Black Boy: Chapter 4
Granny’s religious beliefs thrust Richard into a world of sermons and punishments, and he again knows hunger, eating mush and gravy for breakfast and greens at four o’clock. Richard’s Aunt Addie returns from the Seventh Day Adventist religious school eager to see her nephew enrolled in the religious school where she was to be a teacher. The tension between them erupts full force just a week into the school year when Addie sees walnut pieces and shells on the floor of the classroom and blames Richard, whose ethical code forbids him from tattling on the boy in front of him. She lashes his hand in front of the class, promising further punishment at home. But Richard is ready and willing to fight her physically, grabbing a kitchen knife to defend himself against another beating. His mother and Granny witness the scene and Grandpa threatens that he’ll wind up on the gallows. Addie continues to pull rank at school, finding small ways to avenge her defeat, at one point encouraging the children to play a game called pop the whip in which one boy on the end of a row is whipped across the field. Addie selects Richard for this role, laughing unabashedly when he is sent hurling into a ditch, bruised and bloodied.
Richard begrudgingly attends church with his grandmother, where he fantasizes about the elder’s wife. During one sermon, he attempts to placate his grandmother by telling her he would believe in God if he saw an angel, but she mishears him and excitedly tells the preacher Richard has seen an angel. When the truth comes to light, Granny is so angry that to appease her Richard promises to pray every day. But he is unable to keep from laughing, and uses his prayer hour to write a story about an Indian girl killing herself, which he reads to a shocked neighbor whose reaction pleases him.
Richard’s rebellion against the strict religious order upheld by Granny and Addie reveals his basic spiritual disagreement with their belief that humans are innately weak and flawed, destined to spend their lives attempting to compensate for original sin. He is unable to ascribe to their belief in a divine order, and his chaotic life supports his theory that there is no rhyme or reason to the seemingly incomprehensible happenings around him. Beaten as much for his unwillingness to proclaim God’s existence and divinity as for his infractions at home and school, Richard reacts to Addie’s attacks in the only way he knows how, meeting violence with violence. His own life philosophy is already forming in his mind and is very much akin to the existentialism to which he later ascribed in Paris, where he met two of its primary proponents, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre