In Richard Wright's Black Boy, what is the meaning or significance of this passage: Somewhere in the dead of the southern night my life had switched onto the wrong track,and without my knowing...

In Richard Wright's Black Boy, what is the meaning or significance of this passage:

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 collision, heedless of the warning red lights that blinked all about me, the sirens and bells and the screams that filled the air.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

After having lived an impoverished life, physically, socially, and psychologically, in his fifteenth year, Richard becomes profoundly aware of the limitations of any opportunity to improve his life. Because he constantly suffers from hunger, both physical and spiritual, he seeks work and self-expression. He first gets a position as a chore boy for a white family. On the first day he chops wood for the stove, lugs in "scuttles of coal for the grates," waits on the tables, and does the dishes. Then, he sweeps the front sidewalk and rushes to the store for the woman. When an exhausted Richard returns, the woman tells him his breakfast is on the table. Richard has seen that the family has had eggs, bacon, and coffee, but he is given stale bread that is edged with green mold. 

When asked why he hasn't eaten, Richard lies, "I'm not hungry." The woman chastises him for wasting good molasses and says she will put it up for his supper; then she feels the bread and throws it away, knowing it is no good. After this, she asks Richard what grade he is in school. When he replies "Seventh, ma'am," she indignantly inquires, "Then why are you going to school?" and Richard replies that he desires to be a writer. To this response, the woman scolds," You'll never be a writer...Who on earth put such ideas into your n****r head?"

On his trek home, Richard narrates that he knew he would not return the next day.

The woman had assaulted my ego; she had assumed that she knew my place in life, what I felt, what I ought to be, and I resented it with all my heart....

The next job that Richard takes is a job where he is expected to milk a cow. The white woman cannot believe that he does not know how to perform such a task. She, too, creates a new tension in Richard, but he does get to eat well while he is there; however, he falls short in his studies. Disappointed at his negligence of his learning and the low expectations that white people have of him, added to the conflicts Richard experiences at home with his hostile Uncle Tom and ailing mother, Richard begins to rebel against learning to be the stereotypical grinning, head-hanging, mumbling apologetically black boy.

Ought one to surrender to authority even if one believed that that authority were wrong? could one live in a world in which one's mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition mean everything? There were no answers.

Then Richard writes a three-part story that is published, but Granny objects to it. There is also criticism from others because Richard has "push[ed] against the current of my environment." It is then that Richard begins to sense the disparity between whites and blacks. In his mind, he rebels against these restrictions, both physical and spiritual, that the outside world imposes upon him. It is this rebellion, this need to grow and to expand his mind, that Richard experiences and he feels himself "rushing down a dangerously step slope" like a locomotive. Still, he is "heedless of the warning red lights that blink[ed]" around him. It is at this point (the end of Chapter 7) that Richard truly begins to experience the disparity among the lives of the men who control things and those who do not. Richard is fifteen, and he is "heedless of the warning lights of his civilization" and he looks around and perceives "the locomotive of his heart heading for a collision"despite the "sirens and the bells that fill the air." Richard wants more.

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