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Free Barron's Booknotes-Black Boy by Richard Wright-Free Online Notes
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER XI

Richard finds a place to stay in Memphis. The owner of his rooming house encourages him to marry her daughter.
* * *

Richard has gone to Memphis, where he finds a room in a rooming house. Mrs. Moss, his landlady, is warm and friendly, and Richard is startled at the difference between her and his family. She invites him to dinner and introduces him to her daughter, Bess. Mrs. Moss soon hints that Richard should marry Bess. He is astonished at this behavior from someone he has just met. That night Bess sits with Richard in the front room. She kisses him and tells him that she loves him. He responds to her kisses and is amazed again when he contrasts these women with Aunt Addie. But when he tells Bess that they should get to know each other better first, she runs away, hurt.

In Memphis, Richard seems to be learning two things: that his experience has been limited and that he is indeed incapable of breaking out of his isolation and engaging himself with others. Do you think Richard is also revealing a degree of sexual inhibition? His whole life history to date may suggest a shyness with women, though this theme is not one that Wright raises explicitly.

CHAPTER XII

Richard takes another job with an optical company. The foreman tries to provoke a fight between him and a black employee of another company.

* * *

Richard's experience at the optical company in Jackson enables him to obtain a job at a similar firm in Memphis. By comparison to Jackson, he finds race relations in Tennessee relaxed. He works hard, runs errands at lunch for tips, and skimps on food in order to save enough to have his mother and brother join him. He reads much too, but now he reads literary magazines instead of detective stories.


If race relations are not as tense as in Mississippi, however, they are still his major source of trouble. Wright relates three incidents that illustrate the racial situation in Memphis. The first story concerns a fellow black worker named Shorty, an intelligent and proud man. Around whites, however, he plays the clown. For example, one day he asks a white man for a quarter and in return lets the man kick him in the pants. But Wright comments that all his fellow workers cared more about bread than about dignity.

The second incident occurs when a Northerner approaches Richard and asks him if he is hungry. Richard is indeed hungry, but he would be ashamed to admit it. The Northerner offers him a dollar, which he wants but refuses. The Northerner may mean well, but he doesn't understand the feelings of the person to whom he is talking.

The third incident begins when Richard's foreman tells him that Harrison, a black man who works across the street, plans to stab him after work. Richard talks to Harrison and discovers that the foreman has told Harrison that Richard is planning to stab him. Apparently, the foreman is trying to provoke them into attacking each other. Whatever the foreman may be up to, the two young men are suspicious of each other nonetheless. A week later, the foreman suggests the two settle their "grudge" by boxing. Harrison persuades Richard to accept, and they agree not to hurt each other. Once in the ring, however, they go for blood and vent on each other all the hatred they feel for the whites who put them up to this sport.

Apparently, the racism in Memphis, though less pervasive, can be quite vicious after all, just as Wright will later find out about the racism in Chicago. But note also that Wright does not glorify his own behavior here. Although some readers criticize Wright for portraying his own actions too favorably, here he freely admits his weaknesses.

NOTE:

Biographers are uncertain whether this particular fight ever took place, but whites definitely did stage fights between blacks in a similar manner. One of the famous scenes in modern literature is the "battle royal" among a group of young black boys in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, There the boys beat each other up for the amusement of their white audience.

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