What brutality does Richard witness at the clothing store in Black Boy by Richard Wright?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In chapter nine of Black Boy by Richard Wright, we learn that young Richard (the autobiographical protagonist of the story) is desperate for another job and takes the first one he can find.

Richard accepts a job as a porter for a clothing store owned by white people, and it is an absolutely terrible place both to work and to do business. This company sells inferior clothing on layaway, and its primary customers are poor black people who have very few options because they have so few resources. Obviously the entire premise of the business is to take advantage of the already disadvantaged.

As if that is not a deplorable enough way of doing business, the company routinely abuses its customers physically, and Richard observes several instances of this brutality. One morning when he arrives at work, Richard sees a black woman being beaten in plain sight of a police officer; when they throw the bloodied woman out on the street, the policeman does eventually intervene--and arrests the woman for drunkenness. Obviously the officer has as little respect for blacks as the white business owners do.

His bosses tell Richard that this is what happens to the people who do not pay their bills. One of them tells Richard:

 "That's what we do to niggers who don't pay their bills."

Other incidents happen to Richard during his time working for this store. He is making a store delivery (this is his job, remember) on the company bicycle when the tire goes flat; he is accosted by some white boys as he is walking home. Because he does not show them proper deference (at least according to them), they attack him with a whiskey bottle.

Another time, Richard is making a delivery in a white neighborhood and is hassled by the police--complete with guns pointed at him--who obviously wanted to arrest him and are disappointed because they cannot find anything with which to charge him.

Finally, the owner's son asks Richard why he does not laugh and smile (also known as "shuck and jive") like all the other blacks do. Richard answers honestly, saying he does not see much of anything worth laughing or smiling about, and that is the end of Richard's job at this clothing store. The son throws some money at Richard and tells him to leave.

This is just one of the many awful experiences Richard will have in terms of race and cruelty in the first two decades of his life. 

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