Richard reapplies to the Post Office that spring, and is accepted, having now achieved 125 pounds. He makes more money, and his family finds more comfortable lodgings. At the Post Office, he becomes friends with a group of Jewish and Irish self-taught intellectuals, who discuss some of the books and pamphlets they’ve been reading, including discussions of contemporary society. Richard is dismayed to discover, however, that not all black intellectuals on the South Side share his interest in politics. They, by contrast (and in Richard’s terms) concern themselves with “twisted sex problems,” and mostly write about their romantic relationships. Richard realizes that similar racial experience does not necessarily lead to group solidary and cohesion. He believes these romantically-obsessed black writers are trying for, and failing to achieve, “Bohemian life.”
In Chicago as in Memphis, Wright finds himself at odds with members of black society. He realized in Memphis that black workers choose to respond to their white supervisors in different ways, and here, Wright sees that literary fashion in the black community is as complex and multifaceted as in the white community. Wright is not just interested in aesthetic concerns, but also social problems and their solutions. He views literature as a vehicle for social change—although he also wants literature to capture the human imagination. An art only concerned with sexuality is, for Wright, a limited art.
Richard does respect the political activities of the Garveyites, followers of Marcus Garvey, who advocate a return of black Americans to Africa. Richard feels that Africa is under the thrall of international capitalism, however, and that the wild, beautiful Continent the Garveyites hope to rediscover is only a fantasy. In the winter of 1929, Richard learns that the stock market has crashed. His coworkers at the Post Office complain of cutbacks to their hours. Richard has a political awakening, and when fellow postal clerks begin discussing Communism, he pays attention, wondering if it offers a critique of the capitalist-consumerist way of life he’s observed throughout working-class Chicago.
The followers of Marcus Garvey represent a different kind of political activism. They wish to redirect black life in America toward a reimagined Africa. But Wright sees this as no less a fantasy than that of the “black Bohemians.” For Wright, there can be no escape from capitalism. Imperialism has affected black life around the world, and Africa is no safer from it than America. Instead, Wright believes that black liberationists should focus their attentions on American concerns.
Richard is eventually let go from the Post Office, because of the start of the Great Depression. He looks for work elsewhere in Chicago, and gets a job at a burial and insurance agency run by a “distant cousin.” The job requires Richard to sell expensive insurance policies to black families who mostly cannot afford them, and who are in times of personal crisis. The job is unsavory to Richard, but he knows he needs to work to support himself and his family. He visits many black families on the South Side during his tenure at his cousin’s company.
This section of the book points to Wright’s moral complexity. Although he knows that his work for the insurance company is, at best, amoral—and probably immoral—he continues in it. In part he needs the money, but he also uses the occupation as a window into black life in Chicago. He visits the apartments of many people, and learns more about their lives. This allows him to collect material for his later writings.
Richard begins with a sexual relationship with a woman who is unable to pay for her insurance policy. Their relationship is, in part, an “arrangement” to keep her from defaulting. Richard is confused that the woman, who cannot read or write, desperately wants to go to a circus. She asks Richard to take her, although he never does. Richard has mixed feelings about the job and the relationship, which he soon ends. He realizes that the insurance companies are scamming black residents out of money they barely have, and taking advantage of them during catastrophic moments in their lives. Richard feels powerless to stop this, however, and he says that the black men in charge of the insurance companies are “leaders in the Negro communities” and are “respected by whites.”
This is one of the book’s more poignant sections. As above, Wright’s relationship to this unnamed woman is far from ethically pure. He is essentially paying her for sex, in keeping with a longstanding company policy for women who can’t afford their insurance plans. Wright doesn’t speak much about his romantic life in the memoir, and this interaction might cause the reader to question his empathy for others’ lives (especially other women’s lives), but Wright is unstinting about his own feelings. He does not sugarcoat or justify his behavior—he merely reports it.
On his rounds for the insurance company, Richard walks through speeches given by black Communist leaders near Washington Park, on the South Side. Although Richard is sympathetic to their political cause in theory, he finds that many black speakers and rank-and-file members of the Party are uninformed about world events, and the details of revolutions in countries like Russia and China. When one speaker tries to convince a crowd that God does not exist, Richard despairs, since he doesn’t believe that black Communists will convince their fellow men by denigrating their Christian ways of life.
This is another of Wright’s disputes with the black community on the South Side. By this point, Wright is swayed, at least in theory, by the idea that men must work together to achieve labor equality. He is on the road to becoming a Communist. But he resents the black Communist leaders who don’t seem to understand the speeches they’re giving. In this way Wright maintains his status as an intellectual, sometimes resistant to those who’ve not read as much as he has.
Richard becomes dejected at the thought of political progress in America for blacks or for whites. The Depression is getting worse, and the insurance companies can no longer make money selling policies on the South Side. He and his mother move to a cheaper apartment, which is falling down and miserable. Unable to find work, he resolves to go to the relief office to beg for food.
Again, Wright refuses to sugarcoat his experience. Although he wants Communism to work nationally and internationally, he fears for its viability. He worries that its practitioners aren’t educated enough to understand what they preach, and he wonders how to counteract so much misunderstanding.