Black Boy

Black Boy Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After standing in line for hours at the relief office, Richard is sent away with the assurance that food will be delivered to his house. He’s also given a new job, cleaning at a fancy Chicago hospital that conducts medical experiments on animals. Richard works with three other black men: Bill, an alcoholic, and Brand and Cooke, who can’t stand each other for unknown reasons. When he’s not withstanding Bill’s rants about race relations (which terrify him) or breaking up Brand and Cooke’s fights, Richard works with young doctors of Jewish descent. Richard remembers that, once, he loved science, but now he is dismayed by his subordinate role at the hospital, where he holds open the mouths of dogs so white doctors can sever their vocal cords—keeping them from barking during experiments.
Wright’s work at the hospital comprises one of the memoir’s most vivid passages. Wright describes his coworkers as men exhausted by an unfair system, and forced to work a humiliating job for very little pay. The doctors, it is strongly implied, treat the animals far better than they do the black workers at the hospital, and Wright and his colleagues are shielded almost entirely from the research that goes on around them. When doctors do speak to Wright, they almost invariably complain to him that he’s not doing something right, or that he’s needed for an invasive or gruesome procedure.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
One young doctor catches Richard smelling nembutal, a numbing agent, and decides to play a prank on him. He tells Richard that the substance is poison, and that it will kill him in minutes if they don’t find a specialist. Richard runs through the hospital, only to see the doctor cracking up with laughter; he realizes he’s been pranked, and fumes while Brand looks on. Embittered, Richard tells Brand not to relate the story of his pranking to anyone else.
This is a cruel joke. Wright wonders if maybe the doctor is looking out for his best interests, but instead, the doctor proves he only wants to humiliate him. Indeed, much of Wright’s time in the hospital is spent ashamed. Brand, for his part, seems to keep his promise to Wright, and does not tell the other workers about this “joke.”
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
Work at the hospital takes on a sadistic edge, as a monitor from management arrives to time Richard on his cleaning rounds. He tells Richard he must clean all rooms in seventeen minutes or fewer, and must mop the steps constantly, even as doctors walk through them and muddy them again and again. Richard can’t believe the inhuman remove of management, who seem only to find news ways for the black cleaning-men waste their time.
Wright describes the dehumanizing effects of “mechanization” and “streamlining.” The man timing Wright has no idea what it’s like to clean in the hospital. He only knows it’s his job to insure Wright cleans as fast as humanly possible—or maybe even a bit faster. Wright’s complaints about this practice fall on deaf ears.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Movement and Dislocation Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
One day, Brand and Cooke get into a fight about Chicago’s newspapers—a fight, in other words, about nothing. Cooke picks up a knife and Brand an icepick, and they attack each other, knocking over the room’s cages of small animals (dogs, mice, guinea pigs). When the two men realize what they’ve done, they’re terrified. Richard worries they’ll all be fired. Without knowing which animals belong in which cage (and thus with which experiments), Richard, Brand, Cooke, and Bill simply put the animals back wherever they can.
This is a moment of possible crisis. First, as is the case so many times in Wright’s life, violence seems to come out of nowhere. Here, the violence is all the more shocking for having almost no basis in reality. Brand and Cooke simply hate each other, and no other explanation for their behavior is offered.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Hunger, Illness, and Suffering Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon
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When the doctors arrive later, pulling out (what they believe to be) specific animals for specific experiments, the four cleaning-men fear that someone will discover the big mix-up. Days, then weeks, pass, and Richard realizes that no doctors are aware of the changes. The four men have probably altered the scientific research the hospital has been tasked with performing, but Richard knows that the institution cares less for its black workers than for anyone else it employs. He realizes he has no desire to maintain a “code of ethics” and tell the hospital the truth.
This passage can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, it demonstrates Wright’s lack of concern for the hospital’s research. On the other, it’s humorous. Wright reveals that the hospital’s science isn’t perhaps so rigorous as it initially seems, and the doctors’ officious attitudes toward the black menial workers might hide the fact that they—men of science—don’t have too firm a grasp on the work they oversee.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Reading and Writing Theme Icon
Society and the Individual Theme Icon