Black Boy: Chapter 13
One morning in the bank lobby of the building where he works, Richard comes across an editorial that criticizes the author H. L. Mencken, denouncing him as a fool. Intrigued that a Southern paper would take such a strong stance against a white man, Richard pledges to learn what Mencken has done or professed to earn such hostility from the South. Because he is not allowed to borrow books at the local library, Richard deliberates about asking a white man to help him and decides the best candidate is an Irish Catholic named Mr. Falk. Approving of Richard’s interest in reading, Falk agrees to let him borrow his card. Richard forges a note that momentarily raises the librarian’s suspicions, but she relents and gives him two books by Mencken, called A Book of Prefaces and Prejudices. Richard begins to read and loses himself among the references to other authors, growing his vocabulary and learning to appreciate the clear, sweeping prose. His passion grows as he is taken with the different points of view taken by authors, and he continues forging notes and reading voraciously. Considering his options, Richard concludes that black rebellion such as that his grandfather participated in during the Civil War can never win. He cannot submit to the life of relative slavery by marrying Bess and inheriting her mother’s house, and lacking professional skills his prospects in Memphis are quite limited indeed.
Richard’s transformation through reading is especially evident in this chapter, where he discovers Mencken and further falls in love with literature. Having no library card of his own or hope of obtaining one, Richard calculates his best benefactor is a white man whose own difference has somehow made him a victim of the majority Protestant community. He reviews his options carefully and chooses Mr. Falk because he has heard him called a “Pope lover.” Believing that a fellow victim of prejudice will be more sympathetic to his plight, Richard makes his appeal and is relieved when he succeeds. For perhaps the first time, Richard has taken the initiative in forming a bond with someone out of a sense of solidarity, and fortunately in this case Mr. Falk is a willing collaborator, believing reading a way out of misery for his black co-worker. In forging the note to the librarian, Richard refers to himself as a “nigger,” willingly using a derogatory term to suggest the author of the note in no way respects him, attempting to allay suspicion that he is not himself its author. At first this tactic seems to have gone too far and aroused suspicion, but the librarian eventually agrees to lend him the books by Mencken, which exceed his expectations and introduces him to yet more renowned authors whose plots are of less interest to him than their points of view. Richard’s own life circumstances have led to his fascination with perspective, and he reflects on how his prospects for a fulfilling life are limited by his own perspective, due to factors of race and geography above all.