The summer of 1923 continues, and Richard looks again for better-paying work to enable him to eat and buy books. He gets a job as a water-boy at a brickyard, where he is bitten by the white owner’s dog and worries the bite will become infected. The owner says not to worry, since “dogs can’t hurt” black people with their teeth—Richard is relieved when the bite does not become infected. After a brief attempt at being a caddy for a white man on a local golf course, Richard enrolls again in school in September—the eighth grade—but has to work nights and weekends just to afford school books.
This is a brutal episode, one that is indicative of white conceptions of the black body. Here, the white man in charge of the brickyard does not seem to understand that African Americans feel pain in the same way that white Americans do. This, more than anything in the memoir, is perhaps the most striking encapsulation of the attitude of white Southerners toward their black neighbors.
One afternoon that fall, Richard writes a story about a man who attempts to steal an old widow’s home, and he titles it “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre.” He takes it to the local black newspaper, where the editor agrees to run it in three installments, but says the paper cannot pay Richard, because it is “young in business.” The piece is published, and his friends at school wonder what it is about. They have trouble believing that Richard wrote it himself, and did not copy it from another source. Granny worries that Richard is “doing the devil’s work,” as does Addie, and Tom complains that the story is “plotless.”
This story hews more closely to Richard’s life experience, although Richard himself has never been widowed—in other words, it represents Richard’s treatment of a social situation somewhat similar to his, but with characters who depart from his own life. In some sense, then, this is what the author Richard Wright did in his novel Native Son—he takes a character who shares his own outlook at times, and places him in a highly dramatized fictional situation.
Richard is now fifteen years old, and the small success of “Voodoo” stokes his dream of moving to the North and living as a writer. Although his family finds this dream “foolish” and “weak-minded,” Richard has convinced himself, from novels he has read secretly in his spare time, that the life of a writer is possible for him, and that he can make enough in the North to support himself. Richard acknowledges that, at the time, he had little by way of formal schooling, but his ambition was great, and he looked all around him for ways to learn about the world and to write down what he saw.
The success of Richard’s first published story causes him to decide, without consulting anyone else in his family, that he wishes to become a writer, and that this dream coincides with his dream of moving to Chicago. Richard also senses that although formal schooling is important, what he really needs to do is read voraciously and write as much as possible, to gain experience in his chosen field. He sees education as something he must attain for himself, not by relying on any social institution.