Black Boy: Chapter 19
Richard attends his first unit meeting on the South Side but discovers he is not understood by the Negroes, who laugh at the way he speaks and seem to judge him by what he wears rather than what he thinks. He is told not to read bourgeois books, and begins to worry about the “militant ignorance” within the party that continues to fester despite his alignment with most communist beliefs. He decides to write biographies of Negro communists and begins with Ross, a member facing indictment. While interviewing Ross at his home in the company of his wife and child, Richard is introduced to Ed Green, a black communist who expresses his suspicions about the book’s motives. Richard’s work comes and goes, and he is reassigned to the South Side Boys’ Club where he scrapes by financially as he continues to struggle politically. He is told to stay away from Ross and is frustrated by Party politics, finding solace only in writing several short stories. But even his writing is attacked by the Party, which prefers writers to work on pamphlets rather than novels. Richard attends several conferences, which further convince him his days with the Club are numbered, at one point hearing the demand that the John Reed Clubs be dissolved. Although he willingly challenges the majority opinion, Richard is worried about the next conference, in New York in the summer of1935, as he recognizes his relationship with communists has reached a “static phase.” When he realizes the challenge of finding accommodation for a black communist in New York, his disillusionment reaches new heights, and it no longer seems important to defend the Club’s artistic purpose given he cannot get a bed and bath anywhere but the YMCA in Harlem.
The leadership decides to disband the John Reed Clubs. Back in Chicago Richard is sick in bed when Ed Green comes to visit him and ask if he knows Buddy Nealson, a member of the Communist International. Suspicious of why Ed Green wants him to meet this man, Richard waits until he is well to seek an appointment but then does and immediately dismisses the short sweaty man who is anything but a man of ideas. Buddy tells Richard he is to organize a committee against the high cost of living, but Richard is more interested in focusing on his writing, for which there is little enough time while working full-time. When Buddy’s white wife enters and agrees he should have time for all these activities, it is clear the Party has decided and that dissent is not allowed. Unable to quit, Richard organizes and participates in meetings and before long is again called in for an assignment, this time to go to Switzerland and the Soviet Union. This he declines, and at the next meeting states his position and leaves after two years of membership. Nealson’s threats loom, but Richard has changed and no longer fears the same way. He thinks of the times he has lied, forged, stolen, or otherwise acted wildly, but he now feels free. His work changes again and he is assigned to the Federal Negro Theater where he replaces a white woman director with his friend Charles DeSheim to undertake a production of Paul Green’s Hymn to the Rising Sun. However, the Negro actors protest the play, preferring something that will make them popular, accustomed as they are to cheap vaudeville. When Richard tells Charles about a petition to remove him, the black actors call him an “Uncle Tom” and both men are quickly removed, fearing violence. Richard is transferred to a white experimental theatrical company and vows to keep his thoughts to himself. He is invited to Ross’s trial and after hours of lectures on the state of the world globally, nationally and locally, the accused admits his guilt. Richard disobeys protocol by leaving the meeting before it is concluded. As he walks the dark Chicago streets alone, he realizes this community, too, has abandoned him and he must again stand alone.
Somewhat predictably, Richard’s relationships with members of the Communist party are fraught with as much frustration and disappointment as those he cultivated in the South. Because of his strong sense of self, he is suspected by black and white Communists alike of being both an intellectual and anti-leadership. The latter charge against his acquaintance Ross is especially suggestive of problems ahead for Richard, who has long struggled with subservience to others. His decision to write biographies gives him a momentary glimpse of an appropriate role for himself as translator of beliefs he finds appealing for the mainstream society which has yet to understand communist ideology. However, Richard’s desire to embrace communism seems to stem less from his intellect than from his passion for community. He does not seem as enchanted with the economic philosophy of Marx or Lenin as he is with the idea of a means for achieving solidarity among the disenfranchised. It seems clear that far from uniting the workers of the world, communist doctrine has only served to prove Richard an outsider yet again. Similarly, his work with the theatre shows that despite his lofty visions of enabling black actors to rise above their current station in life in pursuit of art, the reality is that he cannot identify with the needs or hopes of others. Accused of essentially spying for whites, Richard is removed from this job ironically fearing for his life at the hands of black artists he had hoped to “save.” The chapter serves to highlight Richard’s difference from all he has encountered, but also shows how far he has come from a child and adolescent lacking in the confidence to pursue his own path to a grown man now mature enough to design his own fate no matter what others say, think or do.