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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Richard borrows a library card and discovers the hard-hitting style of columnist H. L. Mencken. He begins to read voraciously.
While reading the Memphis newspaper, Richard comes across an editorial attacking H. L. Mencken. He decides that if a Southern newspaper attacks a white man, that man might be worth reading. Blacks aren't allowed to borrow books from the public library, so Richard must use a white's library card. The only white he feels he can approach is a Catholic, who is hated by his fellow Southerners because of his religion. Richard succeeds in borrowing the Catholic's card and forges a note to the librarian asking her to give "this nigger boy" some books by Mencken.
Richard is shocked by Mencken's style. He realizes that Mencken uses words as weapons and wonders if he can do the same. The preoccupations of Black Boy with racism and with Wright's development as a writer merge here. Richard is attracted to Mencken because a newspaper that usually attacks black people has attacked Mencken. In reading Mencken, his desire to fight back against whites and his desire to write stories fuse for what appears to be the first time. But, of course, as you may have already noticed, words and rebellion have been connected before at least as early as the day he wrote obscenities on his neighbors' windows.
Richard reads Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and some of the other authors Mencken discusses. He develops a passion for reading, but he worries that his reading will antagonize the whites around him. Whites think that reading makes blacks rebellious. Richard's hunger becomes a hunger to understand life and people and to become capable of writing about them.
Richard's mother and brother arrive in Memphis. Richard feels his reading has isolated him even further from Southern life. He reviews all the options open to Southern blacks. He can rebel, but then he will be killed. He can submit, perhaps marry Bess, but he considers that choice a form of slavery. He can use his restless energy to fight other blacks. Or he can lose himself in sex and alcohol like his father did.
Native Son also reviews a similar range of alternatives for Chicago blacks. Bigger's girlfriend Bessie loses herself in sex and alcohol; in the early portion of the book, Bigger turns his angry energy upon other blacks; later Bigger rebels and is killed; Bigger's mother submits and doesn't challenge the conditions of her life.
Richard leaves for Chicago.
Deserted by her new husband, Aunt Maggie visits Memphis. The family decides that Richard and Maggie will leave for Chicago. When Richard tells his boss that he is leaving, he says that his departure is at his family's insistence. The white men at the factory are uneasy about a black man who wants to go north. They seem to consider that desire an implicit criticism of the South and thus of them.
On the train north, Richard reflects on his life. He wonders how he came to believe that life could be lived more fully. Where did he get his desire to escape? His answer is that he acquired this desire from books. The books he read were critical of America and suggested that the country could be reshaped for the better.
Is Richard's answer accurate? Wright seems to have wanted a different and better life long before he discovered Mencken and the other writers he read in Memphis. Can you shape a more complex answer to Wright's question from the information he has provided in Black Boy?
Richard continues his reflections. He thinks the white South has allowed him only one honest path, that of rebellion. He argues to himself that the white South, and his own family, conforming to the dictates of whites, have not let him develop more than a portion of his personality. Yet he also thinks he is taking with him a part of the South. How will it bloom, he wonders, in different soil?
Here Wright focuses on the way his life in the South has been typical of other black lives, all stunted by racism. In this conclusion, Wright doesn't dwell so much on the uniqueness of his life. In fact, for the first time, he stresses that he is a product of the South and must be accepted as such. Do you agree?