Black Boy: Chapter 12

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Richard’s experience in Mr. Crane’s optical shop in Jackson serves him well, and he changes his mind about washing dishes and soon finds work with Mr. Olin in an optical shop in Memphis. He befriends several black workers in the building, including the elevator operator, Shorty, who is clearly intelligent and a sensible man. However, Shorty still lets whites kick him for money and otherwise demeans himself for their enjoyment, and to Richard’s disgust. It is not this shop’s policy to train apprentices, but Richard willingly runs errands, and one day is asked by a white clerk who says he is from the North if he is hungry. Richard lies and says he is just naturally thin, fleeing the shop embarrassed and ashamed. One day Mr. Olin tells him that Harrison, the black errand boy for the competitor across the street, wants to fight him. Richard resists, but the instigation continues, and he talks to Harrison in secret and learns there is no ill feeling at all. Understanding that the white men are setting up the conflict for their own amusement, Richard and Harrison agree to box each other for $5, planning to fake the fight. But once in the ring, they realize they do not know how, and viciously fight each other, take the money, and avoid each other from then on.

 

Analysis

 

Although things seem to be going well for Richard in Memphis, the threat of violence that has followed him from Jackson plays out disturbingly as his boss continues to taunt him with the rumor that Harrison wants to kill him. Richard has directly confirmed this is not the case, but he is unable to overcome the suspicion that lingers. Harrison pressures him to accept to fight with gloves because he wants the money, and finally Richard agrees. Given that the worst sin a black man can commit even in Memphis is insubordination to whites, Richard and Harrison play out their roles to avoid any hint that their fight is anything but authentic. The layers of deceit here confuse even the boxers, who in the end discover they cannot feign a physical fight. The brutal violence that comes out of them is real anger, but makes Richard feel like an animal. He again experiences an uneasy feeling of “uncleanness” and pledges never again to reduce himself for the pleasures of whites. The mutual shame that divides Richard and Harrison thereafter echoes Richard’s avoidance of his fellow paper delivery boy, with whom he also shared an experience that demeaned them both. Rather than bonding over their common humiliation, again Richard is estranged from his black peer over an incident orchestrated by racist whites.

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