Black Boy: Chapter 15
Part II: The Horror and the Glory
Arriving in the industrial and urban landscape of Chicago, Richard wonders what will become of him, marveling that white passengers on the street car seem not to notice him as he and Aunt Maggie make their way to Aunt Cleo’s rented room. Richard quickly decides to keep his expectations modest and simply find a job, and despite the sub-zero temperature, the next morning he waits outside a delicatessen displaying a sign “porter wanted” until the boss arrives. Although the Hoffmans’ accents are difficult for him to understand, Richard likes them and works diligently while also preparing for the postal examination. He lacks the courage to ask for time off to take the mandatory test, knowing such a request would provoke white bosses in the south, and instead takes three days off without asking. On his return, he lies that his mother died in Memphis. Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman express their disappointment, telling him they know he is lying and asking him why, for they are treating him as an equal.
Disgusted with himself yet unable to tell them the truth, Richard leaves the delicatessen to work as a dishwasher in a café. There he witnesses the Finnish cook spitting into the food, but cannot bring himself to tell the boss until another black employee is hired. She, too, fears the consequences of reporting the cook’s behavior, but the two eventually come forward. Upon seeing the gruesome act for herself, the boss tearfully fires her efficient and otherwise talented cook. Richard is surprised to see the white waitresses seem unaware of his race, and at different points one or another of them press up against him to pour coffee or ask him to tie her apron strings. Richard thinks of how such acts would have been interpreted back home, and thinks how different his life experience and aspirations are from both the immigrant Hoffmans and the waitresses whose skin privilege has enabled them to live such superficial lives.
By summer, Richard is working as a temporary postal clerk and reading incessantly. He is also eating as much as possible in the hopes of gaining fifteen pounds to meet the minimum physical requirement to become a full clerk. He is unable to reach 125 pounds, and upon failing to achieve the position tensions at home increase. Aunt Maggie begins to criticize his use of electricity for reading, and Richard, despite having no savings, invites Aunt Cleo and his mother and brother to a new apartment. He returns to the café and prepares for the next postal exam the following spring, reading Proust’s novel, Remembrance of Things Past and wishing he, too, could write with such thoroughness, practicing his use of language to evoke the powerful impressions he himself has grown to appreciate in others’ writing. Having never made demands of another human being, Richard continues to invest all his energies in his own living, desperate for insight and at age twenty already established in an anti-social pattern that thrusts him deeper and deeper into himself.
In Part II of his autobiography, Richard’s reflections on his experience in Chicago include both the achievement, and thus glory, of reaching his goal in moving North, and also the horrifying realization that although he has left much of what has plagued him in the South, he sees much that remains the same, namely poverty and hunger and his internalized fear of whites. It appears he has brought some of the race problem with him, as is illustrated by his lie to the Hoffmans about his mother’s death. This lie was the only way he could have received time off in the South, given the professional nature of the postal examination. However, his instinct backfires as the delicatessen owners treat him as an equal, and he cannot bear their knowledge of his lie and must quit a decent job out of shame.
Richard’s work at the café is another example of how familiar patterns continue to shape his life despite the differences of the Chicago landscape. The white waitresses seem not to notice his color, brushing up against him or asking him to tie their aprons as though he were any other co-worker. But knowing the crime such actions would be interpreted as where he is from, Richard is exceedingly aware of bodily contact and muses on the privilege evident in the girls’ superficial lives since they do not have to ponder the meaning of every last word or move as he does. Although Richard has grown and changed over the course of the first half of the book, he is still afraid to report the Finnish cook spitting in the soup without another black witness, and persuades his female colleague to muster the courage to tell the boss rather than taking such a role himself. However, as neither of them would ever have mustered the will to do such a thing in the South, the environment of Chicago seems to prompt behavioral changes in Richard and to inspire him to write. He is frustrated not to be able to write phrases like Proust’s that would encapsulate the painful experience of black men and women nationwide. However, he is motivated to continue trying to find the words to tell the story of the psychic pain pervading black society just as it does his own individual life.