Black Boy: Chapter 17
Richard is pleasantly surprised not only to receive a promise of food at the relief station, but also to feel a sense of commonality with other blacks who have been reduced to charity. His cynicism begins to fade as he embraces communist ideology. At Christmas he returns to the post office briefly, then is assigned to work in a medical research institute cleaning animal cages and otherwise performing cleaning services. His curiosity in the experiments is discouraged by the mainly Jewish doctors, and at one point, Brand, one of three other black employees, fools him into thinking a chemical he sniffed could be lethal. Another day a Jewish boy times him as he cleans, and Richard is upset by the thankless labor he performs cleaning steps which are then thoughtlessly trampled repeatedly by white feet. One day, the coldest in recent history, Brand and Cooke, who are always looking for a fight, begin to attack each other, and the animal cages tumble down, unlocking and releasing guinea pigs, rabbits, mice, rats and dogs, some of whom are crushed to death beneath the metal. Horrified, the four men decide to lie about having been in the room during lunch and desperately stock the cages with the appropriate numbers of animals, having no way to identify which have been injected with which virus. They are relieved when doctors seem not to notice the change and although Richard wonders if he should have informed the director and risked the wrath of his coworkers, who would have lost their jobs, their secret seems safely locked away.
Richard’s experience at the relief station marks a turning point from his self-imposed isolation to a sense of community with the other disenfranchised victims of the depression. He has an overwhelming sense of commonality with the other blacks awaiting relief, and although he believes the relief workers proceed unaware that they are giving the poor anything but hope of food for their bodies, Richard is far more grateful for the nourishment provided to his soul. He hopes to write about this feeling of solidarity, but ironically finds himself back in a segregated society within the hospital. Richard’s experience at the hospital is ironic on multiple levels, not least of all when a doctor tells him that too much knowledge could make his brain explode. Richard’s desire to learn from his surroundings remains a constant personality trait, but his three black co-workers represent the worst stereotype of black cleaning staff, lacking ambition or even good sense. While the fight between Brand and Cooke is nearly comical, with the visual image of the toppling animal cages, it is more an illustration of the hopelessness of uniting the black community than of humor. Richard contemplates telling the hospital leadership of the incident, believing scientific research worthy enough a cause to risk the wrath of his co-workers, but in the end he feels too abused himself to rise to the cause. Thinking of how he was timed to clean filthy rooms without regard for his humanity, he keeps silent more out of revenge than true camaraderie with his fellow black workers.