Richard continues hanging out with a group of white postal workers, who discuss their membership in the Communist party. Richard remains distrustful of Communism, because he believes too many workers parrot its messages without really understanding the plight of laborers around the world. The postal workers encourage Richard to visit the South Side chapter of the John Reed Club, a Communist artistic group. Although Richard is initially dubious, he’s quickly embraced by the Club’s predominantly white members. Richard detects no racism in their actions, and the higher-ups in the Club seem to appreciate his poetry, recommending it for publication in some of the group’s affiliated magazines (Masses, Anvil, Left Front).
The John Reed Club represents literary opportunity for Wright. Moreover, it joins this opportunity with social conscience. As opposed to the “black Bohemians” of Chicago, the writers of the John Reed Club concern themselves explicitly with political questions. They believe that writing has real value for social change. Although Wright worries about joining a club of any kind, the John Reed writers represent as much community as he’s been able to find in Chicago.
When Richard’s mother realizes that her son has been reading Communist material, she worries. Richard remarks inwardly that his mother is afraid of the Communist iconography in publications like Masses: these stark images of united workers seem ominous to her. Richard believes that his mother would prefer her son to be swayed by Christian imagery, but Richard has no patience for organized religion. He finds himself beginning to wonder if “solidarity” and “unity” among workers really might be possible on an international scale.
Here, Wright addresses explicitly what the reader has noticed for some time. Wright does not believe in Christian teachings, but he has, in a sense, substituted the lessons of Marx for those of the Gospels. The John Reed Club offers community and solidarity, just as a church might. As will be seen later, though, the Club is also as defensive against alternative views as a church might be.
Richard attends meetings at the John Reed Club for two months. While he’s still learning the ropes at the organization, a “fraction” among members (divided between two literary magazines) prompts a new leadership election. Because Richard is untainted by existing squabbles between members of the Club, he’s elected leader of the entire group. Amazed at this development, he offers to resign, but the other members, largely white, won’t hear of it. They seem happy to have elected a black man as their leader. Richard notes that equal treatment for black Americans is a pillar of the Communist Party in the US.
This is a stroke of good fortune for Wright—or so it seems at first. Wright implies that he’s elected because he’s unobjectionable to the other members of the Club; he does not belong to one “fraction” or another. He’s also a new enough member to be impressionable. He is able to carry out the demands of others—or so those supporting his candidacy might think. Wright is aware that he might be used by those around him, but he takes the job anyway, eager to see where it leads.
Richard discovers that there are complex political loyalties within the John Reed Club. The most important involves official membership in the Communist Party, which is affiliated with, but distinct from, the John Reed Club. After much thought, Richard decides to sign up for the Communist Party, thus uniting, in his leadership of the John Reed Club, that organization’s mission with the mission of the Party in Chicago. Around this time, a young man from Detroit called Comrade Young appears at the Reed Club offices.
This section demonstrates the complications of leading a group like this. The John Reed Club is related to, but not the same as, the Communist Party. Wright joins the Club before the Party, and in a sense, this remains true of him throughout the rest of the memoir—he is a writer first, a Communist second. When these loyalties are called into question by the Party, Wright must decide whether his writing or his membership is more important to him.
Comrade Young is a painter. At first, Richard and the other members of the John Reed Club are impressed by his passionate embrace of Communism, but it soon becomes clear that Young is interested in intra-party fighting more than anything else. Young accuses a man named Swann of sedition against the Club and Party, which forces Richard to hold proceedings to determine if Young’s accusations are true. During this process, with Swann’s fate hanging in doubt, Young disappears, and Richard and other members try to find out information about his life. When they write to the Detroit Reed Club, they learn that Young is mentally ill and was a recent inmate of an asylum. Shocked at this, Richard clears Swann of wrongdoing, and learns that club administration is filled with challenges, confusion, and paranoia.
The episode with Comrade Young is a destabilizing one. Young is, in a sense, a double for Wright, almost an inversion of him. Both are men who’ve traveled away from home and are willing to do whatever it takes to make their art and serve the Party. But whereas Wright is sane, sober, and clearheaded, Young is given over to flights of fancy. When he loses his grip on reality, the Party becomes a space in which Young’s bitter fantasies are played out. Wright never becomes so wrapped up in his own imagination.