The ethics of living Jim Crow require that Richard be abject, obedient, and silent a slave in everything but name. Yet everything we know about his character has prepared us to expect rebellion. He might be shy and reserved, but he is nobody’s pawn. How he will, in fact, deal with the shock of confronting real white people is completely unpredictable. He craves the independence and the necessities which a job will provide. But how much of himself will he have to sell in order to buy those things?
His first confrontation is disastrous. His employer, a female, does more than abuse his race and his humanity. She abuses his aspirations to be a writer and he cannot return to work for her afterward. His next job at least brings him good food. But he is astounded by the way the white family treats one another. Richard is at first shocked, then curious, at their behavior. It makes for good stories at school, although he is exhausted by the work itself.
Oddly, it is not really through his relations with these people that we are exposed to his reactions toward whites. Rather, it is through his response to his Uncle Tom, who has moved in with them, that we see the intensity of his rebellious feelings about Jim Crow society. His refusal, on violent terms, to let his uncle beat him for speaking forthrightly, is his refusal to live by the standards of his time. He will not be anyone’s slave or anyone’s whipping boy. His uncle says that this rebellious spirit will lead him to the gallows, never considering that it might lead him far beyond the gallows. Richard can react only with contempt for his uncle because he has learned, through his jobs, the significance of all the baffling beatings he has received at home. He sees how these beatings fit into the whole social structure, and he refuses to participate.