Richard becomes disillusioned with aspects of the John Reed Club and the Communist Party. At a meeting of his “unit,” a subsection of the Party, he is laughed at by other black Communists, who believe he is too “bourgeois” and too educated to be a trustworthy member of the Party. Later, Richard has an idea: he plans to write “biographical sketches” of Communist Party members, both to try out a new kind of narrative and to showcase the social backgrounds of its rank-and-file. He begins by interviewing a man named Ross, who has been charged by Chicago police “with ‘inciting a riot.’”
An important section in the memoir. Wright is beginning a new artistic project, one that will inform the more mature phase of his career. The memoir has been a story of Wright’s young life, but it’s also been a tale of his self-creation as a writer. In this portion of the memoir, his authorial “experiments,” as he calls them, become more and more central. His decision to ground these experiments in the lives of those around him demonstrates his commitment to a socially-conscious fiction.
After meeting with Ross several times and learning the story of his life, Richard runs into an unnamed black Communist in the streets of the South Side, a member of the Party outranking Richard. The man implies that Richard is acting seditiously toward the party, like Trotsky, who opposed Stalin in the USSR. Wright remarks to the reader that at this time he’d read no Trotsky, and was instead a reader of Stalin’s work. Richard thus finds the man’s accusations laughable. Richard is taken with Stalin’s idea that the ethnic “minorities” of the USSR might be joined into a social “unity.” He wonders, too, if this is possible in America.
When the Party calls enemies Trotskyites, they don’t really believe that these breakaway members are followers of that breakaway Russian leader. Instead, the term is used as an indiscriminate signifier—that someone is against the Party’s doctrine. Thus, though it is notable that Wright has read Stalin and not Trotsky, it doesn’t matter much. Wright is on an independent path, and in the Party’s eyes, this is unacceptable.
Another Party official, Ed Green, visits Ross, Ross’s wife, and Richard at Ross’s apartment one day. Although he says nothing about it outright, Richard realizes that Green, like the previous, unnamed man, is trying to dissuade Richard from his biographical sketches. Ross, for his part, doesn’t worry too much about Green’s involvement. After this surprise meeting, they continue their interviews together, but Richard feels that Ross is less expansive in his comments, shaken by the Party’s implicit control of his speech.
Wright and Ross are also doubles in the text. Both work together on the interviews that will ground some of the biographical sketches, but later on, both men will be called to account by the Party, and only one, Wright, will stand up to it. Ross seems, even in this passage, more willing to bend to the Party’s demands. He wishes to remain a part of the group, whereas Wright yearns to be free of it.
Richard changes his idea from a set of biographical sketches to a collection of short stories. He derives his information from Ross and others in his social circle, and finishes a story that’s published in an anthology of black writing. Richard writes a few more, using information from his and his comrades’ lives, but he feels they don’t “catch the quality of the experience” he’s seeking. Around this time, he also begins working at the South Side Boys’ Club, arranging activities for young men in the area and noting down their habits and social interactions.
This is another important moment in Wright’s artistic career. He moves from a kind of journalism, or reporting, to the making of fiction. In Black Boy, Wright is committed to talking about the life he has lived, but in his other works, like Native Son, fiction becomes the basis of the creative act. In both cases, however, real life and real social problems are the foundations of the writing.
Richard becomes more deeply disillusioned with the John Reed Club and the Communist Party in Chicago. After a series of discussions at the local and national level, the Party diminishes the influence of local John Reed chapters. It announces that properly Communist writing should be in the form of informational pamphlets, not creative fictions. Richard believes these decisions are not in the best interests of worker unity, but he cannot convince the Party brass of his ideas. He realizes that some Communists, like many Southern whites, want to suppress his ability to speak his mind.
Wright does not believe that writing should be subordinate to any other activity. Writing that simply accepts, without analyzing, the Party line is unacceptable to him. Propaganda is used by the Party to supply thoughts for other men, and Wright opposes this. He wishes to give people tools to think for themselves, to create their own thoughts. Wright has learned this from his own extensive reading, and it remains important to him now.
In 1935, Richard travels to New York for a conference of national John Reed Clubs and Communist Party locals. Quickly, Richard becomes upset with the conference’s lack of support for Reed Clubs, and for creative expression more generally. He has difficulty finding a place to stay in the city, and on the last meeting day, all national Reed Club chapters are officially disbanded by the Party. Richard returns home, dejected, and believes his career as a Communist intellectual is largely finished.
In case Wright thought these problems were specific to the Chicago Communist Party, he sees in this passage that they are national problems. The New York branch consists of many other members who wish to disband the John Reed Club. There is no group of intellectuals advocating to save the kind of writing Wright values. He is alone in the Party.
Richard is surprised to be met at his apartment soon after by Ed Green, a Party higher-up. Green tells Richard that Buddy Nealson, an influential black Communist in Chicago, wants to meet with him. Richard agrees, and Nealson tries to encourage Richard to stay with the Party, and to accept a new committee assignment. Richard, however, says he needs time to focus on his writing. Nealson and others in the Chicago Communist Party try to convince Richard to stay, but at this point, the breach between the writer and organization is too vast. Richard gives a speech at a unit meeting, offering his resignation. He pointedly says he denounces no Communist principles, only the administration of the group. He believes this will allow him to leave the Party freely, and without fear of recrimination.
Wright, independent throughout, refuses to denounce the mission of the Party. He still agrees with its principles: that men should be free and united, and that they should fight against racism. He objects instead to the forces within the Party that cramp individual expression. This expression is what Wright values above all else. There is no creed for Wright more important than the freedom to think as he pleases. Members of the Party, especially its leaders, sense this, so they do what they can to make others suspicious of Wright, a “freethinker” who might, in their view, be agitating against the Party.
Soon after, two men from the Party come to Richard’s apartment and accuse him of being a Trotskyite traitor. Richard is aghast at these accusations, which are untrue. He also realizes he was naive to think he could leave the Party so easily. He tells the men that, if Nealson continues slandering him, he will defend himself. No further action is taken by the Party. Richard remarks to the reader that he was too much of an individualist for Communist organizing, even though its ideas are important to him.
Again, the term Trotskyite is used for any enemy of the Party. At this point, Wright is a bit more familiar with Trotsky’s idea, but he does not wish to join a faction opposing the Party. Instead, he seems to resent Party structures themselves. Wright wants to support the ideals of the Party without accepting its shackles on speech and thought.
The relief office transfers Richard from the South Side Boys’ Club, where he’s been working, to the Federal Negro Theater. Richard becomes the head of PR for the group. He is upset, however, to learn that the theater produces mostly “Africanized” versions of repertory drama—which hew mostly to stereotypes of black life. He encourages the theater to find a new leader, a man named DeSheim, whose passion for black realist drama Richard shares.
This theater for black actors is an important cultural institution in Chicago, but it presents a depiction of black life that is out of step with the black lives Wright has observed. In concert with DeSheim, Wright agitates for a more realistic, more politically-engaged black theater.
Richard is saddened to learn, though, that the black members of the company don’t like the work DeSheim champions. They call for DeSheim’s removal. When they learn that Richard supports DeSheim, they label him an “Uncle Tom,” and threaten violence against him. Richard calls the relief office and asks to be transferred. He is sent to a white-led experimental theater, and he wonders at the mindset of those in the Federal Negro Theater, who were convinced he was not sympathetic to them.
Once again, Wright objects to the political and aesthetic ideals of those within the black community. Here, he believes that actors in the company are too willing to accept a kind of theater that displays them as stereotypes. Wright wants to show black life in all its complexity, but instead, he finds himself run out of a theater whose focus is black art
Soon after, Richard is called to a meeting by former comrades in the Communist Party. They tell him that Ross, whom Richard interviewed, is being tried for crimes against the Party. Richard fears that he, too, will be charged, but his comrades say he’s only to be there as a witness to the proceedings. The trial is long, and involves lectures on international Communism and its values. Richard finds himself with deeply mixed feelings about the Party: its dream of universal brotherhood, and its reality of petty in-fighting and intrigue.
During this meeting, Wright goes over what he loves and loathes about Communism. He still feels solidarity with other workers, and he still believes that an organized, international fight against capitalism is possible, but he does not wish to continue in this fight within the Party’s strictures. He fears what the Party will do to those who disagree with its tenets, and he wishes to protect his own intellectual freedoms.
At the end of the trial, Ross is accused of seditious acts by his own close comrades. Richard is shocked at this development. He is even more shocked when Ross confesses entirely, begging to be readmitted to the Party. Richard believes this event to be both “horrible” and full of “glory.” It is horrible because one man’s spirit has been broken by a more powerful group. But it is glorious, because that man is recommitting himself to a global struggle for equality. Richard is allowed to leave the meeting unharmed. He is less sure than ever about his views of the Party, and whether it is a force for good or ill.
The Communist Party is horrible and glorious at the same time, and these parts seem very difficult to separate. Wright leaves this last meeting as confused as he’s ever been, but he explicitly does not reject the ideals on which the Party was founded. This leaves open the possibility that Wright could continue to support its objectives, in some form, in the future.