Summary and Analysis Chapter 12

Because Memphis is a larger, more cosmopolitan city than Jackson, there are slight differences in social behavior which Richard quickly recognizes. He works in an optical company with about twelve whites ranging from Ku Klux Klanners to several Jews and a Catholic and several blacks. The elevator operator, Shorty, a light-skinned black man, comes to represent what Richard fears and dislikes most in the world. Shorty lets himself be kicked and abused by the whites in the building; he makes a big joke of it in order to pick up an extra tip. He makes a farce out of the relationship between blacks and whites, reducing it to comic sadomasochism.

Richard feels nothing but contempt for Shorty, who is able to let these things happen only because he has given up hope for change or escape. His intelligence and literacy don’t matter to him. Although he hates white people, he will let them step all over him for the most trivial, monetary reward. Shorty is not the only one used by whites, however; Richard and another black boy, Harrison, who works for a rival optical house across the street, are soon used as pawns by whites. It is a grotesque situation in which they are made to mistrust each other in spite of their knowing, reasonably, there is nothing to fear. The whites, however, manipulate the two black boys’ minds to the extent that they have no control over their emotions. It is only when Richard and Harrison are fully suspicious of one another that the whites reveal their motives. They want the two black boys to fight for five dollars while they watch. Richard resists the temptation for money many times but is finally persuaded by Harrison that they will only play at fighting, so he agrees.

The result is a disaster and a humiliation beyond Richard’s wildest dreams. It is, in fact, one of the only experiences in the book where we are conscious of some reluctance on the part of the writer to reveal the experience. It is something from which he will never recover, not only for personal reasons, but because of the larger implications. He, like Shorty, has allowed himself to be “used” for money.

Wright feels the effects of slavery still alive in himself, as they are alive in the whole society around him. He might as well be back on the plantation listening to his master’s voice. Although the whites don’t know who he is, they have structured the society against ever knowing him; as a result, he and they are inescapably bound together. His hatred for himself springs from his hatred for them. It seems that the only way Richard can redeem himself is by finding some measure of forgiveness for them.