Black Boy: Chapter 8
Richard considers a job at a sawmill the next summer, but after learning of the dangers and seeing the stumps of limbs of several workers he decides against it. He also hears tale of the killing of a black employee at a local hotel where the man was rumored to have consorted with a white prostitute. Given the risks of the working world, Richard focuses on his studies and becomes valedictorian of his class. Excelling at school does not change his reputation at home, however, and he overhears his Uncle Tom telling his daughter to avoid him and his bad influence. Richard is distraught to learn that these sorts of warnings at least in part explain the distance he has experienced from his cousins. Even more upsettingly, during a visit to Granny’s his brother takes a similar attitude towards him.
The principal at school provides Richard with a speech to deliver at graduation, but Richard prefers to recite the speech he has written himself. Despite the principal’s threats, Richard stubbornly refuses to be “bought” and at home shows his Uncle Tom both speeches. Tom tells him the principal’s is the better speech, but offers to help Richard work on his, which he feels says what he wants to say, even if less clear language than the principal used, he felt, to say nothing. Richard rejects his uncle’s offer. He is determined to wear long pants to graduation and to recite his own speech, and borrows enough from Mrs. Bibbs, his employer, to be able to do so. Thus after graduating in 1925, he faces the world with a wisdom beyond his years, despite, or perhaps because of, the many obstacles he has faced, especially within his own family.
Richard’s stubborn insistence that he read his own speech at graduation seems to produce more feelings of defeat than triumph. Although he has succeeded in not only being named the school valedictorian, quite an achievement in itself, his delivery of the speech he has written rather than the principal’s seems to result in disgust at the ceremony itself. Richard has every reason to feel proud, yet his description of his exit further removes him from his own community. He rejects the principal’s offer of continuing in an obviously corrupt educational system to pursue his own path, and has clearly set this route willingly and knowingly. He refuses to continue to participate in a system of degradation and humiliation, yet recognizes there are few alternatives since this system, both legal and social, is all encompassing. He notes years later that he did receive applause, people did try to shake his hand, peers did invite him to parties, yet he narrates his graduation from such a distance it seems inevitable he will not only reject such overtures in his youth, but continue in his isolated life to further distance himself from those around him. This theme of self-isolation, shunning his community to avoid further rejection, continues as Richard “graduates” from youth to adulthood, continuing the old and familiar patterns despite the fact they seem to lead only to self-defeat and negative feelings.