Richard’s dreams and his stories are an escape for him when he is fourteen and fifteen, but only a temporary escape. His work, his home, and his acquaintances create a circle of insecurity and sorrow around him. He can’t escape them or their stories. He hears how blacks are killed by whites for stepping out of line; people he knows receive that “reward” for the slightest slip. He must always be on guard against the same fate or at least until he can get away from this repressive environment.
At fourteen, Richard has a view of life far beyond his years, but he also has the vulnerability of a child. As he sees himself increasingly ostracized by his friends and family, he is hurt more and more and retreats deeper and deeper into himself. When he overhears his Uncle Tom warning his cousin to stay away from him because he is no good, his heart snaps inside of him. It is the final wound, and he knows that he must leave home as quickly as possible.
There is a special kind of tension that comes with being misunderstood. On the one hand, one is determined to prove society wrong and to show people who you really are. On the other hand, there is always a tendency to accept another person’s judgment and, in so doing, become the very person you are seen to be. On an individual level, this tension is building up in Richard day by day; on a racial level, he sees it happening to all blacks in the South.
He has been told, at home, as long as he can remember, that he is worthless and bad. A part of him wants to live up to this reputation, even though it is false. Another part of him is constantly rebelling against that judgment. He sees the people around him accepting the white man’s opinion on blackness. They are taking the easiest, and safest, course. He is disgusted by this, and his Uncle Tom represents what is most cowardly about his people.
At school the same problem arises. Given the honor of writing the valedictory address, Richard is shocked to discover that it is all a fraud. The principal has a prepared speech for him to read because there will be white people present in the audience. Richard refuses to read anything but his own speech, against everyone’s advice. As a result, he is more ostracized than ever. Ironically, he is now considered to be even more evil, although he has responded to the part of himself which refuses to accept that judgment. It is 1925, and Richard is almost seventeen when he goes out to face the world.