Richard Wright Moving North to Chicago, Away from the Segregation of the South

Richard now struggles to survive on his own, refusing to follow in the footsteps of others and becoming enslaved, subservient, or complacent to southern attitudes. Rather, he tries to flee to the North to escape the prejudices of the South and discover for himself a new world beyond. His transfer to the North, by train, was thus the beginning of a new life for him.

In doing so, Richard fled, along with masses of other blacks, the racism, poverty, and lynching laws of the rural South, bound for Chicago, hoping to find a better life there. His aunt Maggie, who had come to visit, accompanied Richard on the train ride to Chicago while her mother and his brother returned to Jackson.

Arriving in Chicago for the first time, Richard is surprised by the life of the city and its new social codes. On the tram, he looks in surprise at a white man sitting next to him without caring about his color.

Richard is finally relieved of the brutal environment created by the South. To the North it seemed like one that represented opportunity and freedom to him. Wright sees interesting juxtapositions between the events in Chicago and the events of his childhood in the South. In Chicago, Richard must learn to adapt to a new environment, where “color hatred” is less prominent and racial boundaries do not control him.

Richard soon discovers that Chicago is uplifting and less racially oppressive. Richard is finally able to see cases where people are not blinded by race. But he is presented with other problems. Richard must learn that prejudices are easily adopted. He is subject to mistreatment because of his education, his intellect, his socioeconomic background, as well as his political stance.

Richard soon finds a job as a doorman at a deli owned by a Jewish couple: Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman. Richard, attuned to the conditions of life in the South, can’t be natural with the Hoffmans, as he keeps lying to them. He still feels that he must abide by southern social rules that apply to blacks. He lies to cover up his own insecurity. Because he is incapable of understanding any social interaction with white people beyond the brutal and hateful relationships he has witnessed in the South.

After working there for a short time, Richard learns of an opening for a postal worker that required him to take an exam the following Monday. Unsure how to approach his bosses for a day off, he simply skips a day and lies to them upon his return that his mother had died in Memphis.

After a week, Richard gets a job as a dishwasher at a newly opened North Side cafe. There, he often accidentally bumps into white girls who sometimes even ask him to tie their aprons for them. He thus he realizes that they are free from racial consciousness.

Richard then works as a postal clerk and meets an Irishman he can relate to. He is eventually drawn into a literary circle with connections to the Communist Party. Richard thus joins the John Reed Club, a communist organization for the arts, in hopes of learning to write and publish.

Even in Chicago, Richard’s actions are conditioned by the social lessons he has learned in the South. After reading a magazine american mercury, the boss enters the kitchen and asks her where she found it and if she understood it. Richard lies that she “found” it instead of saying she bought it. From then on, he keeps his books and magazines wrapped in newspaper so no one will question him.

Walking past the kitchen stove at the cafe one day, Richard notices that Tillie, the Finnish cook, spit into a pot of boiling soup. Afraid that her boss won’t believe him if he reports her, he instead tells another black girl who works at the cafe. At first, the girl could not believe, but she herself spies on the cook to verify her report. Having verified it, they both now fear that the boss won’t believe them. Being informed, at first, the boss tells the girl that she is crazy. But after she spies on Tillie, who proceeds to spit on the food once more, he fires her.

In June, Richard is called for a temporary job at the post office as a postal clerk, at the time the only place educated blacks could find work. But securing a permanent appointment requires you to pass a physical where the weight requirement is 125 pounds. So Richard endeavored to increase his weight by any means available. But no matter how much he eats, he can’t gain weight. Richard is forced to find another job. Meanwhile, his mother and his brother have moved into Aunt Maggie’s apartment. Aunt Maggie constantly criticizes Richard’s reading and studying, and after she loses his post job, she considers him a failure. So Richard decides to invite his aunt Cleo to share an apartment with him, his mother and his brother. At night, he reads books and tries to satisfy his hunger to get a lot of information about his life and the lives around him.

Richard is finally able to get a permanent night job as a postal clerk after forcing himself to eat. The resulting salary increase allowed them to move to a larger apartment and start buying better food. Having moved into four rooms on Vincennes Avenue, he was now able to read and write regularly in relative comfort. Although he dislikes the bureaucracy of the post office, he befriends many co-workers, both black and white, some schoolmates from the South.

During the day, he attends local black literary group meetings, experiments with stream-of-consciousness writing, and attempts to understand the “many modes of black behavior” through his writing. He also befriends a young Irish man with whom she has much in common, both sharing each other’s cynicism and beliefs.

Richard also begins to examine various black groups. This includes a black literary group on Chicago’s South Side that he finds almost bohemian and too engrossed in sex for comfort. Richard thus feels distant from his members of the middle class. Richard also meets a group called the “Garveyites”, an organization of black men and women seeking to return to Africa. He watches her passionate “rejection of America,” an emotion he shares. But despite their similar emotional dynamics, Richard pities them for his inability to realize that Africa isn’t really his home. He sees the Garveyists as naive for not realizing that Africa is under European imperialism and that they have already merged too much with the West to return to their native Africa. So he didn’t join him.

Meanwhile, Richard begins to learn about the activities of the Communist Party, but he does not pay attention to it either. When the stock crash of 1929 occurs and mail volumes drop, his work hours decrease. His salary also decreases with no open positions for a regular employee. He eventually loses his job at the post office, but is rehired the following summer for a temporary job. The Southside sinks into economic depression.

Aunt Cleo suffers from a heart condition, her mother falls ill, and her brother develops stomach ulcers. A distant cousin offers Richard a job selling insurance, which he accepts. During the year, Richard works for funeral and insurance companies that serve blacks. His work allows him, for the first time, to explore black life in Chicago. But Richard seems to be constantly discouraged by the black culture that exists around him. He sells insurance policies to poor illiterate black families, men and women. Like the plantation families of the South, the people he meets in Chicago seem simple to him. Women who can’t make regular insurance payments could easily negotiate their way out of it by giving sexual favors. Through that, Richard has a long affair with a young woman obsessed with seeing the circus. She is portrayed as childish and almost stupid, as the only relationships she seemed capable of sustaining were sexual and, as Richard observes, her intelligence is simple and limited. Insurance agents not only viewed women as property, but also swindled them by changing policy deeds. Wright writes: “He was in and out of many Negro homes every day and knew that Negroes were lost, ignorant, sick in mind and body.”

Richard now reads books recommended by a friend William Harper (later to own a bookstore on the South Side). Among the numerous writers, Dreiser and Joseph Conrad particularly impress Wright and encourage him to continue writing. Richard Wright’s short story “Superstition” is published in April Abbott Monthly Magazinea black diary

After collecting his bonuses for the afternoon, Richard visits Washington Park, where many unemployed blacks gather to listen to communist speakers. He is puzzled and angry about the black communist movement, and realizes that in appearance, his speech and gestures are trying to copy white communists. Richard criticizes the fact that speakers adopt the styles of black preachers and tend to over-dramatize the militancy of the masses. Wright questions the understanding of communists as well as the abilities of black men and women to solve their social problems.

Richard, while serving as an assistant to a black Republican precinct captain during the mayoral race on Election Day, steps into the voting booth and becomes aware of the corruption of the entire political process. Right there, on the front of his ballot, he writes: “I protest this fraud.”

Meanwhile, the depression has worsened and Richard is forced to move his family into a small, dingy rented apartment. There, one morning, his mother tells him that there is no food for breakfast and that he must go to the Cook County Welfare Office to ask for bread.

Richard begins to assess his social isolation. His isolation follows him into adulthood; Just as he found no camaraderie among other black children as a child, Richard cannot fit into any black political or social group. Along the black boy, Wright questions whether the black community is educated and strong enough to unify and overcome racial barriers and oppression. Here he conveys a tone of disappointment because he doubts that the majority of the black community has enough knowledge about his social situation. For him, the Garveyites are naive in their desire to return to Africa. For him, black literary groups are dispassionate and twisted, even immature. But when Wright writes that he “glimpsed the potential strength of the American Negro,” he shows that he has not yet given up all hope.

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