actually, all he wants is to be able to work on Saturdays. Granny doesn't believe that he’d actually leave, until he literally starts packing his bags.
    • That does the trick, and Richard can now do whatever he wants.
  • Chapter 6

    • Richard finally is able to get a job. Hooray! Just what every kid wants, right after a PS3 and an iPhone.
    • He starts with a white family who wants a black boy to do chores. The lady asks Richard if he steals, and Richard laughs in her face because, duh if he did steal, he wouldn’t tell her. The lady doesn’t think it’s so funny, though, so Richard has really gotten off on the wrong foot.
    • This is Richard’s first time hanging around with white people, and he’s a little worried that they’ll just up and lynch him one day.
    • As it turns out, he doesn’t have to worry about that. But he does have to worry about the nasty, moldy food that they put out for him, and about the insane fact that they get offended when he doesn’t eat it.
    • After the gross breakfast fiasco, the woman asks him why he is still going to school. When he says because he wants to be a writer, it is her turn to laugh in his face. Richard, since he is proud and pigheaded, leaves the job in a huff.
    • The next day he finds another job (apparently there’s no recession going on), and the lady can’t believe that he doesn’t know how to milk a cow. Apparently all black people can milk a cow. You know, just like white people can’t dance, and Asian people rock at math? In other words, this lady is pretty racist.
    • Well, Richard gets over that when he realizes that they have tons of food at their house and that they might be able to sneak some of the food into his stomach.
    • Or at least, Richard is excited until the next day, when the family curses each other out while acting like strangers. Richard has never seen a family like this and he is nervous the whole day. This is actually a little surprising, since his family chases each other around with knives and whips, but whatevs.
    • Because of his new, nerve-wracking job, Richard's grades are falling. But at least he has money and can eat.
    • As his mom recovers, she starts to attend a Methodist Church. Richard only goes to hang out with his friends, but he stays to marvel at the sheer number of black people. He’s never seen so many all in one place.
    • After a while, his friends start pestering him to join. On the night of a revival, the pastor uses the old, "Do you want to make your mom sad?" play to manipulate Richard into being baptized. He doesn’t feel any different, but everyone else is satisfied.
    • The family needs money to pay rent again, so Uncle Tom and his family move in. Uncle Tom gets on Richard's nerves because he tries to tell him what is wrong with his life, and Richard gets on Uncle Tom’s nerves because he ignores him. It’s made in heaven.
    • One day Uncle Tom asks Richard for the time. Richard tells him, but Uncle Tom flips out anyway. Like, he goes totally crazy. This scene is insane. You should check it out, because we seriously can’t understand what’s going on to make him so angry.
    • Also, how is it possible that every single person Richard knows is so awful?
    • Uncle Tom decides to beat Richard. What he doesn’t know is that Richard decided a long time ago that he wasn’t going to get beaten anymore. Tom is surprised when Richard threatens to cut him with razor blades.
    • We, however, are not surprised.
    • The scene ends with Uncle Tom emotionally broken because he has just lost in a fight to a pre-teen.
  • Chapter 7

    • It’s not a good summer. Richard is living at home, where no one talks to him. His mom is recovering, but still not well. He wants to go to the North. He doesn’t have enough money for fancy clothes. Sounds like a great summer.
    • Next, Richard takes a job as a water boy in a brickyard. He’s too weak to work as a bricklayer, maybe because he never has enough money to eat.
    • Everything is great at the brickyard except for one thing: the owner’s dog, which—no doubt irritated that it keeps getting pelted with bricks—has bitten several of the workers.
    • One day, the dog attacks Richard. He tells the owner, but the owner somehow thinks black people are like Superman and can’t be harmed by petty things such as dog bites. Luckily for Richard, the wound heals without infection.
    • Eventually, the brickyard closes and again Richard has nothing to do. He briefly holds a job as a golf caddy, but he’s no good at it and gets fired pretty quickly.
    • School starts, and now Richard has no idea what to do with his life. His family doesn’t like him, he has no money, he wants to be educated but can’t get schoolbooks, and racism is horrible.
    • Richard is so bored that he decides to write a story. Surprisingly, the local newspaper decides to publish it. Unsurprisingly, they decide not to pay him. Still, Richard is stoked.
    • Until it’s published. Instead of praising Richard, everyone thinks there’s something wrong with him—like, he’s definitely a liar and possibly evil. Now he’s even more isolated than before.
    • Richard is so over the South. At this point, so are we.
  • Chapter 8

    • It’s summer again, and you know what that means. No? Richard is looking for a job again.
    • He tries at the mill, but being small and frail and liking the idea of his fingers not being chopped off by a power saw, he decides that’s not the place for him. We agree.
    • Some time later, Richard is walking through town when he sees his friend Ned looking sad. Why the long face, Ned? Ned tells Richard that white people killed his brother because he was hooking up with a white prostitute.
    • Cue Richard's phobia of white people. For days, he can’t speak or do anything.
    • After his paralyzing fear recedes a little, Richard kicks up the job search again. Finally, he decides to try up north, where some of his friends found work.
    • Around this time, Richard realizes that people are starting to be a little afraid of him. One day, he’s at home hanging out with his cousin when Uncle Tom (the one from the razor fight) yells at her for even talking to Richard.
    • Richard realizes that, ever since the fight, Uncle Tom has been convinced that Richard’s crazy. Given that Richard thinks there’s nothing odd at all about threatening to cut his uncle with razor, he might be right.
    • With this news, Richard decides that he is going to leave home as soon as ninth grade is over.
    • Drumroll please… Richard is the valedictorian of his school! Yay!
    • And of course it doesn’t go as planned. As valedictorian, he has to write and give a speech at graduation. He does. But when it comes time to graduate, the principal tells him that white people are going to be in the audience, and has to give a different speech—one that the principal wrote for him.
    • When Richard refuses, the principal threatens to stop him from graduating. Everyone tells him just to read the stupid speech, but Richard sticks to his guns.
    • By the time he graduates, Richard is so over this stupidity that he walks out immediately after his speech.
    • At this point, we’re surprised that he didn't just title the book "Screw everyone. P.S. Especially you, Aunt Addie".
  • Chapter 9

    • Richard is looking for a job. Again.
    • He takes the first one he can get, as a porter at a clothing store. The owners are terrible. It’s not just that their prices are bad and their clothes are worse, but they actually kick and slap their customers. Sounds a little like a Black Friday at Wal-Mart, only even less classy.
    • One morning, Richard sees the owners assault a black woman on the street, right in front of a police officer. Luckily, the police officer steps in—to arrest the woman. That’s what happens to people who don’t pay up, the owners tell Richard.
    • Another time, Richard is making deliveries on the store bike, and the tire goes flat. As he walks home, some white guys offer to pick him up. It ends—can you guess? Badly. He forgets to call them "Sir," so naturally they hit him in the face with a whiskey bottle.
    • He turns down the ride.
    • Not angry enough? Here’s another anecdote for you. One night Richard is making deliveries in a white neighborhood and some white policemen come behind him with guns pointed at him. They stop him, search him, and are bummed out when they can't find any reason to jail him. We sure are lucky that things like that don’t happen any more.
    • Finally, one day at work the boss’s son asks him why he doesn't laugh and smile like the other black people. Richard points out that there’s not much to joke about.
    • This apparently is not the right answer, because the son throws some money at Richard and tells him to get out of his store.
    • Richard is fed up with all his employment problems. He asks his friend Griggs how to find a job—or keep a job, which Griggs points out is his real problem.
    • Griggs knows all about Richard's escapades with jobs this summer because the white people have been talking about him, and he’s basically blacklisted. Griggs tells him he needs to start acting like a stereotypical black Southern person. This might be good advice for keeping a job, but we’re pretty sure it’s bad advice for, you know, life.
    • Anyway, Griggs gets Richard a job with an optical company run by a white man from up north. At first, Richard follows Griggs’s advice and everything’s great.
    • Then Richard opens his big mouth again and tells his white coworkers that he’s supposed to be learning a trade, not just cleaning up after them. Pretty soon, snide comments turn into a full-on confrontation.
    • Richard has no way out, because anything he says will break the Southern code of conduct. His coworkers have him backed against a wall. This scene shows a rare time when Richard is doing everything right for once, and it all still turns out horribly. In the end Richard runs home, only barely escaping getting beaten up or worse.
    • The next day Richard goes back to the store to collect his paycheck and talk to the Yankee boss. He wants to explain what happened, but the guys are standing right there and Richard starts crying. He takes his money and leaves.
    • Again, the chapter ends with Richard deciding to get the heck out of the South.
  • Chapter 10

    • For a while, Richard walks around in a depressed funk. He finally gets his act together and finds a job, because he realizes that he’s got to work if he’s going to get out of the South.
    • At his next job, Richard does a total 180. Instead of being too aggressive, he is too subservient. His new boss notices the act (Richard is a bad actor) and sends him home. Check another job off the list, Dick.
    • After a while Richard gets a job at the same hotel as Ned’s dead brother. He’s amazed at how easy it is for the boys he works with to deal with white people.
    • He also notices that their goals are… a little different. For example, one boy seems to expect Richard to be jealous that the boy has gonorrhea. Richard, however, thinks this is ridiculous, and so do we.
    • One night Richard is walking home with one of the hotel maids when a police officer slaps her butt. The girl brushes him off, but Richard is appalled. He can’t even move until the officer pulls out his gun and asks him if he has a problem. Later, he realizes that the girl’s just not upset at all, which makes him feel stupid for caring in the first place.
    • So, Richard is still on this getting out of the South plan, but his household expenses eat up all his money. For the first time in his life, Richard thinks about stealing.
    • He gets the opportunity when he’s promoted to bellboy. All the bellboys make a little money on the side bootlegging liquor, and he follows along.
    • Richard ups the stakes when he gets a job at a movie theater, moving from simple bootlegging to actually stealing as part of an organized scheme. Richard isn’t exactly a natural thief. He’s scared and sweaty all the time, as he worries that the whole thing will blow up in his face and land him in jail. Plus, the people that he is working with are totally sketchy, so he doesn’t even know if he can trust them.
    • Miraculously, the first day of thievery goes well, and so do the next few. Richard makes $670 in a week. Richard only needs around $1,200, so he wants to get while the getting is good.
    • Yeah, not so much. When you deal with sketchy people, they tend to threaten you when you say you’re leaving.
    • Richard works for another week and then decides that it’s time to go. He gathers his money, steals a gun from the neighbors just for good measure, purchases supplies, and tells his mom that he’s out.
    • Then he’s on a train to the North, vowing never to steal again.
  • Chapter 11

    • Richard arrives in Memphis. It may still be south of the Mason-Dixon line, but he can practically taste that sweet northern air.
    • Given Richard’s general bad luck, it’s not surprising that he somehow ends up in the bad part of town as soon as he gets off of the train. Looking for somewhere to stay, he sees a house with a ROOMS sign, but assumes it is a brothel and keeps looking. Eventually the lady in the house comes out, tells him it’s not a brothel after all, and even gives him a discount on a room.
    • Get ready to have your mind blown, because you’re about to see people actually being nice to Richard.
    • The landlady, Mrs. Moss, figures Richard out immediately. She is the nicest person he has ever met. Later we meet Bess, Mrs. Moss’s daughter, and she’s even nicer. So nice that it’s actually a little weird. So nice that it’s becoming obvious she has a bit of a crush on Richard.
    • Richard is more than a little weirded out since they haven’t even had a first date and she’s already going on about marriage and love. Still, it must be a nice change from people thinking he’s demon-possessed.
    • Actually, Richard is starting to think that maybe it’s Mrs. Moss and her daughter who are possessed, and we kinda agree with him. This is some freaky cult stuff.
    • He goes out looking for a job both because he needs one and just to get away from all the awkward. In a few hours, Richard snags a job as a dishwasher. Go Richard!
    • That night, Mrs. Moss sees him eating out of a can in his room alone like the antisocial kid that he is, and he makes Mrs. Moss cry because she realizes how awful his family must have been if he feels bad eating dinner with them.
    • When he and Bess are alone, she bats her eyelashes at him and combs his hair, which we suppose was part of the mating ritual of the day, and thinks Richard is lying when he says that he has no idea what she is doing. She doesn’t know Richard as well as we do, so she hasn’t figured out that he’s an oblivious dummy when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
    • You know where this is going, right? Well, it goes there. For a while. When Bess confesses that she loves Richard and asks if he loves her too, Richard backs off in horror. Bess cries and runs away, saying that she hates him.
    • Richard has no idea what is going on.
    • The next day, Richard gets his can of food and goes to work. On the way to work, Richard thinks he’s found a friend but in fact he’s just been conned into a bootlegging scheme.
    • This chapter really did not end up where we expected it was going to.
  • Chapter 12

    • Richard decides to try again at an optical company. He does find a job, although they refuse to teach him the trade and instead graciously allow him to clean up and do other menial tasks. Still, everything seems to be working out, and Richard is even able to work around white people without having a panic attack every two seconds.
    • At home, Bess is giving Richard the silent treatment. That’s A-OK with Richard.
    • A few days later, Mrs. Moss asks what’s up with him and Bess. Richard tells her that he and Bess aren’t going to have cute babies together anytime soon. She keeps badgering him about it and one day he says he is going to leave. At first she’s mad, and then she’s sad, and then she tells him that they’ll stop bothering him if he promises not to leave.
    • Now that he has some money, Richard starts saving to bring his family north. (Yeah, we were surprised too.) He even has enough money to buy all the books he wants, and he goes to work early to read the early edition of the daily paper.
    • The guys Richard works with seem a little dim. One guy, Shorty, is willing to debase himself by letting a white man kick him for what works out to be around $3 in 21st-century money. Richard and the guys complain a lot, but they never do anything.
    • One day, a white man at the shop asks if Richard is hungry. Duh, he’s been hungry his whole life—but he’d never admit it to a white man. Richard won’t even take the dollar the man offers him, because he knows that his life in the South depends on white men thinking that he’s content with his life.
    • Then something weird happens. Richard’s supervisor, Mr. Olin, asks him if they’re friends. This is weird, because obviously they’re not. To avoid awkwardness, Richard is all, sure, dude. We’re totally friends.
    • Then Olin tells Richard that some guy he barely knows, Harrison, wants to kill him (Richard). Olin tries to play this like it’s coming out of the goodness of his heart, but we gotta say it sounds suspicious.
    • Later Richard talks to Harrison and, surprise, surprise, they’ve been duped. Apparently, their bosses want them to fight. They agree not to kill each other after all, and that’s that.
    • Or at least it is until the next day when Olin forces Richard to take a knife, arranges for the two to have a showdown, and generally doesn’t stop trying to get them to kill each other for a whole week. Don’t they have some football to watch, or something?
    • Finally, the white guys up the stakes and offer the two boys $5 each to fight in a booking ring. Harrison jumps at the chance to get $5 (around $70 now) and eventually convinces Richard to agree. They agree that they won’t actually fight, although we can’t figure out how they’re planning to pull this one off.
    • The day comes, and it’s just like Fight Club, only without the complicated psychological plot. A bunch of white men in a damp, dark room want to see blood.
    • As soon as the match starts, Harrison and Richard’s agreement is out the door. They beat each other to pieces. Richard feels sick and dirty afterwards, like when you eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s while watching exploitative reality TV. Except worse.
  • Chapter 13

    • One day Richard reads an article that denounces H.L. Mencken, and he decides to learn more about this so-called "Fool."
    • One problem, though. He can't use the library, because obviously books are dangerous weapons in the hands of black people. Sort of like nunchucks, only, you know, less deadly when used with direct force.
    • Richard devises a plot to use someone else's library card. But whose?
    • Ah, the Catholic! People hate him almost as much as they hate black people. Perfect.
    • So Richard goes to ask the Catholic, named Falk, and, miracle of all miracles, he agrees. Richard forges a letter asking the librarian to let Richard use the card to check out some books for Falk. Then, further miracle, the librarian accepts the fake letter and he actually gets the books.
    • Richard starts reading and his mind is blown. Since he’s only read magazines and pulp fiction before, he’s like, Poe? Mark Twain? Who are these guys? How are you making me feel things with words? Basically, it’s a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view, and Richard is loving this carpet ride.
    • Reading even helps him begin to unravel the problem of racism, understanding on a larger scale what it means for him to be a black man in the South. Still, he thinks that no other black people share his interests, not even professionals.
    • Meanwhile, Richard’s brother (who, by the way, is named Alan) has joined him in Memphis and is helping save money. But they’re still stuck in Memphis and don’t know how they’re going to get to Chicago, or what they’re going to do when they’re there.
  • Chapter 14

    • Jackpot! Aunt Maggie’s husband deserted her and she came to Memphis. That’s sad for her, but it’s great for Richard and Alan, because they join up with her to make an escape plan. They’re still short a little money, but it’s now or never for these three.
    • Two days before D-Day, Richard tells his boss he’s leaving. They’re not happy, but there’s nothing they can do. He peaces out into the sunset.
    • Yes, that is it. This is a super short chapter.
  • Chapter 15

    • Finally, the North!
    • Chicago is unreal. It’s loud, dark, and grey; everyone moves too fast; and they all look scared. You know who’s not scared? Richard, who is no longer looking over his shoulder waiting for someone to swing a whiskey bottle at him for being black.
    • Except he has no idea what he’s going to do now that he’s achieved his goal.
    • The next morning, Richard bundles up against the freezing cold and heads out to find a job.
    • An old Jewish couple hires him almost immediately as a porter. Richard can’t understand their accents too well. Since he’s so used to understanding the world in terms of white oppression of black people, he mistakenly decides that they’re trying to keep him down.
    • He’s wrong, and grown-up Richard wants us to know that. We get two whole pages of parenthetical asides about how stupid this was and how going to the North is scary for a black person from the South, and being mistreated by whites could be easier to deal with than being treated as an equal because, well, if you’re used to being beaten for forgetting to say "Sir," sometimes it’s just easier to keep on the way you’re used to. Or something.
    • Once we’re out of the asides, Richard hears that there’s an examination for postal clerks coming up. He applies, but then wonders how to swing time off for taking the exam. In the South you could never tell your boss you were looking at another job. Richard assumes it’s the same with his new boss, and he plays hooky for a few days.
    • The problem is, Richard tells a huge lie. He says that his mother died and he had to go bury her. Who makes up lies like that, aside from college students who accidentally forgot to write their term paper? Richard’s boss can smell his lie from a mile away, and he’s bummed that Richard doesn’t trust him.
    • Then, because Richard is the biggest baby ever and can’t deal with knowing A) that he hurt people who liked him and B) that they figured out his lie, he leaves the job the next Saturday. This kid is really bad at personal relationships. Also at keeping jobs.
    • After a week, Richard gets a job as a dishwasher. Seriously, this kid’s resume is way over a page by now.
    • He’s the only black person working at the cafe and he can’t believe that the white girls working there don’t seem to find him disgusting. That’s pretty awesome, but he still thinks they’re sheltered.
    • Parenthetical Richard pops up again and waxes philosophic about the materialistic aspects of the United States. That’s right, nearly 100 years ago and he already thinks people are too materialistic. We’d hate to see what he’d say now that you can buy nearly anything you want with the click of a button on Amazon.
    • Back out of parentheses, something is afoot in the cafe. A Finnish lady named Tillie is spitting in the food, and Richard doesn’t know what to do.
    • It is gross, seriously gross, but Richard isn’t sure if the boss will listen since he is black and the lady is white. Eventually he tells the owner and she gives the lady a Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares style talking-to before firing her.
    • Soon after that, Richard gets a temporary job at the post office and he has lots of moolah. Everything is awesome. He works and when he comes home he writes.
    • Hang on a tick. First, he has to pass a physical examination and weigh at least 125 pounds. Not only does this sound like some sort of crazy thin-person discrimination, but Richard is worried because he has never weighed anywhere close to 125 pounds.
    • He attacks the problem with the same kind of dedication to diet that only the most serious bodybuilder could achieve. We’re talking tuna, cottage cheese, and raw egg smoothies, and counting points like a Weight Watcher.
    • All the while Richard is reading more than ever. Instead of making friends (he has none, go figure), he reads and writes in his room. Gee, sounds like us in high school.
    • Eventually this approach agitates his Aunt Maggie, who tells him that reading books won’t help him get ahead in life. He ignores her and writes on, even when he learns that he didn’t pass the weight requirement.
    • Skinny Richard loses his job at the postal office, so money is scarce and the family has to move into a rat-infested apartment. Richard force feeds himself in preparation for the next exam.
    • At night, he reads Proust, which inspires him to write about the lives of people around him. He just doesn’t know how.
    • Right now, Richard is high on reading and writing—or, let’s make this more family-friendly: he’s like a baby who is just learning how to figure out the world around him. Reading and writing are opening up whole new worlds to Richard.
  • Chapter 16

    • Richard finally passes the postal examination this time. Hooray! He works during the day and spends hours writing in a stream of consciousness, trying to capture the world around him on paper.
    • He’s not satisfied with his writing. He wants it to have more theory and form behind it, but he doesn’t know how to learn that sort of stuff.
    • So the writing isn’t going well, but surprisingly his personal life is chugging along nicely. At the postal office Richard makes friends with a cynical Irish dude who seems to have grown up just like Richard.
    • He also finds a Negro literacy club full of Puritans who seem more obsessed with sex than anything else.
    • Finally he meets the Garveyites. These guys are the best of the people he’s meeting, because they actually seem to be trying to make their lives better. He does kind of want to point out that Africans don’t exactly see them as brothers and sisters, but he holds his tongue (for once).
    • Richard ignores the rumors of unemployment until, slowly but surely, it begins affecting him. He’s not appointed to a regular clerk, he notices that there’s less mail coming through the office, his hours are cut, and finally he realizes that he has no money. Then he sees a newspaper headline announcing that the stock market has crashed.
    • The universe evidently decides that Richard hasn’t quite had enough, because his mom, aunt, and brother all suddenly come down with major illnesses.
    • Richard manages to pick up an insurance sales job from his cousin’s company. He works so hard that he can't even read or write. Instead, he takes up a new hobby: sleeping with the ladies that he sells policies to, in exchange for paying their premiums. You might know this by another name: prostitution.
    • Besides conning people out of their money with shady insurance policies, Richard is required to help in another swindle. He has to switch out the policy papers with stricter ones than the policyholders originally signed for. Basically Richard is cheating them without them noticing, like what Facebook does on the regular when it changes its terms of service.
    • Richard can’t figure out how to stop it, so he opts to forget about it—again, just like everyone does with Facebook.
    • While out collecting his premiums, Richard starts to notice the black Communists. They’re not like other black people, and they’re very passionate about whatever it is they do. They imitate Lenin in the way they dress and talk. Richard thinks this is all a little silly, but also kind of cool.
    • The depression gets worse and Richard loses even his shady insurance job. He has to move into an even worse apartment, one so bad that his mom cries when she sees it. Remember, this is a lady who has lived with rats and raw sewage.
    • Then one morning when there is no food for anyone to eat, Richard takes the walk of shame down to the welfare office to get some assistance.
  • Chapter 17

    • Richard waits for hours in a line at the relief station, but something miraculous happens when he’s there: he notices that tons of people are realizing for the first time that they are not alone.
    • Richard wonders how their new awareness can be used to change the situation of black people in America. You know who else wonders things like that? Communists.
    • In an aside, Adult Richard tells us that, if he were in charge, he’d assign police to pick out the people who decided not to play by society’s rules anymore. Those ready for a revolution are the ones who will tear down the system.
    • The federal relief program assigns Richard his next job as an orderly at a medical research institute, where he cleans guinea pigs and other experimental animals.
    • The hospital is in the fanciest, most heavily segregated part of Chicago. Richard and his coworkers work in the basement, out of sight.
    • One of the guys Richard works with doesn’t quite get Richard's rants about racial problems (which we imagine must have been not only boring but endless), until one day he tells Richard he has a solution. It’s to give out a ton of guns, and let whoever doesn’t die be the winner.
    • That sounds like splendid social policy to us. We’ll get back to you on that after we go buy a stockpile of bulletproof clothing.
    • Richard, wisely, never talks to the guy about race ever again.
    • While working at the research institute, Richard remembers that he once wanted to be a medical research worker (he never told us about that!) and he’s very curious about everything going on. Of course the guys working with him couldn't care less, and the doctors, who are surely concerned for his well-being, say that his brains might explode if he learns too much.
    • We’re pretty sure they’re lying. We hope.
    • Every Saturday morning, Richard has to help the doctor cut the vocal cords of the dogs that he uses in his experiments. Richard is creeped out by the way these dogs howl silently, and they become symbols of silent suffering for him. (Check out "Symbols" for more on this.)
    • The drug they use to knock the dogs out is called Nembutal, and one day Richard sniffs it.
    • His coworker Brand sees him and freaks out, saying that he needs to get to a doctor right away.
    • Richard panics, and Brand laughs hysterically. Duh, it’s a big joke.
    • One day a boy watches Richard cleaning. The boy follows Richard all over and finally says that Richard took 17 minutes to clean the last room, and therefore all rooms should take 17 minutes to clean.
    • This is not cool, since the last room was pretty clean already, and apparently the kid doesn’t get that averages would be a better way to estimate time.
    • Another day, two of the guys Richard works with get in a fight. They fight all the time, so this isn’t unusual.
    • What is weird is that this particular fight goes from stupid to violent in about five seconds flat. It makes no sense at all. They’re threatening to kill each other over their choice of newspaper. Seriously. Go check it out. It’s like getting into a fight over whether MTV orVH1 is better, when everyone knows that both channels got stupid when they stopped playing music videos.
    • Knives and icepicks come out, and the whole thing goes on until the research room is a mess and animals are all over the place. With 30 minutes to spare, the guys corral the animals in a scene straight out of the Three Stooges, and hope no one notices.
    • And somehow, no one does.
  • Chapter 18

    • One night, some old friends invite Richard to chill and eat some food. Yeah, we were surprised that Richard has any old friends, too.
    • At dinner, he discovers that a lot of them have become Communists. Richard’s not down with that, but they hang out anyway.
    • Some nights later, one of his friends asks him to join the John Reed Club, a group for writers and artists with Communist leanings.
    • Richard resists at first, but finally heads down to a meeting. The place is nasty looking. A bunch of white men are having an editorial meeting, and they don’t treat him like poop even though they’re white. Naturally, Richard is suspicious.
    • At home, Richard starts reading some of their literature. By the end of the night he decides that Communism is the best thing since sliced bread (which incidentally had only been invented a few years earlier).
    • For once, Richard feels that he has something in common with other people. The feeling literally makes him jump out of bed and write a poem.
    • Enter Richard’s nosy mom, who is dubious about the images on the Communist magazine and tells Richard not to get mixed up with bad people. Instead of listening to her, Richard decides that Communists need to work harder on appealing to the common people, like his mom.
    • He points this out to the group, but they insist that his mom is the one who needs to change. Strike one against the Communists.
    • They do publish his poems, even though they’re not very good, because they don’t have any other black people.
    • While mopping at work, Richard gets the idea to make a series of bibliographies of black Communists. He hints that will turn out to be one the worst ideas that he has ever had.
    • Richard quickly realizes that there are some serious turf wars going on in the club. Basically, it’s painters versus writers, and the writers wanted Richard because, duh, the side with the black person wins.
    • They do win, and somehow Richard finds himself as the leader of the club.
    • And now there’s even more drama, because some people want to make the club about Communism, while others just want to write. Richard tries to please everyone. In the process, he’s forced to become a member of the Communist party. This might not end well.
    • So then a guy named Young comes to their meeting. He’s kind of shy and eccentric, a little weird, and he doesn’t answer Richard's questions. Richard doesn’t see anything wrong with this, thinking that this is just the way artistes are.
    • Then Young asks if he can sleep in the clubhouse. Sure, Richard says. Make yourself at home.
    • Young is a super hard worker and quickly becomes a respected member of the club.
    • Later, Young accuses an artist, Swann, of being a traitor. It is serious business, and there are meetings, debates, and a lot of emotion.
    • Richard gets the feeling that there is something up with this Young guy. (What was his first hint? Was it that this guy carries 10 carbon copies of things just in case they get stolen?)
    • Then Young disappears.
    • No one knows what happened to him, even when they search through his abandoned belongings.
    • Finally, Richard realizes that Young hasn’t disappeared at all. He’s just been put back in the mental institution that he escaped from—literally. What does that say about their little club, huh?
    • Richard doesn't tell anyone what happened to Young, and they drop the charges against Swann.
    • For Richard, the honeymoon period is over with Communism. He looked under the veil, and she was one crazy lady.
  • Chapter 19

    • Strap on your seat belts, boys and girls, because this is one long and crazy chapter. Don’t worry though; the ride is almost over.
    • After reading more about Communism, Richard thinks he is ready to start his bibliography project. He doesn’t know many black Communists, and they don’t seem particularly interested in getting to know him, but Richard doesn't take it to heart. They’re just playing hard to get. Totally.
    • Richard takes on more and more duties in the club (remember, this guy has a full-time job) and he starts going to the Communist unit meetings.
    • There, he gets laughed out of the room because somehow, without even finishing middle school, Richard manages to sound like a brainiac. Even though he has literally been starving for most of his life, these dudes brand him as a rich, stuck-up, intellectual brat.
    • Also, apparently you can add the Communists to the long list of people who tell Richard to stop reading stuff.
    • Richard interviews a guy named Ross for his project and he is fired up. This is his life’s work, and it is awesome.
    • Well, not everyone thinks so. Like the Communist party, which is pretty suspicious of Richard's project. One day a guy comes and tells him that intellectuals don’t mix well with Communists. Richard says that he’s not an intellectual, and the guy ignores him. He says that he has to prove his loyalty to Communism by getting beat up by police.
    • At this point, Richard is starting to think that these people are crazy. Again, we ask: what was your first clue?
    • But then he starts reading Stalin and his mind is blown. He is amazed that the Soviet Union has tried to unify oppressed peoples and give dialects their own writing systems. Richard is a little like those monkeys from 2001: A Space Odyssey when they see that monolith. Simply. Amazing.
    • One morning a guy called Ed Green accuses Richard of being an intellectual spy, which of course is wrong and makes Richard pretty upset.
    • Richard really doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. He begins to feel hurt and isolated again, and it’s worse now because he’s just started to feel like part of something for the first time in his life. Even Ross is scared of him now.
    • Okay, so the biographies are a bust. Richard decides to use the notes from Ross and his friends to write some short stories instead.
    • He gets even more material when he starts working at the South Side Boy’s club and taking notes on the wild black boys who come there every day. Too bad that his non-paying job, being the token black kid in the Communist party, gets in the way.
    • Richard is obviously getting tired of this stuff, especially because the John Reed Club votes to abolish his magazine, The Left Front.
    • And then the club itself decides to disband. Tons of young writers are left hanging. No more club for you, young writer.
    • In an aside, Richard notes that artists and politicians often end up working together to achieve the same goals. This seems… a little tangential.
    • And finally it’s time for another John Reed Club conference. Richard is not too excited to go, but he does. At least it’s in New York, right?
    • Richard arrives in New York and everything is already off to a bad start, because it seems that the white Communists have forgotten that racism exists and failed to find any rooms for the black Chicagoan Communists to stay in. Richard is disgusted and even walks through Harlem, otherwise known as the center of black New York, and can't find a place until he gets to the NYMCA ("n" for "Negro").
    • All this just for another meeting to assure that the John Reed Clubs will be dissolved. Richard is totally over it, and so are we.
    • But his buddies are not done with him yet. Not by a long shot.
    • People start accusing him of being a spy, of starting rival factions, and basically of being exactly the opposite kind of person that he is.
    • Richard stays up at night thinking about what would happen to him if he was in the Soviet Union. Dude, this is way too intense for a club.
    • Richard resolves to leave the party, which is perhaps the best idea he has ever had.
    • Shortly later Richard gets sick, and after that he is scheduled to meet with Buddy Nealson, the guy who has been calling him names.
    • The dude is a total sleaze ball. He tries to get Richard to drink but, wisely, Richard refuses. If this were ancient Rome, there would totally be arsenic in his cup.
    • Nealson wants Richard to organize against high prices in the South Side of Chicago. Richard wants to write books. Nealson only wins because the Communist Party has handed down an ultimatum, and Richard is just too tired to fight it.
    • He works on the project for a while but is about to give up, when Nealson randomly turns up again and tells him that he wants Richard to go to Switzerland.
    • Switzerland sounds nice, Richard says, but no thanks. I have a novel to write.
    • The next meeting, Richard resigns from the party.
    • Not so fast. If it were that simple the book would probably end here, but, if you’re reading along with us, you already know that it doesn’t.
    • Now things start getting bad. The whole party turns against Richard and he can't even talk to another Communist anymore without starting a fight.
    • Meanwhile, Richard gets another new job. He’s now working as the publicity agent for a black theater. Sounds perfect.
    • Richard doesn’t think so. Even though the actors are all black, they only do plays from the Middle Ages recast in the South, while Richard thinks that they should be putting on plays that, you know, speak more directly to black experience.
    • After managing to get a hip new director, Richard convinces the actors to try some new plays, ones that will give them a little more dignity.
    • Turns out, the actors are perfectly happy making fools of themselves on stage, and they manage to get both Richard and the director kicked out. Richard is assigned to yet another theater, and this time he resolves to keep his big mouth shut.
    • Some time later, Communists—who seem to be following Richard around like some kind of freaky cult, seriously—tell him that Ross, the guy Richard had been interviewing for the biographies, is going to have a trial the next morning. Richard is skeptical, but he decides to go.
    • When the trial begins, no one is actually talking about Ross. They talk about fascism, about the Soviet Union, about the "global struggle" of the oppressed.
    • The arguments narrow from a worldwide scale on down to the scale of the USA, then to Chicago, then to black people in Chicago, and finally, several hours later, to the charges against Ross.
    • This is awesome rhetoric, connecting individual struggles to worldwide ones, and Richard is bummed. Communism could be such a great tool for unity, but the actual Communists are just so freaking crazy.
    • In fact, the rhetoric is so effective that Ross ends up convinced that he’s sinned against Mother Russia. Blubbering like a baby, he admits his guilt. It is a real come-to-Jesus (or Mother Russia) moment.
    • Richard thinks the whole affair is both insane (the horror) and beautiful (the glory), and he leaves.
  • Chapter 20

    • The relief assignment moves Richard again, to the Federal Writer’s Project. He not only keeps this job but scores a promotion, moving up the ranks to acting supervisor.
    • Great! Until, once again, it all goes wrong. Richard's boss calls him in and tells him that people are asking for him to be fired. Can you guess which people? Hint, it starts with a "c" and they like to wear red.
    • Richard is not too quick on the uptake and the boss has to spell out for him how Communists also booted him off his last job at the Negro theatre.
    • The Communists are serious about this. One day, Richard leaves the building and sees a picket line standing outside the building, out for his blood—or at least his feelings. As he walks past, they start shouting at him and calling his name. Richard is super, super bummed.
    • Instead of pulling out a knife—yay for maturity—Richard tries to make an appointment to meet with the Party Secretary. They totally diss him, setting up a meeting with the Secretary’s secretary instead. Remember, this is the guy who was the head of the John Reed Club for a while. He’s not just some shmoe off the streets.
    • The Secretary’s secretary doesn’t even give Richard the time of day, and he leaves her office feeling totally defeated.
    • All the unions march on May Day. (Not the kind of May Day with the fun May Pole, by the way.) Richard tries hop in the march with the Communists.
    • This turns out to have been a bad idea, when he’s literally dragged out of the march by his shirt collar.
    • Richard is so shocked that he has been assaulted that he just stands there while the line goes by, and then he finally realizes that these people be crazy, yo. Finally! We could have told you that, you know, about a hundred pages ago.
    • At home, Richard paces around his room and thinks emo thoughts about his life. What was the point? Why did he come to the North? Why did he struggle so much? What the heck is he going to have for lunch?
    • And then he decides: tuna melt on rye.
    • No, no. He decides to write. He wants to connect with the outside world and touch the hearts of other people through his words. He wants to make them feel what he feels: hunger, but not just for lunch. A hunger for a better life.