Richard discusses how, as he got older (around ten years old), he began hanging around with a group of young African Americans in town, and began speaking as they spoke, in a shared slang and with shared anger toward whites. Richard and his friends would often meet in the streets just to talk about their days, what they had eaten, what their parents and friends had heard and seen in their interactions with the white world of Arkansas. Richard states that, although he did not intend to begin speaking this way (for example, using the “n-word” to refer to African Americans), he did so mostly to fit in with his peers.
This is Richard’s first real friendship group consisting of other African American men. In hindsight, at the time of the memoir’s composition, Richard understands that a good deal of the slang, the self-identification with the “n-word,” and the use of exaggerated terms for white intolerance were ways of discussing the African American condition indirectly. At the same time, Richard's adoption of the group's language shows the way that groups can influence or affect the behavior of their members.
Richard also gets into small fights with the neighborhood’s white gang—the black and white gangs fight over a boundary marked by the “roundhouse,” or train-shed, in town. After one such fight, Richard is hit in the head with a rock, and when he later shows his mother what has happened, she beats him, saying that white boys could kill Richard in a fight if he’s not careful. Richard begins working odd jobs for extra money—carrying lunches to workers, stoking wood at a café, carrying coal—as his mother’s health deteriorates.
Richard’s mother understands that children get into fights, and indeed she told Richard to fight off other black boys with a stick in Memphis. But she also knows that fights with white boys mean that the parents of those white boys might become involved, and if this is the case, then there is nothing—no law, no police force—than can save Richard from serious bodily harm, or even death. Racism makes "boys being boys" incredibly dangerous.
One day, Richard’s brother calls him in to his mother’s bedroom, and the two boys discover that their mother is paralyzed on her left side, and can barely speak, move, or eat. Some neighbors come by, called for by Richard, and announce that their mother has had a stroke. Richard finds Granny’s address and writes to her in Jackson, asking her to come to Arkansas to help care for mother. After several days, during which Richard barely eats the food given to him out of charity by his neighbors, Granny arrives and takes over management of the family from Richard.
Richard’s mother’s strokes are a refrain throughout much of the rest of the memoir. Just as she appears to be improving, she has another bad turn, another stroke, and when her paralysis appears to be leaving here, she is bedridden again. By the end of the memoir, through means not described by Richard, his mother does recover enough to travel to Memphis and then to Chicago. But for much of Richard’s childhood, she is bedridden.
Granny dictates letters to Richard, to be sent to other family members, asking for money, and Granny arranges for the two boys and their mother to be transported by train back to Jackson, where Granny can care for her in her own home. Various relatives arrive in Jackson: Aunt Maggie, who now lives in Detroit; Aunt Cleo (from Chicago); Uncles Clark and Edward and Thomas from Mississippi; Uncle Charles from Mobile; and Aunt Addie from Huntsville. Richard begins sleepwalking at night, out of anxiety for his mother’s condition, and Granny feeds him more and has him nap in the afternoons, in order to make Richard more comfortable.
Granny is one of the many characters in the memoir who is illiterate, and is joined in this by Brother Mance, and, most likely, Richard’s parents and some of Richard’s friends. Richard’s struggle for literacy, and then for mastery of the English language, derives in part from the very limited education given to African Americans at this time. Richard had to want to read and write badly just to be given the opportunity to acquire a few novels, or paper and pencil.
After several days, an uncle (Richard does not specify which) calls both boys into a room filled with family, and says that Granny is too old to care for both Richard and his brother, and that the boys will be raised separately. Richard’s brother is to head north to Detroit to live with Aunt Maggie, and the uncle asks Richard where he’d like to go: Richard answers that he wants to be with Uncle Clark in Greenwood, Mississippi, because it’s the closest town to Jackson.
Here is another example of a "society", in this case Richard's family, deciding what is best for individuals—Richard and his brother—with results that are not clearly in those individuals' best interests.
Uncle Clark takes Richard by train down to Greenwood, where he meets Aunt Jody, who will help to care for him. The two assign Richard some chores around the house, and say he will be sent to school; they appear to be a rule-abiding, God-fearing middle-class family. Richard gets in a fight on his first day of school—the scuffle ends in a draw—and students no longer fight him after seeing that he can defend himself. A few days later, a man named Burden comes by—a previous owner of Clark and Jody’s house—and tells Richard that his son, who is now dead, used to live and sleep in Richard’s room. This information terrifies Richard, who begins having nightmares about the young, dead boy, and cannot sleep.
It is unfortunate that Richard has trouble adapting to life with Clark and Jody, since their house is a comfortable one, and they are able to provide him with a good deal of food, clothing, and access to an education. But Richard has trouble dealing with the “ghost” of the dead child, and perhaps this is really a way of saying that Richard has trouble being separated from his mother, who is still ill, and his brother. It would not be strange for a young boy to feel traumatized after so much disruption in his family, in such a short time.
Richard can barely sleep for days afterward, and begs to sleep on the couch in the family room of the house, but Clark and Jody will not let him. Richard then asks to be sent home, but Clark says Richard will have to wait till the end of the school term, since he has not had even “one year of uninterrupted schooling.” But one afternoon, after carrying water outside and spilling it on his clothes, Richard unleashes a string of expletives, and is heard by Jody, who promptly tells Clark. When Clark takes Richard inside to beat him for his insolence, Richard begs again to be sent back to Jackson, to Granny and his mother, and Clark finally agrees to do so. By the end of the week, Richard is back on a train to Jackson, with Clark and Jody puzzled as to Richard’s inability to accept their kindness and generosity.
Clark and Jody are only willing to let Richard go once they realize that they cannot reason with him, that he will stop at nothing to get back to Granny, whom Clark and Jody know to be a brutal disciplinarian and a strictly religious woman. Clark and Jody no longer appear in the narrative, and one wonders what happens to them. Richard, for his part, understands their kindness but simply states that life with them, outside Jackson, was simply too uncomfortable for him to bear—mostly on account of the “ghost” in his room.
After returning to be with his mother, Richard realizes that her series of operations and treatments will leave her mostly sick for the rest of her life. Richard writes that this pain of his mother’s—her constant suffering—will stay with him for the rest of his life, and this pain, joined to the constant pain of racial prejudice in the south, will be two of the largest determinants of his personality. Richard is twelve at this point in the memoir, and has only had about one year of “formal schooling.”
Richard implies that his mother’s physical pain is in many ways symbolic of the racial and political pain of the entire African-American South, which is not permitted to live a full and healthy life by white authority. Richard feels that the only way out of the cycle of black subjugation is to move to a place where African American can make their own lives, and to attempt to heal there. For him, this place is Chicago.