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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Richard has several terrifying confrontations with whites. In the most important of these confrontations, he is forced out of a job because he dares to ask to learn the skills of the trade.
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After graduating from the ninth grade, Richard gets a job in a clothing store. One day his employers beat a black woman for not paying her bills. Later, some white men offer him a ride into town but beat him when he forgets to call them "sir." Then his boss fires him because he doesn't like the look in Richard's eyes.
One of Richard's friends has some advice for him. He should learn how to live as a black man in the South. He must hide his true feelings and always remember to act differently in front of white people than he does with blacks. He must think before he speaks to whites.
The friend helps Richard find a job in an optical company run by a Northerner. The Northerner introduces Richard to Pease and Reynolds, two skilled workers who will, he says, help him learn the trade of grinding lenses. They are friendly to him, but their attitude changes when he asks them to tell him about the skilled work. One day they put him in an impossible situation. Reynolds says that he heard Richard call Pease, "Pease," rather than "Mr. Pease." If Richard denies this charge, he is calling Reynolds a liar. If he admits it, he is insulting Pease. Either way, the men threaten to kill him. He knows they want him to quit the job, so he does.
Richard feels that his friend's advice has done him no good. The Northern boss calls him in and tries to bring him back to work. But Richard knows that if he accuses the men, they may well kill him. His hopes are dashed, and he is crying. He knows he will have to leave the South.
Some biographers of Wright think that he worked for the optical company in the summer after eighth grade and that he left the job only in order to return to school. However, the two white employees did threaten and harass him because of his desire to learn the trade.
Richard learns to steal. By stealing he acquires enough money to leave the Deep South.
Richard sees Pease and Reynolds not as individuals but as part of "a huge, implacable, elemental design." Richard is determined to adapt to the white world. His next job is in a drugstore, where his efforts to behave properly make him so tense that he fails at trivial tasks and is fired.
Richard feels that he has to learn ways of acting that seem automatic for other blacks. Has Richard's isolation within the black community made his dealings with white society more difficult too?
He gets a job at a hotel. While working, he observes the other blacks there. He believes they have blocked from their consciousness all thoughts and feelings banned by whites, and he calls their lives "debased." Once more Richard seems to show little sympathy for the Southern black community. How likely do you think it was that all of Wright's companions could have been so completely brainwashed by the harsh and discriminatory conditions of their lives? Remember that Wright was only one of many blacks to flee the South.
Richard considers stealing to obtain the money he needs to leave Mississippi. He knows that many blacks steal, and he disapproves. He'd rather see them unite and ask for their rights. The whites like blacks to steal because it confirms their belief that blacks are irresponsible. But Richard also feels that if whites don't act lawfully toward him, he doesn't need to respect the law in his dealings with them. He starts to sell liquor, sales of which were illegal at the time. Then he takes a job selling tickets at a movie theater and joins a scheme to resell the tickets and pocket the money. Finally, he steals and sells a neighbor's gun and some cans of preserves in the college storehouse.
Compare Richard's attitude to crime to Bigger's in Native Son. Both seem to gain a sense of freedom from their crimes and to see them as acts of rebellion against the white world. But Wright is no Bigger Thomas. His crime has a specific purpose and when he has raised the money he needs to leave, he knows that he will never steal again.