Black Boy

Black Boy Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Richard walks around the city of Memphis that Monday morning, after the run-in with the bootleggers, and comes upon another optician’s shop, similar to the one he worked in in Jackson. Richard rides the elevator in a the large city building up to the sixth-floor shop, and speaks to the white owner, explaining that he (Richard) has experience working for Crane, an optician in Jackson, and that he only left because he was hounded off the job by ignorant white workers. The owner agrees to take on Richard as an errand boy, and Richard begins work that day, doing similar tasks to his work in Jackson, only under the less-threatening glare of whites without the overt prejudices of those in Jackson.
Richard’s good luck continues. Here, he happens to find a job much better than the dishwashing gig he was originally to take in Memphis, and it is in a field with which he is familiar. Although Richard knows that, as an “errand boy,” he will not come much closer to actually grinding lenses, he also recognizes that, in Memphis, the “Upper South,” relations between African American and white employees are more outwardly diplomatic, and less systematically brutal and cruel.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard tells Mrs. Moss that he has taken a better job at the optician’s, and she is, again, proud and supportive of him. She asks Richard a few days after he starts work what happened between him and Bess, and Richard explains that, although he likes Bess, he does not wish to marry her. Mrs. Moss pushes the idea of their marriage for a few more days, but after Richard threatens to leave the house because of her pressuring, Mrs. Moss brings Bess in to Richard’s room, and they both apologize, saying that they like his company, and that they will leave him alone. Richard begins working harder than he has ever worked, and scrimps and saves with the ultimate goal of sending money back to his mother in Jackson. Richard also begins reading as many magazines as he can get his hands on, including The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and The American Mercury.
Richard begins reading periodical magazines at the same time that he finally asserts, to Mrs. Moss, that he will not be marrying Bess, and that, if she continues to push the issue, he will be leaving the house, even though Mrs. Moss charges a very reasonable rent. Richard has become more vocal about his independence, and more committed to expanding his intellectual domain—and these two go hand in hand. Richard’s increased confidence, as regards emotional dealings with others, seems to bolster his increased intellectual confidence, derived from reading—and vice versa.
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 also learns about the ways of Memphis African American men and women in appeasing the white people for whom they work. Shorty, the elevator man in Richard’s building—and a squat, comical fellow—often makes himself into a racial caricature in order to beg quarters from white elevator passengers. Although Richard finds this behavior abhorrent, and wonders if Shorty doesn’t hate himself for doing it, Shorty replies that he gets the quarter, after all, from most white passengers, and that he is strong enough psychologically to make fun of himself in this way.
Shorty’s “song” for the white businessman is an example of the kinds of sacrifices African Americans must make to their self-esteem in order to “get along” with others in Memphis. Richard stops short of blaming Shorty absolutely—Richard himself will do nothing of the sort, but Richard also recognizes that Shorty has very few other options, and that Shorty will most likely not be able to leave Memphis. Therefore, Shorty must make it in the city however he can.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Richard becomes friends with Shorty and other African American men who work in the building in service occupations, and learns their methods for dealing with white customers. Richard himself is approached by a white, northern customer one day in the optician’s shop, who sees that Richard is skinny and offers him money for food. Richard, however, is too proud to accept the charity, and tells the man that he is not hungry, and that he does not want the dollar. The man, confused by Richard’s refusal of his help, leaves the shop.
Another instance of Richard refusing money from someone. As was the case with his father, when Richard was a very young child, Richard knows, here, that to take the money would be to satisfy his immediate cravings. But the emotional pain—the pain to his dignity—that Richard would feel, having accepted charity, would make Richard upset in a far more lasting and significant way.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
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Another day, Richard is approached by Olin, a white foreman in the optician’s shop, who tells Richard that an African American young man named Harrison, in a “rival shop” across the street, wants to fight Richard. Richard is confused by this, since he has never said anything against Harrison, and in speaking with Harrison later that day, they each realize that Olin has told the same thing to both, hoping to spark a fight between the two young men. Richard and Olin are somewhat wary of each other, still, but no violence passes between them.
Richard and Harrison quickly realizes that Olin is only looking to start a fight any way he can. At first, Olin seems content with this fight being the kind of back-alley brawl, without gloves, that might spring up “organically,” owing to an actual disagreement. But Richard and Harrison are too hardened in the ways of life to take Olin at his word, and they continue to be outwardly peaceful toward, if wary of, one another.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Then, a week later, Olin and a few other white men from the shop ask Richard if he would fight Harrison with gloves, while other white men stood around watching and betting on the action. Richard’s immediate response is not to do it, since he doesn’t want to be made “sport” of, but Harrison tells Richard that they are “made fun of by the white workers anyway,” and both Richard and Harrison could use the five dollars, each, that Olin promises the fighters. They accept the offer to fight.
Harrison’s logic here might be persuasive, but it is also intensely self-defeating. Yes, Olin will attempt to make fun of Richard and Harrison regardless, but if the two men fight one another, then they are more or less submitting to a kind of white “entertainment” that Richard later understands to be utterly demoralizing and humiliating.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
The fight is held on a Saturday, and Richard and Harrison are surrounded by agitated and boisterous white men, who begin shouting at each when the fighting starts. Richard and Harrison start out slowly, but then begin fighting each other with greater power, and pummel each other for long rounds, drawing blood. Richard and Harrison soon become enraged, mostly out of embarrassment at their white “fans,” and when the fight is called (with no decision announced), Richard takes his money and leaves, angry. He writes that he never really talks to Harrison again, and feels that he has “done something unclean” for agreeing to fight his fellow man as entertainment for whites, “something for which I could never properly atone.”
There are some moments in Richard’s life that he will never forget, and this appears to be one of them. Although Richard has gone to Memphis to escape the overt racism of Jackson, he has found, there, a more submerged, more “gentlemanly,” but no less destructive form, in which African American men are co-opted to be a means of entertainment for whites. Just as Richard was upset with Shorty for performing for white men, so too, here, does Richard recognize that he is just as capable of doing so, if half-unwittingly.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Christianity and “Being Saved” Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon