In 1927, Richard takes the train north to Chicago with his Aunt Maggie. He remarks on the “unreal” quality of Chicago, full of dirt, smoke, and heavy industry. He is surprised, too, that the train station is not segregated, as Southern stations are. Richard begins to understand that he won’t feel in Chicago the same racial anxiety he felt in the South, but he imagines this will be replaced by the daily demands of a giant city, where people appear to worry only about their own survival. Richard and Aunt Maggie sit next to a white man on the streetcar to their Aunt Cleo’s apartment, where they will be staying. Richard is amazed that the white man has no problem sitting near a black man.
Life in Chicago will be vastly different from life in the South. Chicago is a metropolis, almost too large to be understood by one man. Wright has viewed the North as an antidote to the South, but here the picture is murkier. If Chicago seems more open on questions of race, it also seems less defined and classifiable in its racial divisions. Race is still a subject of debate, but it’s not the primary means of defining a person. Richard wonders how this new pattern of political and social organization will affect his life.
After a restless night at Aunt Cleo’s, Richard takes the streetcar south to a white neighborhood to look for work. He stops at a deli run by Jewish merchants, the Hoffmans, and Mr. Hoffman offers him a job immediately as a messenger and all-around helper. Richard is embarrassed that he can barely understand the Hoffmans’ English, as they speak with an Eastern European accent. He worries that the Hoffmans and others in their neighborhood secretly believe him to be ignorant because he is black.
Richard is given a lesson on these racial dynamics right away. The Hoffmans, too, are migrants to Chicago, and like Richard, they are excluded from the “white” (west-European) power centers of the city. But Wright wonders, still, if the Hoffmans aren’t closer to whiteness than he is. He fears he is once again at the bottom of a racial ladder.
In a commentary on these memories, Wright realizes that his younger self was mistaken about race relations in Chicago. The Hoffmans really were trying to help him, and they did not condescend to him. They also didn’t keep the same strict racial hierarchy in their neighborhood that American-born whites kept in the South. Wright wonders if those hierarchies aren’t somehow soothing, even to the blacks they subjugate, but he also cannot forgive Southern black workers who concede to the cruel demands of their white bosses.
Wright raises an important and controversial point about racial organization in a society by emphasizing the dislocation he felt on arriving in Chicago. Of course, Wright has done everything possible to leave the segregation of Jim Crow and the American South, but he finds in Chicago a realm without clear racial rules, and with far more ethnically subdivided populations. This new system confuses him.
Richard finds out that the Postal Service examination is to be held on a Monday, and he decides to take it. He’s exhausted from work at the Hoffmans, and fears that, if he tells them about the test, they’ll think he’s ungrateful for his job at the deli. In the South, Richard remarks to himself, a boss might have become angry at the thought that a black worker was trying to leave a menial job and improve his career. Richard decides to skip work for the three days to rest for and take the exam. Because he is afraid of the Hoffmans’ imagined anger, he tells them nothing about his absence.
The Post Office represents a path out of blue-collar labor. It is a government job, and will afford Richard more time to devote to his art. More important to him than anything else is the opportunity to think, read, and write. Working for the Hoffmans pays little, but it is even more damaging for Richard because of its intellectual isolation. The Post Office, by contrast, promises a path forward for Richard’s fledgling writing career.
The day after the test, Richard returns to work, where he’s greeted by Mr. Hoffman. Richard says that his mother died in Memphis and he had to return for her funeral. Mr. Hoffman understands that Richard is being untruthful, and asks him why. Instead of admitting his falsehood, Richard continues in it, saying his aunt lent him money for the trip. Richard believes it would be worse to admit to taking the exam than to tell an obvious lie to his boss. Mr. Hoffman replies to Richard that he knows he’s lying, but that it’s all right, and Richard can continue working at the deli. Richard, however, is ashamed of his actions, and confused that the Hoffmans didn’t fire him, either for his absence or his lack of honesty. Richard quits the next weekend without telling the Hoffmans that he’s leaving.
Richard has trapped himself in his conversation with Mr. Hoffman. Because Richard has only known the race dynamics of the South, he can’t predict how Hoffman will respond to his desire for a new job. As it turns out, Hoffman was willing to talk to Richard about his absence, but Richard did not give his boss the opportunity to do so. Thus Richard has anticipated a relationship with Hoffman—one of strict subordination—that Hoffman does not subscribe to. Having erred by lying, Richard commits the additional error of believing the Hoffmans will never forgive him, when they are in fact ready to do so.
Richard next finds work washing dishes on the North Side. He is the only black worker at the diner, where the waitresses are white women from the neighborhood, and the cook, Tillie, is from Finland. Richard is surprised that the waitresses are untroubled by his blackness: they ask him for favors, talk honestly to him about their lives, and aren’t afraid to work in close quarters near him. Wright tells the reader that he is amazed by the shallowness of these waitresses’ existences. They seem to demand very little from life. He says that black experience is “truer and deeper,” because black people in America are forced every day to confront their position in society. But he is also in awe of the waitresses’ serene, uncomplicated attitudes.
Wright begins to sketch out a new theory of race, class, and politics. In the South, race and power went hand-in-hand. The people who ran Southern cities were white, and the richest members of Southern society were white. But in Chicago, race, culture, and money intersect in more complicated ways. Richard feels intellectually superior to the white women he works with, and those women have no strict views on Wright’s supposed “inferiority.” Instead, they seem to enjoy speaking to him, even though he doesn’t find their conversation stimulating.
In another commentary, Wright explains his views on white and black experience in America. Because American culture is consumer-driven, and because whites are socially dominant, white culture and consumer culture in the US become unified. White culture excludes black culture, as it has since the beginning of American democracy. Thus African Americans not only lack social equality with whites—they also find themselves outside the consumer utopia white culture has created. Returning to 1927, Richard describes the surprise of the “boss lady” at the diner when she realizes that Richard reads The American Mercury, H. L. Mencken’s magazine. No one else on the staff concerns themselves with that kind of high culture.
Wright continues in his analysis of race and culture. He has worked his entire life to learn to read, and to read widely. Mencken is a cultural hero for him. The women at the diner only know vaguely about Mencken’s views, but they recognize him as a scholar. It is surprising, then, that Richard is reading the Mercury, but it’s perhaps more surprising for them that a diner-worker (black or white) is trying to better himself. Richard is learning that his isolation as an intellectual compounds upon his isolation as a black man in a white-dominated society.
Richard realizes that Tillie has been spitting in the soup she makes. He tells a recently-hired black waitress, but they are afraid to inform the boss. Eventually, the black waitress does tell the boss, and Richard confirms the story. The boss is skeptical until she spies on Tillie as she spits; the boss fires Tillie at once, and Richard recalls the times he has been fired for offenses far less unsavory than Tillie’s.
In this instance, Tillie is only fired and not physically harmed. She is allowed to leave with her dignity intact. Wright implies that, in the South, a black man would almost certainly be beaten for this kind of insubordinate behavior. In Chicago, he wonders what his punishment might be if he were to misbehave as badly as Tillie.
A temporary position opens up at the Post Office, and Richard is called to take it. He quits at the diner, relieved to have a white-collar job. The new role pays him 70 cents a day, enough finally to eat three regular meals, but the job also has a weight requirement of 125 pounds, and Richard is 15 pounds short. Though the irony is not lost on him, his previous periods of hunger, brought on by low wages, are now coming back to haunt him at the first job that pays him a reasonable wage. He tries all summer to eat substantial meals to bring his weight up, which would allow him to keep the job.
This is one of the great ironies of the second part of the book. There is no clear reason supplied for the Post Office’s 125-pound rule; whether it is designed to be discriminatory or not, the rule keeps Wright from stable government employment. But this same government, demanding that he be well-fed, does little to provide Wright with the food he needs to thrive. Only through Wright’s continued hard work is he able to eat enough to climb the social ladder.
During this time, Richard moves with his Aunt Maggie out of Aunt Cleo’s apartment. Richard’s mother and brother also move in, and they live in close quarters together. Richard spends much of his free time reading (Gertrude Stein and Dostoevsky especially), and he practices his own writing, despite his family’s disapproval of his constant study. In September, however, he falls short of 125 pounds and is fired from the Post Office. He returns to the diner and promises himself he’ll eat as much as he can, to secure another postal job when it becomes available in the spring.
Wright takes pains to note the complexities of his continuing education. His family does not support his reading, and they are even confused and frightened by it. Reading allows Richard to communicate with the thinkers who have come before him, but it also produces resentment in those around him. They wonder if Wright feels he’s superior to them because of his learning.
Until then, Richard busies himself at the diner. He reads Proust and continues his project of intellectual betterment, though it’s difficult to maintain his schedule, continue his broad reading, and deal with his family, who are confused by his dedication to books. Although he is lonely, Richard finds hope in the texts he’s reading. He vows to continue on his path toward a literary career.
Proust’s long novel is an apt choice for Wright. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust recounts his long path toward a creative life—the life that has prompted him to write the very novel. In a sense, Wright is doing the same thing in Black Boy, laying out his own intellectual history for the reader.