A taller, older Richard adjusts to the social dynamic in Arkansas by joining the local pack of black boys who take pride in their race and whose dialogue reveals a fixation with the subject. They regularly fight with the local white boys, throwing rocks and glass that at one point severely wound Richard, who needs stitches. Upon returning from the emergency room, his mother beats him for fighting, but he resolves to maintain his membership in this newly important gang and its code for surviving the streets.
His mother again falls ill and Richard takes odd jobs that still fail to pay the rent, and they move several times until they wind up on the outskirts of town where Ella suffers a paralyzing stroke. Her sons, unable to wake her or make her talk, fetch a neighbor who summons others who search the house for sufficient funds to call a doctor. The diagnosis is not good: Ella’s entire left side is paralyzed, she cannot talk, and she will have to be fed. Frightened, Richard writes to Granny who upon arrival dictates letters for him to write her other eight children, requesting funds to bring her daughter and grandsons home to Jackson. There, Richard’s anxiety plays out in his sleepwalking. The extended family descends and decides to separate the boys, who would be too burdensome for any one relative to take. Richard’s brother is sent to live with Aunt Maggie in Detroit, but Richard is given the decision of where he would like to go. He chooses Uncle Clark, whose residence is but a few miles away. But the seriousness of Clark and Jody, who treat Richard as a grown-up and assign him chores, does not feel warm or welcoming, and at school Richard is taunted into fighting. What is worse is that a visit from the landlord prompts the man to recollect his own dead son who used to sleep in what is now Richard’s bed. Haunted by fear and horror, Richard is unable to sleep and begs to return to Granny’s. One night he is frustrated collecting water, and lashes out with a string of curse words Aunt Jody overhears. Despite Clark’s concerns about him not finishing the school year, Richard is soon back on a train bound for Jackson, where his mother is faring slightly better and begins a series of operations. Since there are no hospital facilities for colored people, she is repeatedly carried on stretchers and transported in ambulances to various doctors’ offices, never completely recovering. Her ailments symbolize to Richard the unfairness of the world, and he continues to try to escape the pointless struggle and suffering by keeping on the move. Thus by the tender age of twelve, Richard’s education in the school of life has vastly outstripped the schooling of his peers, and he is driven to answer difficult questions and to identify with the underdog, rebelling against a status quo that has treated him and his family with brutal harshness.
Richard’s friendships in Arkansas are exclusively based on racial pride, as he and his peers compete to put down whites and to feel a sense of superiority. The futility of their efforts is readily apparent, for white society has created an oppressive structure from which there is little hope for any black man, woman or child to emerge with dignity. Richard’s use of violence and foul language to belong to this cohort provide him with a measure of protection and comfort, and he never has to use the sharply pronged ring he finds and bends into a weapon. The true enemy is white, but in their efforts to feel strong individually the boys turn on one another and fight inwardly. The tools Richard has devised for survival fail him when his mother suffers a stroke, and he is once again dependent on benevolent adults, whose charity he stubbornly refuses. His will to be independent is strong, but frustrated by circumstances that separate him from his sole sibling. Estranged from everyone, Richard is overwhelmed by the adjustment to life with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody, and takes out his anger and frustration by acting out at school and swearing in a way that shocks his aunt and uncle. Miserable at being forced to perform chores and terrified of sleeping in a dead boy’s bed another night, Richard succeeds in being sent back to Jackson oddly mature for his twelve years of age, and having developed an attitude and personality both “tender and cruel,” which leads him both to listen carefully to others and to question pointedly all the injustice he has witnessed.