Richard’s mother comes back to Richard—who has not yet left the orphanage, since his mother still cannot afford to care for him—and says that she, Richard, and his brother will be moving to her sister’s house in Elaine, Arkansas, after stopping to see Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. Richard is so overjoyed at this news that he quickly packs and leaves the orphanage, not even stopping to say goodbye to the other children. Richard remarks that later on, he came to believe that black people were often unkind to one another in this way, not out of any deep-seated inhospitality, but because the degradations and difficulties of their lives made warmth and politeness more difficult within the black community.
Richard’s remark on black fellow-feeling is interesting, since it opens Wright up to the accusation that he is denigrating his own people—that he is somehow self-loathing, or willing to entertain some of the same stereotypes whites have leveled against black families. But Wright seems to appreciate, here, that black family trauma is not an “inherited” or biological quality, but might be, instead, a simple response to generations of unfair living conditions.
Richard’s mother and the two boys stop in Jackson to see Granny, who lives in a relatively large house. Granny is a deeply religious woman, who is black but has very light skin. She has a young girl board with her, a teacher named Ella. Ella reads novels frequently, and tells Richard the plot of the novel Bluebeard after Richard repeatedly asks what it’s about. When Granny discovers that Ella has told Richard about this novel, she declares it the “devil’s work” and slaps Richard, warning him not to read such “filth” in the house. But Richard realizes that novels and stories strike a deep chord in him, and he hungers to read more.
Ella is the first character in the novel to read seriously and for pleasure, and Richard is entranced with this activity. Richard seems most of all to envy Ella’s ability to escape the problems of the “real world” and to find in literature another life that can be lived in the imagination. Although Richard’s reading skills at this point in the narrative are limited, he appreciates this power of literature—its ability to enable him to transcend his circumstances.
Richard’s mother falls ill again and remains in her bed. One night, when Granny is bathing Richard and his brother, Richard asks Granny, without thinking, to “kiss” his backside—a playful jest, he thinks. But Granny slaps him hard on the face, and calls to his mother and to Grandpa, her husband—a veteran of Union forces in the Civil War—who threatens to shoot Richard if he does not come into the main room for his beating. Richard is beaten savagely with a switch by his mother, but cannot tell his family where he learned such “dirty” language. Granny assumes Ella taught it to him and sends her away—she weeps as she leaves, knowing that she has been wrongly accused of encouraging this “filth” in Richard.
Richard does not seem to recognize the power that his language might have. For him, language as a tool is not yet refined—sometimes he repeats words simply to repeat them, to hear their sound, as he did in the bars when he was six years old. Granny, however, believes that language can be immensely dangerous, and that irreligious language can do “the devil’s work” and cause people real harm. Thus Granny punishes Richard severely for what was, in essence, a child’s misunderstanding.
In another brief section, Richard recounts the natural beauty of Jackson, and some of the more peaceful moments he and his brother enjoy with Grandpa and Granny. But Richard’s mother soon takes Richard and his brother aboard a train to Arkansas, where they will live with her sister. On the train, Richard asks if he can speak to the white passengers, though he knows this is not allowed. He asks, too, if Granny is white, because of her light skin. His mother replies that Granny and Grandpa were both slaves, that their last names were given to them by white owners, and that some African Americans have lighter skin than others, but whites consider people with even distant African ancestry to be “black.”
This is another of Richard’s question-and-answer sessions with his mother regarding race and its social construction. Here, Richard is not sure whether his light-skinned Granny ought to be considered “white” or “black.” Again, to him, skin is neither white nor black, but is rather somewhere in between; thus, any of the social characteristics attributed to “white” or to “black” people are not immediately obvious to Richard. But his mother makes clear that in the world of the South there are no gradations of black. To the dominant whites, anyone who appears even slightly black is treated as inferior.
Richard asks if he is black, and his mother says that society will view him as “colored,” but that Richard’s ancestry is really a mix of white, African, and Native American. Richard’s mother is uncomfortable with the conversation, but Richard resolves, internally, that he will live as a “colored” man, and that if anyone challenges him, or if whites want to fight him, he will learn to fight them back.
Richard has a complicated lineage of white, African, and Native American, and yet the white-dominated society of the South ignores all of that—ignores his history and what makes him who he is—in seeing him solely as black. This fills Richard with anger and a determination to fight back in some way—and much of the book details the ways that he fights, which he can only think of in physical terms at this young age.
Richard, his brother, and his mother move in with his Aunt Maggie—his mother’s sister—and her husband, Uncle Hoskins. The house in Elaine provides Richard, for the first time, with ample food, and he cannot believe that eating so well is possible. He puts biscuits in his pockets during meals in case there is no food the next day, although he slowly realizes that Hoskins and Maggie simply have enough to feed everyone.
Moving in with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins provides Richard with the first stable, loving environment of his life. It is the first time his hunger is satisfied, and it is a testament to Richard's experience of life that at first he can't believe this is possible to maintain.
Hoskins owns a bar in Elaine, and though Richard wants to visit him at work, his mother and Maggie tell Richard it’s dangerous. Richard grows close to Hoskins. One day Hoskins, on his horse cart, offers to show Richard the river nearby, but Richard is so afraid of water that he forces Hoskins to take the horses back.
Hoskins is a real father figure to Richard—he’s kind, and helps Richard to experience the world. Richard's fear of the river is never explained, but adds an ominous undertone to the scene.
A few days later, Hoskins goes to the bar and does not return that evening, and the family fears that something has happened to him. Finally, a messenger comes to the house late at night and says that Hoskins has been shot by an angry white man in Elaine—someone who coveted his lucrative liquor business. Although Maggie wishes to go down to the bar to find out what happened, Richard’s mother urges her to stay home. Because Hoskins was killed extra-legally, and because the white authorities in Elaine will do nothing to help Maggie’s case, Maggie and Richard’s mother fear for their lives, and Richard’s mother decides to move the family again, this time back to Granny’s house in Jackson.
The brutal cruelty of racism is fully felt in Hoskins's death, and rams home the understanding in the reader (and Richard) that success for a black man in the South is impossible—white Southern society won't allow it. Richard's mother and aunt immediately know that Hoskins's absence is scary—they live in constant fear. Not even the law will step in to handle the case of the clear murder of a black man, and so racism forces the breakup of the first comfort Richard has found in his life.
In Jackson, Richard observes two different groups of men walking by when he is playing in the fields: the first is a line of soldiers, training for battle in World War I, which is raging in Europe at this time; the second is a line of black prisoners, working on a chain-gang and observed by white wardens. When Richard asks why the prisoners are all black and the guards are all white, his mother replies that “the law is harder on black people.” Richard asks why the black people don’t fight the wardens, and his mother says that only the wardens have weapons to fight with.
Following Hoskins's death, Richard is becoming more aware of the perniciousness of white racism and domination. White society, which controls the law, both punishes black people more harshly and stops them from being able to fight back against this injustice. Richard, however, is clearly interested in fighting back in some way, though he continues at this point to see this as meaning something physical.
After some time, Richard’s mother decides that Granny’s strict religious rules in the house are too much to bear, and so she moves Richard and his brother back to Arkansas, to the town of West Helena, near Elaine. There, Richard and his brother become friends with the some of the black boys in the neighborhood. The boys all play together in the local garbage dump or in the streets, and Richard joins with the others in singing lewd and anti-Semitic songs about a Jewish grocery-story owner. Wright acknowledges at the time of his writing that this prejudice was loathsome, especially in children experiencing their own prejudice, but he says also that mistrust of Jewish people was ingrained in African American communities at the time.
Wright recognizes when he's older that he was participating in racist activities directed against the Jewish grocer, even as he was subjected on a daily basis to the insults of white children who hated African Americans. Richard offers little explanation for why they targeted the Jewish grocer, other than to imply that they simply did so because he was “different,” and because they too needed a kind of social satisfaction derived from the exclusion of another group for their lives. Richard grows up to regret this bigotry, and in revealing it and his own response to it he also exposes the awfulness of all of the Southern whites who neither recognize nor repent of their own racism.
Richard discovers that, on Saturdays, a great many men enter the house next-door to his own. A girl on the street tells Richard, who does not know what “business” goes on there, that the neighboring house is a brothel. Richard sneaks in and observes a man and woman engaged in a sex act, but the landlady running the brothel finds him and carries him back home, then launches into a tirade when Aunt Maggie and Richard’s mother return from their jobs (they are once again cooking for white families in the area). The madam of the brothel, who also owns the apartment Richard’s family rents, forces the family to leave, and they take up lodgings down the street.
Richard comes into close contact with numerous brothels during his young life. Here in his innocence he wanders into the one next door. That the proprietress of the brothel then criticizes Richard and his family and essentially evicts them exposes the hypocrisy of society, the way those with any power use it to maintain that power. This is of course not on the same par as the white man's murder of Hoskins, but it is another example of the way that society restrains and punishes the individual.
At the new house, Richard becomes aware of another intrigue: namely, that his Aunt Maggie has begun seeing a new man, named “Uncle” Matthews, who appears to be a kind of preacher or social leader, and who dresses formally, in a “high white collar.” Matthews appears to be in hiding, as he only visits Richard’s house at night, and when Richard asks his aunt and mother about this, they reply that Matthews is on the run from white people who wish to kill him.
As Richard later explains, he never learns the nature of Uncle Matthews’s occupation, or the reasons for his crimes. It might be that Matthews was a freedom advocate for black people and was doing his best to help their cause in the South—or it might be that Matthews was a kind of “terrorist”—a man who simply wanted to destroy parts of white society.
One night, Matthews enters the house in a hurry and tells Maggie and Richard’s mother, with Richard overhearing from his bedroom, that he (Matthews) has set fire to a house with a woman inside, as a means of destroying evidence and keeping the white family from finding out what has happened. Matthews and Aunt Maggie decide to leave in the middle of the night. Before they do so, Maggie says a tearful goodbye to Richard and his brother. The next morning, Richard asks his mother what has taken place, and she says only that if Richard speaks about these events to anyone, he and other members of the family could be killed. Richard never brings up the event again, but he also notes that he never learns the exact nature of the crime Matthews committed, and why he did it.
Richard learns from his mother another fact of life in the South—black people must know when to speak and when to keep silent. The white assumption in the South is always that any black person is potentially a guilty party. Thus, Richard’s mother wants to keep Richard out of trouble and away from the gaze of white men, who will presume him to be a criminal even if he has committed no crime. Here, Richard’s mother does not want Richard even to know or acknowledge his relationship with Uncle Matthews.
The family once again needs money, as Aunt Maggie is no longer living with them and bringing home her income from cooking. Richard goes door-to-door in the white neighborhood of town, a few days later, to try to sell his dog, Betsy, a white poodle given him by Matthews before he left town. Richard finds a young white girl who wishes to buy the dog for a dollar, but when she returns to the door with only 97 cents, Richard refuses the money out of principle and takes his dog home. The dog is later crushed by a car, and his mother calls Richard a “fool” for not taking the money—as now the family has no money to use for food, and no dog to sell.
This is a strange episode in the memoir. Richard knows that 97 cents is almost as good as a dollar, but his anger toward the white girl, who comes from comfortable circumstances, is such that he cannot allow her to “take” three cents from him. Richard's pride will not allow him to accept any less than what he is owed. His mother takes an opposing view: that he should recognize that white society will never give any black person what they are worth or owed, and so the only non-self-destructive response is for the black person to take what they can get.
Wright notes that, at about this age (around eight years old), he began to live more and more in fear of white violence. The World War is winding down, and the return of black and white soldiers to the South has inflamed racial tensions. Richard hears stories of lynchings of black men, and of a black woman who gets vengeance on the white murderers of her husband by shooting them with a concealed weapon at her husband’s own burial. Richard says to himself that, like the black woman just described, he, too, will fight tooth-and-nail to defend himself if white men ever try to beat him up or harm him. But Richard also lives in fear of white anger on a daily basis.
The story of a black woman killing whites after her own husband has been killed is a kind of strange and morbid fantasy for Richard, but he never personally exercises this kind of violence against whites. Richard is surly and disobedient in his early jobs, when the owners are white men and women, but he stops at real violence against these parties, knowing that, if he were to fight back, he would be instantly imprisoned or killed. Richard instead comes to aim for subtler, more passive forms of resistance.
Richard’s mother finds a new job as an assistant to a white doctor, and her wages are sufficient to place the two children back in school. Richard goes to the first day of class and is asked to write his name on the board, but he freezes in public, as he has done before, and though he knows his name and can write, he is unable to perform this task in front of the room. Then, many weeks later, the entire school is dismissed in the middle of the day—the World War is officially over. In a crowd in the middle of the street, Richard sees a plane in the sky for the first time, celebrating the end of the conflict. For Christmas that year (1918), Richard remembers receiving just one orange, which he saves and eats slowly over the course of Christmas Day.
The story of the orange is another small and poignant one that at the same time hammers home the extent of Richard’s racism-enforced poverty. Any joy, however small, must be savored by Richard until it is all gone. In World War II black soldiers fought alongside whites to preserve the "free world," only to return to a South that did all it could to restrict those black veterans freedom.