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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 II

The Wrights move to the home of Richard's Aunt Maggie. But their pleasant life there ends when whites kill Maggie's husband. Later the threat of violence by whites forces Maggie to flee again.

* * *

As the chapter begins, Richard and his family are moving. Richard's mother insists that he say good-bye to the other children at the orphanage, and he does so only to oblige her. From the vantage point of later years, Wright reflects on what he sees as the absence of genuine and deep emotion among blacks, despite stereotypes to the contrary. He thinks about the "bleakness" of black life in America and about the isolation of blacks from the "spirit of Western civilization."

Here, Wright touches on two important points-his sense of isolation and his criticism of the emotional life of blacks. Many readers have attacked Wright on both points and have seen a connection between these two positions. For example, in his essay "The World and the Jug," novelist Ralph Ellison singles out this passage for attack. Ellison and others argue that Wright was indeed isolated from his fellow blacks and complain about his inability to appreciate the richness of black family and community life. Others see Wright's separateness as a natural and desirable quality in a writer. Without this ability to distance himself from the people with whom he grew up, Wright would never have emerged from that community to become a writer of international stature, they maintain. And some people link his critique of the black community to a long tradition of black reformers and radicals, from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X, who have been critical of traditional black responses to white racism. Which interpretation do you support?


Richard, his mother, and his brother stay for a while in Jackson, Mississippi, at Richard's grandmother's house. Two revealing incidents occur there. Ella, a boarder, reads novels, and Richard demands that she read to him. Though she knows that Granny regards novels as the work of the Devil, Ella reads to Richard from Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Richard's imagination is powerfully aroused, but Granny furiously scolds Ella and slaps Richard. Note that Richard calls this the first experience of his life that provoked a "total emotional response." Does fiction provoke a deeper response from Richard than do the people around him? Remember also that this incident links books and words with sin and rebellion. Finally, notice the resemblance between his first experience with fiction and Wright's own fictional work. Native Son has some of the violent and nightmarish qualities that Wright attributes to the tale of Bluebeard.

The other incident occurs when Richard is bathing. His grandmother is washing him, and when she scrubs his rectum, he asks her to kiss it. He hasn't realized the meaning of his words, but first Granny and then his mother beat him. Richard again learns the power of words, and once more finds them associated with rebellion and punishment. Granny herself connects the two incidents by blaming Richard's obscenities on Ella's novels.

Wright remembers the pleasant experiences of Jackson, from chasing fireflies to fishing in country creeks.

NOTE:

Readers differ in their opinions of these lists of country pleasures. Some praise them for showing that Wright did indeed appreciate the simple life of the black rural South. Others see them as unconvincing compilations that don't change the generally critical thrust of the book. Perhaps their significance lies in their placement. The lists may indicate the few points in Wright's childhood when he was able to enjoy himself. In this way, they heighten the bleakness of the rest of his childhood by contrast. Why do you think Wright included them?

The incidents Wright has selected for most of the rest of the chapter indicate Richard's growing awareness of the South's color line. On the train from Jackson to his Aunt Maggie's house in Elaine, Arkansas, Richard notices that whites and blacks sit in different parts of the train. He questions his mother about his white-looking grandmother. His mother is evasive in her answers to some of his questions. Richard knows that white people sometimes act violently toward blacks. He resolves, that if anyone tries to kill him, he will kill that person first.

At the home of Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins, Richard has more food than ever before. For a while, he hoards biscuits because he's afraid the supply of food will not last. One day, Uncle Hoskins teases him by driving their horse and buggy into the middle of a river. Richard is terrified, and the terror creates a permanent barrier between him and Hoskins. (Notice how rare it is that Richard does not feel a barrier between himself and others.)

One night Uncle Hoskins does not return from work at the saloon he owns. He has been shot and killed by whites who want to take over his business. They threaten to kill his family also, so Maggie, Richard, and Richard's mother and brother flee to the town of West Helena. Maggie is not even able to see her husband's body or to claim any of his assets. Soon thereafter, the family moves back to Granny's in Jackson.

Once more young Richard is uprooted, and once more he is poor. Though this incident marks the first time that racism has directly affected Richard, note how significant the incident is. It seems reasonable to expect that if Uncle Hoskins had been allowed to stay in business, Richard's family would have had a stable home. They might have enjoyed independence from his grandmother's household and from her religious extremism, and maintained a decent standard of living. Though racism was not the only cause of the hardships of Wright's childhood, the murder of Uncle Hoskins may certainly be evidence that racism played a crucial role in preventing the Wright family from overcoming their problems. What problems besides racism affected young Richard's life?

While at Granny's, Richard sees a chain gang and notices that the prisoners are black and the guards white. Some time thereafter, his family moves back to West Helena to escape from Granny's strict religious rules.

NOTE: SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISM

Granny is a Seventh-Day Adventist. The religion takes its name from the belief that the second coming of Christ and the end of the world (the Advent) are near and from its celebration of the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, Saturday. Seventh-Day Adventism was the religion of only a small minority of Southerners. Most blacks were Baptists or Methodists (like Wright's mother). Seventh-Day Adventism demanded that its adherents eat no pork and that they not work on Saturdays. Both were difficult rules for poor Southern blacks to abide by.

Saturday work was important to low-paid blacks, and pork was the most common meat in the Southern diet.

Back in West Helena, Richard and the other neighborhood children amuse themselves by chanting insults at the Jew who owns the grocery store. On another occasion, Richard peers into the neighboring flat and sees a couple making love. That apartment is in fact a brothel owned by the landlady. As a result of Richard's spying, his family has to move again.

Richard is introduced to a new uncle, Professor Matthews. One night Matthews and Aunt Maggie flee hurriedly. Though Richard knows none of the details, it appears that Matthews has robbed and killed a white woman. With Aunt Maggie no longer there to contribute to the household income, Richard is hungry most of the time.

Matthews had given Richard a poodle. He takes it to a white neighborhood to sell it. Richard offers to sell the dog for a dollar, but then he finds an excuse to back out of the deal. He doesn't want to sell her to white people.

The chapter ends by touching both on the book's social themes and on its psychological and personal issues. Richard hears stories about racial conflict and black vengeance, and comes to dread whites and to imagine himself standing up to them with violence. But he also feels that he is living mainly in a world of his imagination, the only place where he can find the satisfactions denied him by his bleak life. In the chapter's last paragraphs, Richard again looks at what appears to be a bird in the sky. At first he doesn't believe the people who tell him he is looking at an airplane in which people fly. This image of flight and freedom contrasts with his miserable Christmas. His only gift is one orange, which he saves until nighttime.

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