Black Boy: Chapter 2
Richard is delighted by the news that he is moving with his mother and brother to live with an aunt in Arkansas, and is so excited by the upcoming trip in a fit of generosity he gives a shirt still drying on the line to the boy who reminds him of it. Associating Memphis with hunger and fear, Richard rushes through good-byes, later to reflect on how lacking in true kindness and deep hope Negroes were, living somehow in but not of Western civilization. The family brief stops at Granny’s new home in Jackson, where a schoolteacher boarding there named Ella imparts the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives to Richard’s astonished but overjoyed ears. Granny interrupts the tale, condemning Richard to hell for enjoying the story, which is left unfinished and hanging dramatically in the air, just beyond reach, a taste of the life Richard continues to long for in the years to come.
One night when his mother is too ill to bathe them, Granny supervises the boys, and is horrified when her older grandson invites her to “kiss back there” when she is done drying his backside. The entire family is outraged, and, livid with anger Granny asks Grandpa to punish their grandson, who is balled up under the bed. Grandpa threatens to get his gun, but it is Richard’s mother who whips him with a switch, begging him to reveal the source of his obscenities. He is unable to tell her, and Granny concludes that it is the schoolteacher Ella who is responsible, and promptly evicts her.
Before leaving for Arkansas, Richard experiences joyful moments involving the sights, sounds and smells of the South: bees hovering over roses, the whir of the sawmill, cottonseeds cooking. As they board the train at long last, Richard observes separate ticket lines for whites and blacks, and begins to ask his mother about race, in particular whether her mother is white. She adamantly refuses to give him a straight answer, giving him facts but not sharing her feelings, which is what he is after. He promises himself to learn what she does not want him to know, and dismisses his uneasiness with the thought that if anyone tries to kill him, he will kill them first.
Aunt Maggie’s bungalow in Elaine, Arkansas, is Richard’s first experience of a home. His Uncle Hoskins’ saloon business is thriving, and the table is lavishly abundant with food. Richard begins to steal bread, secreting it away in fear that hunger will one day return.
One day riding home in the buggy after trading in Helena, Uncle Hoskins asks Richard if he would like to see the horse drink from the middle of the river, and proceeds to drive them into the running current. Terrified, Richard leaps out, losing trust in his uncle from that day forward.
Soon afterwards, Uncle Hoskins fails to come home after work at the saloon, and Maggie is frightened that something has happened to him. In fact, as they are soon informed, white men resentful of his business success have killed him. As the perpetrators have further threatened the family, they hold no funeral but instead fill the void of his life with only silence. The sisters decide to return to their mother’s house, outside of which Richard at one point sees a group of soldiers training for the war in Germany, and at another a chain gang of men working. He mistakes them for elephants, having associated their zebra stripes with his other favorite animal from a book seen long ago.
Frustrated by Granny’s religious devotion, Ellen and her sons soon move to West Helena, where they rent half a house also occupied by prostitutes. Blissfully oblivious to their neighbors, Richard and his black friends learn to taunt Jews as “Christ Killers.” One day a black girl tells Richard his neighbors are going to make a lot of money, and he is so desperate to know what they are selling he moves a chair to the wall to peer over. The landlady catches him peeping on her customers, and insists the nine-year-old come over and pay like everyone else. Richard does not understand, and she appeals to his mother to beat him, which, for once, she refuses to do. They are forced to move down the street, where soon thereafter Aunt Maggie introduces them to their new “uncle,” Professor Matthews, who is taking her north. Disliking the unblinking man in the high collar and rimless eyeglasses, Richard is nevertheless disturbed to learn he is being looked for by white men, and they are never to indicate that he has visited the house. One night, they quickly pack and flee after the man sets fire to a house still containing a woman he has apparently robbed and hit. Once again poverty-stricken, Richard goes door-to-door in a white neighborhood offering to sell his poodle, Betsy, for a dollar in order to buy some food. A young white woman offers him 97 cents, but he declines, deciding he doesn’t want to sell her to white people after all. A week later the poodle is run over, and, as his mother comments, he can’t eat a dead dog.
Richard recalls the superstitions that surrounded him with magic and mystery, and his imagination grows as he hears tales, whether factually or only emotionally true, of a black woman shooting four white men while feigning prayer. His mother finds work in a doctor’s office and Richard returns to school, freezing up at the blackboard in a particularly painful moment in front of a class laughing at him. In the outside world, the First World War is over and Richard sees his first plane, which he insists is a bird. For Christmas, Richard receives a single orange, carefully consuming it from the inside out.
Richard’s discovery of literature, albeit in the form of a piece of popular culture, ignites a lifelong passion for reading, an activity to which he devotes himself as fervently as Granny does to being a Seventh Day Adventist. Her belief that her grandson’s engagement with fiction is the Devil’s work creates a tension between the two that last throughout Richard’s life as well. But her resistance to his fascination with the written word only deepens his interest and emotional connection to the fascinating world of make-believe.
When the family relocates to live with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins, Richard enjoys a brief period of prosperity, though his incredulousness that there is always enough food leads him to hoard bread, fearing that one day it will again run out. His concern is warranted, for after playing a prank on Richard and pretending to drive their wagon into the Mississippi river, Hoskins is murdered by white men who resent his prosperous business. The foreshadowing of this racially motivated murder heightens the sense of fear and foreboding in an already violence-ridden chapter.
Back at Granny’s, Richard witnesses two strange sights in rapid succession. The first is a group of black soldiers preparing to defend their country from the “enemy,” suggesting a cause worthy of sacrifice for one’s country has provided benefits and comforts of some sort. The ironic fact that black Americans seldom receive such rewards in a country they are nevertheless willing to fight and die for is not lost on Richard, who soon thereafter comments that he has seen elephants outside, confusing the image of black-and-white striped uniformed men on a chain gang with a picture he recalls seeing of zebras. He is conscious of the injustice that black men are treated worse than animals by a country that depends on their labor and willingness to serve.
The motif of racial injustice is further revealed in Richard’s venture into the white world to try to sell his dog, a gift from Professor Matthews who also is linked to racial violence with the suggestion that he killed a white woman and therefore had to flee north. Although Richard’s principles seem sound in refusing to sell Betsy to a white woman for three cents under his asking price, outraging her and leading her to yell at him “nigger boy,” his decision yields further misfortune when the dog is killed and his stomach still hungers. At the chapter’s end, there is an enormous gap between the outside world in which the war has been won and planes circle overhead, and the internal world of Richard’s family, in which poverty lingers overhead and Christmas is celebrated with a meager orange. The image of Richard sucking the juice from his orange and carefully consuming the pieces of peel suggests a boy seeking to enjoy the marrow of life but whose family and racial circumstances have instead provided him with too limited means to achieve much.