Black Boy: Chapter 9
Richard accepts his first offer of employment and works in a clothing store, from which he witnesses the boss and his son hassle a black woman while a white policeman stands by watching. He sees them washing up in the back, the floor strewn with her blood, hair and clothing, and accepts a cigarette, at a loss of what to think, feel or do. On another day, making deliveries on the store’s bicycle, his tire goes flat and he accepts a ride from a white man who has been drinking and throws the empty bottle at him. Yet another day, while riding in a white neighborhood, police tell Richard to put up his hands, which he does, only to be told to let his boss know not to send him into such neighborhoods at night. After one unpleasant encounter with the boss’s son, Richard collects his money and leaves, moving on to other petty jobs. His former classmate Griggs offers him some advice about getting out of white people’s way, and an opportunity and the eyeglass shop above the jewelry store where he himself works. Mr. Crane is a northerner who wishes to train a black boy in his trade, but his southern employees Pease and Reynolds resist this happening in practice. They take it upon themselves to intimidate Richard both verbally and physically. One day Pease tells him that Reynolds informed him that Richard referred to him as “Pease” rather than “Mr. Pease,” which Richard recognizes as a trap as he is either guilty of disrespect or accusing his white colleague of lying. He knows he cannot win and quits the shop, to Mr. Crane’s dismay. The sympathetic Mr. Crane begs for an explanation, but Richard’s code of honor and fear of revenge do not allow him to share the threats on his life, and he accepts overpayment for the week and leaves ashamed.
Richard’s failure to treat whites differently, showing that he sees their color and is deferential to them as a result, has roots from his earliest childhood, and leads to the inevitable confrontation with his Southern white co-workers in the optical shop. The degree of violent confrontation within his own family has further predicted that Richard will not meet societal expectations of deference and expressions of unearned respect. Griggs demonstrates how black teenagers are expected to move out of the way of whites, physically and figuratively, and Richard, though he says he wishes to learn, is unable and unwilling to engage in this act. His experience in the optical shop shows what he can expect in the future in the South, and Mr. Crane agrees the best course for him is to move north. While at first glance Mr. Crane’s sympathy and identification with Richard seem to make him a co-defender of human dignity against racism, his lack of understanding of his own role and difference from Richard also show a subtler type of racism at work, no less devastating than the overt form of Pease and Reynolds. Mr. Crane uses his position both to offer to raise Richard up and to keep him in his place, for example, making him wait patiently until Mr. Crane is done sifting through his mail and is available. He may mean well, but his actions speak louder than words, and his behavior has not truly helped to change the status quo, but rather has simply reinforced it. His apologies and attempt to compensate Richard financially for the pain he has suffered show his inability to live outside the system. By saying he, too, has a hard time in the South and trying to express a degree of similarity with Richard, Crane shows just how different and distant their experiences are.