Black Boy

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Black Boy Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Granny and Addie give up on converting Richard to Christianity, and Richard settles into an uneasy truce with them, as his mother recovers enough at least to encourage Richard in his studies from her bed. Richard enrolls in the local public school, and is placed in the fifth grade, despite his age (he is roughly thirteen). He is soon promoted to sixth grade, on account of his reading and writing abilities. Richard again defends himself in front of the other children in the schoolyard, who taunt him for his new hat on the first day of classes, and after fighting two of them, he is drawn into the office by a teacher, where he says he had to stand his ground, and where the teacher grudgingly sends him off to join the other students in the fifth-grade room.
Richard once again feels the need to “establish himself” in the school, and to protect himself from those who seek to bully him (as those few boys did when Richard went out to by groceries in Memphis, at a very young age). But one wonders whether it is always useful for Richard to fight his way out of these particular scrapes. The black community accepts his instinct to protect and stand up for himself, but when Richard encounters White society as an employee it becomes clear that such straightforward refusals to bend won't work.
Themes
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Granny and Addie will not give Richard money for “earthly books,” meaning anything that is not the Bible, and they continue to feed him on a diet of mostly greens and mush, with very little for lunch on school days. Richard begs Granny that he be able to work on Saturdays—which Granny considers the Sabbath—in order to buy food for himself to eat during school lunch, but Granny forbids this, saying that the Sabbath is for rest only, and even if Richard is not religious, he will follow the house’s religious rules.
Granny, here, does not care whether Richard starves, or whether he has anything to occupy his mind. She does not even derive her Christian teachings from the Bible or any similar source. Instead, she uses religion as a kind of defense against parts of the world with which she does not wish to engage. Thus, because Granny herself has no need for books, she assumes that Richard, too, can gain nothing from reading them.
Themes
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard finds a young boy in his sixth-grade class who is selling newspapers with a “magazine supplement” in the back, serializing Riders of the Purple Sage, an adventure story. Richard is enticed by the prospect of reading this serial each week, and of making some money to buy lunch, and so secures a subscription to the paper, through the boy, and begins selling the papers throughout the black neighborhoods of Jackson. He is able to do so, in part, because Granny permits work on non-Sabbath days, and because she cannot read, therefore she does not know what the paper and supplement are about. Richard, too, does not read the paper, only the stories in the back, and he is pulled aside one day by an African American man, a carpenter, who tells Richard that the paper is an organ of the KKK, and that it spouts only Klan doctrine, including racist caricatures and rumors about African Americans.
A truly upsetting episode in the memoir. Richard wants desperately to be able to read, and so the job delivering newspapers seems a perfect one—it enables him to take the magazine supplement and to enjoy it every week. But Richard finds out, from a kind African American man, that his job has a terrible dark side. Richard perhaps wonders, at this point, if his efforts to buy books and fill his belly are even worth it. At every turn, either Granny or some aspect of white society attempts to thwart Richard, to make it difficult for him to earn money respectably. But Richard does not give up in his quest for greater understanding.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard is appalled, and vows to the man never to sell the papers again; his friend, too, stops selling them, although the boys are too embarrassed to discuss with each other the contents of the papers they were so eager to share with the world. The carpenter tells Richard that people in the neighborhood assumed, because Richard was known for his reading ability, that Richard was simply unaware of the material he was selling, but Richard is nonetheless ashamed. Richard works hard that year in school, and reads whatever dime-store novels he can get his hands on in his spare time. As summer begins, however, Granny still will not permit him to work a job that meets on the Sabbath, and because Richard can find no other kind of employment, he is mostly idle.
What is strangest about Granny’s prohibition of work on the Sabbath is that it requires Richard to substitute a Biblical value—hard work—for a decidedly un-Christian one—laziness, or idleness. Richard wants to engage his body and his mind, and to make money to help to support himself. But Granny, out of an abstract principle, believes it is more important to starve and maintain the Sabbath than it is to be comfortable and happy in one’s work. This paradox is one of the frustrations that helps push Richard away from Granny's strict religious views.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
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One summer day, Richard is sitting on the porch steps with Granny, Addie, and mother—Granny and Addie are arguing about “religious doctrine,” as they often do, and Richard is mostly silent. But when a point strikes Richard as interesting, he chimes in, only to be swiped at by Granny, who often hits Richard when he is “bold” enough to speak without being spoken to. Richard dodges Granny’s blow, however, and the force of her swipe causes her to tumble forward and hurt her back.
Not only do Granny and Addie require Richard to pray for long stretches of the day—they also establish a family rule according to which Richard cannot speak unless spoken to. Richard violates this rule and behaves naturally—hoping to avoid a blow—but Granny’s ensuing injury is nonetheless blamed on Richard and on the “bad spirit” he brings into the house.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Addie goes inside, where Richard has run to his room out of fear, and yells at Richard, saying that he has hurt Granny, that he is a fool and does the devil’s work. But Richard responds that he was only attempting to protect himself, and when Addie continues to yell at him, Richard says he will sleep with a knife under his pillow, in case Addie ever comes into his room to chastise him or beat him. Addie then leaves, and Richard remarks, in the narrative, that though their house was “religious,” he has never found a more violent or disputatious place, a home so bereft of love and kindness.
Richard reprises his threat of the knife, to Addie—and again, it is not clear whether he would actually use the knife on her, though she appears to believe he is not bluffing. Richard finally notes what has become obvious—that, though the house claims to observe strict Christian teachings, it is a house devoid of love, fellowship, and happiness. It is instead a home full of violence, anger, and recrimination.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard finally finds a job that summer, working as a secretary for an insurance salesman named Brother Mance, who cannot read, and who goes about the plantations outside Jackson to sell insurance policies to poor African American families. Richard, in seeing these families, is ashamed at his own roots—he, too, was born on a plantation. He wonders what is to become of large segments of the southern black population, who are too poor to gain an education and to move away from the difficult conditions of plantation life. But the job is somewhat rewarding work, and Richard is sad when Brother Mance dies soon thereafter, as the insurance company will not allow a minor to continue in Mance’s place, selling policies. Richard returns to school in the fall, and starts the seventh grade—he still reads a great deal in his spare time, and is still often quite hungry.
Richard’s job with Brother Mance is perhaps the job he enjoys the most, before he is hired in an optometrist’s shop. Richard enjoys especially the opportunity to read and write, and to deploy those skills in the service of others. But Richard also recognizes that he recoils at the sight of many of the rural “peasantry” in Mississippi, and he is embarrassed that he, too, has ties to this particular region. Thus it is with his characteristic mixture of empathy and antipathy that Richard describes the southern, rural, African American society into which he has been born.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard comes to the kitchen table one day that fall, and learns that Grandpa is very sick—that, as Granny puts it, he is now in his “final illness,” although Grandpa has been sick for many years, on account of a wound suffered during the Civil War. Richard recounts that his Grandpa’s name was mis-transcribed at the end of the war as Richard Vinson, not Richard Wilson (Grandpa thought this had been done on purpose by racist bureaucrats in the War Office); therefore, Grandpa never received his military pension, though he fought for the Union with great bravery, and maintained a lifelong hatred of the Confederate States.
The story of Grandpa’s elusive pension would be comical, if it weren’t a source of eternal torment for him and for the rest of the family. Grandpa recognizes the irony in having fought a war to emancipate slaves, and then to have his own pension deferred because of racist bureaucrats and general antipathy toward African Americans. But Grandpa’s lack of formal education keeps him from petitioning the government more vigorously—he is reliant on the help of others even to write to the War Department offices.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard goes upstairs to say “goodbye” to his grandfather, but when he asks Granny about the words Grandpa mumbles to him one his deathbed, Granny slaps him, tells him to be quiet when “the angel of death is in the house,” and sends Richard out to the far edge of town to fetch Tom, Grandpa’s son, to tell him of Grandpa’s death. Tom yells at Richard for announcing his father’s death so brusquely, then makes Richard walk back home alone—Richard remarks to himself, after this episode, “that he can never seem to do what people expect of him.”
Tom will recur as another negative father figure, a man who does nothing but discipline Richard without offering him productive guidance of any kind. Tom will later attempt to punish Richard for a crime Richard does not even understand, and at this point, Richard will make clear that he will tolerate living in the same house as Tom, but nothing beyond that.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Granny does not allow Richard to attend Grandpa’s funeral, but Richard does not mind overmuch, and he notes that life continues more or less as usual after Grandpa’s death. One day late into Richard’s seventh-grade school year, however, Richard finally confronts Granny, begging her only to let him work on the Sabbath, so that he can have money to buy “long pants” (since only children wear the shorts Richard has been accustomed to wearing for years). Granny says that Richard will go to hell for doing this, but when Richard threatens to leave school and the house altogether, Granny relents, and Richard is permitted to work on Saturdays. When Richard tells his mother this, she is proud of him for standing up to Granny and Addie.
Richard’s mother's relationship to religion is never fully explained, although it seems that, at some moments in her life, she is deeply religious (perhaps following Granny’s example), and at other moments, Richard’s mother appears to disregard the necessity of religious teaching. Here is an example of the latter case. Richard’s mother believes that Granny’s rule, prohibiting work on the Sabbath, can do nothing but cause Richard pain, and Richard’s mother wants Richard to earn money and possibly leave the South entirely.
Themes
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon