My MOTHER finally went to work as a cook and left me and my brother alone in the flat each day with a loaf of bread and a pot of tea. When she returned at evening she would be tired and dispirited and would cry a lot. Sometimes, when she was in despair, she would call us to her and talk to us for hours, telling us that we now had no father, that our lives would be different from those of other children, that we must learn as soon as possible to take care of ourselves, to dress ourselves, to prepare our own food; that we must take upon ourselves the responsibility of the flat while she worked. Half frightened, we would promise solemnly. We did not understand what had happened between our father and our mother and the most that these long talks did to us was to make us feel a vague dread. Whenever we asked why father had left, she would tell us that we were too young to know.
One evening my mother told me that thereafter I would have to do the shopping for food. She took me to the corner store to show me the way. I was proud; I felt like a grown up. The next afternoon I looped the basket over my arm and went down the pavement towards the store. When I reached the come; a gang of boys grabbed me, knocked me down, snatched the basket, took the money, and sent me running home in panic. That evening I told my mother what had happened, but she made no comment; she sat down at once, wrote another note, gave me more money, and sent me out to the grocery again. I crept down the steps and saw the same gang of boys playing down the street. I ran back into the house.
‘What’s the matter?’ my mother asked.
‘It’s those same boys,’ I said. ‘They’ll beat me.’
‘You’ve got to get over that,’ she said; ‘Now, go on.’
‘I’m scared,’ I said.
‘Go on and don’t pay any attention to them,’ she said.
I went out of the door and walked briskly down the sidewalk, praying that the gang would not molest me. But when I came abreast of them someone shouted.
‘There he is!,
They came towards me and I broke into a wild run towards home. They overtook me and flung me to the pavement. I yelled, pleaded, kicked, but they wrenched the money out of my hand. They yanked me to my feet, gave me a few slaps, and sent me home sobbing. My mother met me at the door.
‘They b-beat m-me,’ I gasped. ‘They t-t-took the m-money.’
I started up the steps, seeking the shelter of the house.
‘Don’t you come in here,’ my mother warned me.
I froze in my tracks and stared at her.
‘But they’re coming after me,’ I said.
‘You just stay right were you are,’ she said in a deadly tone. ‘I’m going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself.’
She went into the house and I waited, terrified, wondering what she was about. Presently she returned with more money and another note; she also had a long heavy stick.
‘Take this money, this note, and this stick,’ she said. ‘Go to the store and buy those groceries. If those boys bother you, then fight.’
I was baffled. My mother was telling me to fight, a thing that she had never done before.
‘But I’m scared,’ I said.
‘Don’t you come into this house until you’ve gotten those groceries,’ she said.
‘They’ll beat me; they’ll beat me,’ I said.
‘Then stay in the streets; don’t come back here!’
I ran up the steps and tried to force my way past her into the house. A stinging slap came on my jaw. I stood on the sidewalk, crying.
‘Please, let me wait until tomorrow,’ I begged. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Go now! If you come back into this house without those groceries, I’ll whip you!’
She slammed the door and I heard the key turn in the lock. I shook with fright. I was alone upon the dark, hostile streets and gangs were after me. I had the choice of being beaten at home or away from home. I clutched the stick, crying, trying to reason. If I were beaten at home, there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it; but if I were beaten in the streets, I had a chance to fight and defend myself. I walked slowly down the sidewalk, coming closer to the gang of boys, holding the stick tightly. I was so full of fear that I could scarcely breathe. I was almost upon them now.
‘There he is again!’ the cry went up.
They surrounded me quickly and began to grab for my hand.
‘I’ll kill you!’ I threatened.
They closed in. In blind fear I let the stick fly, feeling it crack against a boy’s skull. I swung again, lamming another skull, then another. Realising that they would retaliate if I let up for a second, I fought to lay them low, to knock them cold, to kill them so that they could not strike back at me. I flayed with tears in my eyes, teeth clenched, stark fear making me throw every ounce of my strength behind each blow. I hit again and again, dropping the money and the grocery list. The boys scattered, yelling, nursing their heads, staring at me in utter disbelief. They had never seen such frenzy. I stood panting, egging them on, taunting them to come and fight. When they refused, I ran after them and they tore out for their homes, screaming. The parents of the boys rushed into the streets and threatened me, and for the first time in my life I shouted at grownups, telling them I would give them the same if they bothered me. I finally found my grocery list and the money and went to the store. On my way back I kept my stick poised for instant use, but there was not a single boy in sight. That night I won the right to the streets of Memphis.
Extract from ‘Black Boy’ by Richard Wright