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About quest for identity

His days of boyhood comradery are numbered. The stress, strain, and tension of the past years take their toll upon his mother. She becomes too sick to work, and Wright is forced to find odd jobs in the neighbourhood. Day after day, he comes home from work to find his mother’s unimproved condition. Very soon she has been paralyzed by a stroke. So

The numerous incidents occurring so fast in his adolescence, steeled him against unexpected, catastrophic occurrences. Each of them- the desertion by his father, the Orphanage, Silas Hoskins’ murder, the endless days of hunger- had impacted upon his sensibility. (Gayale 21)

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With his sick mother he moves to stay with his grandmother and aunt. Here he continues his education in his aunt’s school. He occasionally accompanies grandmother to church. He uses his prayer time to examine the rich prose of the Bible, images, metaphors, and these details stimulate his imagination. So he starts reading books. But his grandmother is against his bringing worldly books into her house. She refuses him the money to purchase textbooks. He is ordered to wash and iron his own clothes and forbidden to work on Saturday, the Adventist Sabbath. Thus he is unable to earn money for basic necessities and is restricted to the household diet of starch, lard and greens. His grandmother’s anger has one positive impact: He is let alone. Day after day, he disdains the supper meal of greens, knowing that to return home means that he will not be allowed out again. Instead, he flees with his friends into adventure and exploration. On such occasions he feels a sense of freedom which makes him to forget his hunger. Reading books also produce similar sensations. He longs for things to read. A classmate suggests a way that while earning money, he can read. He can sell one of the local Chicago papers. But he soon discovers through his neighbor that the paper is an organ of the Ku Klux Klan, which attacks blacks as animals and apes. He is astonished and shocked to know such abuses on blacks and quits the job. His quest for identity continued.

Now he is looking out for a job. His neighbour, Brother Mance has become an insurance salesman. He can neither read nor write. So brother Mance commissions Richard to accompany him on his rounds to the Delta as his agent. The salary is five dollars a week. Here, in the Delta, he sees the plantation system, a system which is built upon white supremacy, white control and black servitude. As one critic puts it, “He found Negro conventions, superstitions, and social moves intolerable before he came into conflict with white prejudice. He was well inured to brutality before he learned that the source of Negro misery was white oppression”. (M.C.R. 147)

Brother Mance dies during the winter and Richard is once again among the unemployed. He advances to the seventh grade, and again seeks his grandmother to be allowed to work on Saturdays. Again she refuses. He persists; he threatens to quit the school. Still she says no. Then he announces that he will leave the home. She relents at last and says angrily. “All right if you want to go to hell, then go. But, God will know that it is not my fault. He’ll forgive me, but he won’t forgive you.” (BB 159)

Having won entry into the world of work means, the world of white people, where the strange codes tell blacks that, they have no human rights that white man are obligated to respect and that any tendency toward rebellion has to be tempered lest some impulsive action precipitate violence. Here white children are to be addressed as Mr. and Miss, and blacks of whatever age as boy and girl. Here, too, whites demand to know the most intimate of one’s secrets and ambitions, in order to negate them. He has difficulty on his first few jobs. While working as a water boy, in a brickyard, he is bitten by a dog belonging to the boss. The gash is deep and painful. The boss dismisses the incident. He is sure that a dog bite could not hurt a ‘nigger’.

For the first time he has to confront the white world alone. He cannot depend upon parental guidance, or protection by the black community. The white south has declared emphatically that he and his kind are niggers. The term denotes inferiority, and spells out precise codes of conduct, violation of which means death or other violence. Acceptance, however, means death of another kind; it means a life bleak and meaningless as he has witnessed on his trip to the Delta, as empty and void of purpose as the lives of many of his friends and neighbours. “Confronted on all sides by racial injustices and indignities, he became increasingly- and bitterly- aware of the inseparable gulf between the white and black world. Every time the door of opportunity opened, color rudely slammed it in his face” (Thompson 175). He cannot accept the scale set by the whites.

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At the age of fifteen, to live at peace with his environment and his family means to accept the irrational, to disavow the law of logic. He is set upon by a host of antagonists, and he has no idea what he has done to warrant their continual assaults. Nothing that he has done is criminal. Except during these times of assault, he is not unkind to his family. He keeps mostly to himself and harms no one. His family, on the other hand, has little difficulty in understanding his criminality. All the women- his mother, grandmother and aunt- are lonely and frightened in a universe even more complex to them than to him. Here are whites who are as frightened, perhaps more so, than the blacks who have accepted the iron rule of arbitrary laws without rebellion. Because here “Black and white are caught in the web, strangers stripped of human dignity, hating and fearing each other’s, yet pushed into shameful intimacy by that web’s tightly interwoven strands.” (Smith 135)

Uncle Tom Wilson, a retired school teacher has brought his family to live at the Wilson home, in order to help with expenses. He is authoritarian and becomes antagonistic toward his young nephew. One morning, he arouses Richard from a sound sleep and demands the time. The boy is half shocked into wakefulness, responds. Tom considers the response inadequate, impudent. Young Richard is confused, bitter. Again without any warning signs, he is threatened with physical abuse. And there is no cause; A strange uncle whom he does not know really is about to punish him for not being polite enough. But more, the uncle wants him to lie, to become subservient, broken, like the children in the Delta. He will not be beaten like them. Another altercation with a member of his family has once again left him emotionally drained.

His evaluation of the whites of Jackson is sound, though the Walls, the white family he has begun working for in 1923 differs from the others. Mr. Wall is the foreman of a saw mill his wife is a homemaker, and his mother-in-law, a former teacher. Richard works intermittently for the Walls for a period of almost two years, and the family succeeds in winning his confidence. They respect his aspirations, are kind to him, and encourage him to study. Such interest, generosity and kindness are seldom granted to blacks by whites, and to him the Walls seem not to think or act like white people.

On one occasion, when he is bringing firewood into the house, he inadvertently enters the bedroom of Mrs. Wall. The woman is scantily clothed. The incident is charged with emotion. The bedrooms of white women, he knows, are scared, off limits forever, upon pain of death for blacks. The woman, however, does not cry out. She sharply reprimands him for the intrusion.

The Walls’ open receptive ears to his plans and hopes and offer the security missing in his tense relationships with his family. The male image he lacks in his father and his uncle, he discovers anew in the young husband. He discovers also that order and stability are attainable, that people may and do live free of dread and tension. But the Walls are ancillary to the pattern of his life, exceptions and though they enable him to maintain some sense of perspective, they will not allow him to sweep off into abstractions, to create a mythical world wherein things are better than actually they are. His association with the Walls, however, may have enabled him to make invidious comparisons between the white family and his black one, and indirectly between the black community and the white.

After I had outlined the shocks of childhood, he writes, …I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions… how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and shallow as even our despair. (BB 45)

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The image is close to what he thinks he has perceived, in the people in the Delta. It is an image for which he has both sorrow and hate, and from which he is determined to flee. The Walls personify a world toward which flight, though difficult, may be rewarding.

He thinks that beyond the Southland is opportunity, the chance to discover identity and purpose. A place, perhaps, where rebellion is not prohibited by lynch law: A place, even, where a black man may become a writer. The intention begins gestating in his mind after his writing and publishing. “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre”, published in a black paper, The Southern Region, in 1924. Outside of the newspaper editor and the Walls, he receives no encouragement from his community. He has broken with its currents. Writing has no practical value. A writer is a dreamer, unnatural, a freak, probably a misfit. The criticism only tempers his determination both to flee and write. His environment is their environment; his pain should have been theirs. These facts intensifies his dreams of going north, now not only to flee the brutality of the South, but to write books, novels. In the meantime, he has to prepare for graduation from Smith Robinson School.

The School, providing education for black children up to the ninth grade, can technically be called a junior high school. In reality it is little more than an elementary school, offering only the rudiments of education. Educating blacks is not a priority among the white politicians of the city, and though Smith Robinson posses a minimum number of qualified teachers, in the main, the teaching staff is barely more educated than the students it served. Yet several teachers recognize Wright’s talents: His penchant for answering questions correctly and the overall superiority of his work. On the strength of his achievement, he is selected class valedictarian and chosen to give one of the speeches on graduation night.

He prepares for his speech. He practices and chooses his words carefully. His theme is “The Attributes of Life”,” which he will use to attack the Southern School system, to point out its failures in relationship to blacks. But the Principal wants him to deliver a prepared speech, one written by adults. Wright refuses. He has little respect for the Principal’s situation. He is, in his eyes, like others, who should have been role models, are simply weak men of little courage, lowering before white interests. Wright’s rebuff astonishes the Principal. In the meantime, pressure from his family begins to take its toll on the boy’s emotions. The barrage against him, force him to compromise. He will deliver his own speech, but the Principal can edit it out, upon mutual agreement, overtly offensive material.

His situation with his family is worse; now that he is neither in school nor gainfully employment and has thrown away what they think is an opportunity by opposing the Principal. His mother recovers partially and continues to regard him with affection, and this alone prevents his alienation from everyone in the house. Still, living among people who openly display hostility toward him is difficult, sometimes unbearable. Because the members of his family”,

May have sensed that in his attitude there lay the seeds of menace to their as well as his own survival. They beat him with terror in their own hearts. They feared and distrusted the character and quality of his ambition, principally because it was a violation of taboo, and struggled desperately to force him into a mold which would take him a tractable and surviving Negro in a white man’s south. (Salpeter 177).

Outside, in the White world, none of this holds true. He discovers that the actions of whites are often precipitous; altercations with them may occur spontaneously, for seemingly illogical reasons or none at all. Among his earliest jobs is one as a porter in a clothing store, which is owned by two white men, father and son. Both sport reputations for maltreatment of blacks. He witnesses several beatings and slapping’s of blacks who fall behind in their payments. One of the most despicable concerns a black woman. Unable to pay her bill, she is dragged into the store by the two men and herded toward the backroom, where she is pummeled and kicked. Afterward in a state of semi-unconsciousness she is shoved out into the street, A white policeman appears as if on call, stares contemptuously at the dazed woman, then arrests her for drunkenness. The two men wash their hands, gaze benevolently at Wright. One offers him a cigarette. He takes it reluctantly fearing not to do so. It is their way of assuring him that he need not fear similar treatment.

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Part of his job is to make deliveries to the nearby suburbs surrounding Jackson. One day, after delivering a parcel, the bicycle he rides develops a flat tire. And he begins walking back to town, maneuvering the bicycle along the dirt road. A group of young white men, jovial, loud, pull alongside him, offer a ride. He climbs aboard, seats himself. One of them offers him a drink from the bottle they bandy among them. He does not see the bottle coming, does not see the arms swing in his direction. The blow causes him to reel in momentary blackness. He falls from the car. When consciousness comes slowly back, he sees men hovering over him, threatening: “Nigger”, asks one of the group, “….ain’t you learned to say Sir to a white man yet?” He does not reply. He looks at them out of numbed teary eyes. When they offer to continue to ride him into town, he refuses, thus salvaging something of his hurt pride.

He does not take their threats about murder lightly. The example of Bob, brother of his classmates, is too recent. Bob, who has worked in the hotel which is frequented by prostitutes, is rumored to have been involved with one of them. Some white folks warn him to end the relationship. For whatever reason, he does not do so and is lynched. Such actions are designed to control behaviour and to stem the desire for rebellion among blacks. “The Negro must either surrender or allow themselves to be spiritually stunted and deformed, or they must get out of the south-To a sensitive and high spirited Negro like Wright, surrender was impossible”. (Kennedy 183)

He simply has difficulty in following the norms of behaviour alien to his personality. He steels himself against his environment, as previously he has steeled himself against the recriminations of his family. But his efforts to mark his true feelings, by feigning respect and acceptance of white superiority, are unsuccessful. The whites sense his disapproval of them; are able to discern his contempt, his violent animosity, so it is difficult for him to keep a job. He is abruptly dismissed from his porter’s job because he “did not laugh and talk like the other blacks”. “I don’t like your looks, nigger”, one of the men shouts at him. He loses other jobs because of his attitude, his manner of speaking.

He has to master the stratagems necessary to survive in a world of white people, when his friend helps him to secure a job at the American Optical Company; he is determined to obey the codes of his environment, to live by the norms established by people for whom he has contempt. The firm is run by a Mr. Crane, a Northerner, who is only vaguely familiar with the mores of the region. He tells the young employee that in addition to cleaning the shop and making deliveries, he will be able to learn the optical trade. Two lens technicians are already in the employ of the company, Reynolds and Pease both white. Presumably, they will be his instructors.

He gets on well with them. He tries to be affable, to act around white people as though he respects the fact that they are white. But he is not being taught the optical trade, a skill that will enable him to survive up North. Remembering the promises of his employer, he broaches the subject to Reynolds, asks the white mechanist to tell him about the work; he inquires as to when instruction will begin. Reynolds recoils as if struck by a rifle shot. “What are you trying to do”,” he snarls “get smart, nigger?” Wright misunderstands, thinking that Reynolds simply does not want to teach him. He approaches Pease, who is even more vehement. Punctuating his trade with epithets and invectives, he tells Wright that the optical trade is white man’s work, “Nigger”, he bellows, “You think you’re white don’t you?” He does not know that job status demarcate black inferiority and white supremacy. Verbally the men in the shop assault him daily; call him names, curse him. He is thinking of going to the Manager of the shop. But this may bring about harm

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