Pharoah has made an unusual friend at school. Ever since Rickey asked Pharoah to ask his cousin Dede out for him, the two of them have become friends. Their friendship is unusual, given that Rickey lives on the other side of a line dividing different gangs and that Rickey is tough and muscular while Pharoah is skinny. Pharoah is studious and respectful, and Rickey is rebellious and aggressive, and is notorious at Suder for having been involved in so many fights.
The friendship between Pharoah and Rickey indicates that appearances, such as one’s typical gang affiliation or outward aggressiveness, might not be sufficient in determining someone’s true nature. Perhaps Rickey and Pharoah have more common ground than their appearances suggest.
Most importantly, Rickey was deeply affected by his cousin Bird Leg’s death, since he considered him a big brother and actually witnessed him being shot. Yet instead of shying away from violence like Pharoah, Rickey uses his anger about his friend’s death to immerse himself even more deeply in violence, once almost choking a classmate to death. Like a war veteran, his attitude bears the deep mark of trauma. He has become so used to his pain and anger, as well as participating in fights, that he has become almost apathetic toward violence, feeling that he has the right to kill people as retribution for Bird Leg’s death.
Rickey’s behavior illustrates how trauma can be expressed in different ways. While Pharoah, Lafeyette, and Rickey might all feel sad and helpless after learning of a friend’s death, the Rivers brothers tend to hide their emotions by turning inward, whereas Rickey transforms it into outward rage, a pernicious desire to make others suffer as he has suffered. Both attitudes, however different, express the boys’ shared inability to handle such large-scale problems as injustice and violence, which lie beyond their control.
Rickey can also be kind and protective, helping younger children cross the street and behaving politely to adults, thus showing that kindness lies beneath his aggressive features. Rickey demonstrates his desire to protect people weaker than him in other ways. One day, in gym class, a boy taunts Pharoah and tries to hit him while playing basketball. Without thinking, Rickey grabs and punches the other boy to defend Pharoah, visibly weaker and in need of protection. Rickey often behaves toward Pharoah like an older brother, giving him protection and help.
Rickey’s mixed aggressive and protective behaviors show that he is not inherently “good” or “bad” but, rather, that his belligerent attitude is in large part influenced by his environment. Perhaps he has only learned to protect himself from violence through violence itself, and perhaps he has not found a non-violent way to process and express his emotions. Regardless, Rickey’s behavior suggests that he probably feels conflicted about his role in the world and the kind of person he wants to be.
Aware of Rickey’s reputation, Lafeyette worries about Pharoah’s new friend. At the same time, he admires Pharoah’s academic successes. While he himself is smart, he does not work as hard as Pharoah and often misses school. Secretly, though, he wishes that LaJoe would put more pressure on him, encouraging him to have healthy habits and do his homework. However, Lafeyette is particularly good at math and science and, toward the end of the year, has become fond of his teacher, Mrs. Everage. He has admitted to her that he often worries about his siblings’ safety and feels, in particular, that Pharoah needs to learn to fight in order to protect himself. Surprisingly, though, while Lafeyette worries about Pharoah’s new relationship with Rickey, which he feels can get him into trouble, it is Lafeyette who will end up being more influenced by Rickey.
Lafeyette’s desire for his mother to give him more academic encouragement highlights a hidden vulnerability. It suggests that he wants to perform better at school, but that he finds himself at a loss as to how to actually accomplish this—unlike Pharoah, who does not seem to need the same kind of guidance. Even though the two brothers might both be equally talented and smart, it is ultimately the ability to believe in themselves and persevere that distinguishes them in terms of academic achievement. In addition, Lafeyette’s need to share his worries is evident. It demonstrates his loyalty and feeling of responsibility toward his family, and the emotional burden of such a hefty responsibility.