Saturday 20 June 2015

Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"

"There was but one place where a black boy who knows no trade can get a job.  And that's where the houses and faces are white, where the trees, lawns and hedges are green.  My first job was an optical company in Jackson, Mississippi.  The morning I applied I stood straight and neat before the boss, answering his questions with straight yessirs and nosirs.  I was very careful to pronounce my sirs distinctly, in order that he might know that I was polite, that I knew where I was, and that I knew he was a white man.  I wanted that job badly." (

Richard Wright grew up in in Mississippi, "where nothing green ever grew in [his yard]".  In the 1910's, he remembers an early lesson his Mom taught him about Jim Crow laws when she tanned his backside for getting into a battle with the white boys from the other side of the tracks, even though he came home with a three inch gash behind his ear.

Wright talks about losing his first factory job because he called his boss Pease instead of Mr. Pease. He talks what was accepted conversation and what was taboo for a black man; how he had to respond constantly with "yes sir" or "no sir" to a white man; how, when he entered an elevator full of whites, he had to remove his hat, even if he had a handful of packages.

Wright remembers frantically pedalling home one night from a delivery to a white home, and being stopped and questions by a police officer, just for being in a white neighbourhood after dark.  He remembers not being allowed to meet the gaze of the white guests at the hotel where he worked.

He learned how to "lie, cheat and steal" to eat and live once he moved to Memphis, Tennessee.  It was in Memphis that he met a Roman Catholic white man sympathetic to his cause.  Wright wanted to borrow books from the local library, but blacks were denied the simple right to a library card. Wright's co-worker lent him his card.  Wright would write a note that said:  "Please let this nigger boy have the following books."  He signed the note with his co-worker's signature.  So as not to alert the librarian that the books were actually for Wright, "[He] would stand at the desk, hat in hand, looking as unbookish as possible."  For more on Richard Wright, read "The Freedom of a Library Card" at

Wright later moved to Chicago where he penned the famous novels Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945).  He finished his years writing in France, far away from the tentacles of Jim Crow.

Richard Wright received pennies from men in a Mississippi saloon courtesy

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