A quarter of a century without seeing his father has enabled Richard to come to terms with the harsh treatment he received during his childhood as the victim of the older man’s violence. He realizes his father’s limitations and no longer holds him to the high standard he has set for himself and those close to him, but rather sees the man who fathered him as a shell of a person. Having failed to succeed as a free man of the city and world, his father returned to the plantation system of his enslaved ancestors.
The night Richard’s mother tells him she wishes to die has a lasting impact on her young son, whose witnessing of her pain shapes his view of the world as an unfair place ridden with hunger and illness and his belief that life is about the struggle to overcome such obstacles.
Richard’s thoughts of getting a job are negative, as he concludes he has no skills and that as a Negro opportunities are few and far between. He meditates on the hate he has witnessed by whites for blacks, on an individual level in some cases, but more worrisomely at a societal level, to such an extent the racism of the era is invisible to seemingly everyone but him. Little recognition is given to the causes of race-based poverty and hunger in a system like Jim Crow, designed to continue subjugating the race of former slaves.
Richard ardently believes that if he can move north, to Chicago, he can leave behind the worst examples of racism and bigotry and live free to read, write and be as a human being.
Despite his lack of consistent schooling, Richard’s intellect has been aroused and spirit introduced to oppression in its many forms. After publishing his first story, Richard receives no praise from his community, but rather is scolded for his language and discouraged from pursuing his passion for writing. The anti-intellectual bias of the black community, as well as the racism of the white community, contribute to Richard’s frustrations in sharing his talents and refining them. But nevertheless he yearns for an escape route out of the “mode of being” permitted at home, for a freer space where perhaps warning lights will not constantly flash that he is in danger of alienating all cultural norms.
Mr. Crane is perhaps the sole sympathetic white character in the novel, but he nevertheless must let Richard go from his optical shop after the supposed apprentice is threatened by the two southern employees. This scalding episode leaves a deep scar on Richard, and to handle the pain and humiliation he resorts to intellectualizing the problem. Instead of blaming Pease and Reynolds for their cruel behavior towards him, Richard understands they are fulfilling their part in a larger scheme of oppression of blacks. Under Jim Crow, white men are encouraged to threaten blacks with violence, and are legally entitled to deny them jobs or even using the same facilities. Yet Richard demonstrates unusual perceptiveness for his age and proximity to such a nasty encounter.
Working in the same hotel where a black man was lynched for allegedly meeting with a white prostitute, Richard is pleased to be saving some money until one night a white night watchman slaps the girl he is walking with on the buttocks. She keeps walking, but Richard is outraged, freezing momentarily, and then asking her about it and indignantly stating he wishes he had done something about it. She points out that he would have been a fool to get involved, sparking a series of thoughts about black behavior and white preferences. He concludes that whites are uncomfortable with honest blacks because they purport to be equally human, whereas they can tolerate blacks stealing because it proves their theory that they are inferior anyway.
Richard is able to leave Memphis by paying for his ticket with money gained by stealing and selling a neighbor’s gun, and breaking into the college storehouse and reselling its contents to restaurants. The guilt of how he bought the few possessions he carts north plagues him, and as he sits in the black-only car, he finds he is crying from the mix of complex emotions.
The train ride to Chicago provides Richard with ample opportunity to reflect on his life as a “black boy” in the south, and he recognizes that his appreciation of books stems from their consistent support and comfort for him during hard times. When his family fell short of providing for his physical, emotional and intellectual needs, he sought solace in the written word and found it, and now anticipates pursuing this path freely.
The concluding paragraph of the original edition of the autobiography portrays Richard as a success: he is leaving the backward ways of his home full of hope for the future. The scars he mentions are as much emotional as the results of the many beatings he has endured at so many hands, for the actions of individuals as well as the racism of society have damaged his soul in profound ways. However, his difficult experiences growing up have endowed Richard with an unusual appreciation and respect for human life and dignity. His concluding comment even suggests he has some thought of heavenly reward for worthy humans who toil thanklessly on earth. Perhaps Granny’s and others’ religious convictions were too extreme for his taste, but Richard has found his own way of viewing the world and has developed a strong spirit to serve him well in finding his way in it.
- “I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city—that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.” (43)
- “My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face.” (111)
- “I grew silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study. Granny had already thrown out hints that it was time for me to be on my own.” (181)
- “I dreamed of going north and writing books, novels. The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed. Yet, by imagining a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me.” (186)
- “I was in my fifteenth year; in terms of schooling I was far behind the average youth of the nation, but I did not know that. In me was shaping a yearning for a kind of consciousness, a mode of being that the way of life about me had said could not be, must not be, and upon which the penalty of death had been placed. Somewhere in the dead of the southern night my life had switched onto the wrong track and, without my knowing it, the locomotive of my heart was rushing down a dangerously steep slope, heading for a collision, heedless of the warning red lights that blinked all about me, the sirens and the bells and the screams that filled the air.” (187)
- “For weeks after that I could not believe in my feelings. My personality was numb, reduced to a lumpish, loose, dissolved state. I was a non-man, something that knew vaguely that is was human but felt that it was not. As time separated me from the experience, I could feel no hate for the men who had driven me from the job. They did not seem to be individual men, but part of a huge, implacable, elemental design toward which hate was futile.” (213)
- “But I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The southern whites would rather have had Negroes who stole work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium upon black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility; and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree that we could make them feel safe and superior.” (219)
- “An hour later I was sitting in a Jim Crow coach, speeding northward, making the first lap of my journey to a land where I could live with a little less fear. Slowly the burden I had carried for many months lifted somewhat. My cheeks itched and when I scratched them I found tears. In that moment I understood the pain that accompanied crime and I hoped that I would never have to feel it again. I never did feel it again, for I never stole again; and what kept me from it was the knowledge that, for me, crime carried its own punishment.” (227)
- “It had been only through books- at best, no more than vicarious cultural transfusions—that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively vital way. Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books; consequently, my belief in books had risen more out of a sense of desperation than from any abiding conviction of their ultimate value. In a peculiar sense, life had trapped me in a realm of emotional rejection; I had not embraced insurgency through open choice. Existing emotionally on the sheer, thin margin of southern culture, I had felt that nothing short of life itself hung upon each of my actions and decisions; and I had grown used to change, to movement, to making adjustments.” (282)
- “With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other mean without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.” (285)