Rite of Passageby Richard Wright, David Diaz
Harlem. The late 1940s. Fifteen-year-old Johnny Gibbs loves his parents, respects his teachers, and is a model student. Suddenly, his familiar world falls apart. Johnny learns he is really a foster child who the welfare authorities have decreed now must go and live with another family. Stunned by the revelation, Johnny runs away. The startling events that follow,… See more details below
Harlem. The late 1940s. Fifteen-year-old Johnny Gibbs loves his parents, respects his teachers, and is a model student. Suddenly, his familiar world falls apart. Johnny learns he is really a foster child who the welfare authorities have decreed now must go and live with another family. Stunned by the revelation, Johnny runs away. The startling events that follow, during Johnny's nightlong confrontation with alienation and loneliness, will inexorably push him past the frontiers of childhood and into an unknown, violent world beyond. Rite of Passage, Richard Wright's never-before-published story of Johnny Gibbs's fall from grace, is as pertinent to the fate of many young people today as it was when it was first conceived nearly fifty years ago.
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Johnny slouched down behind his desk, clutching his battered reading book, his mind winging away. The white woman teacher's silver voice caressed his ears droningly, lulling him into the depths of a daydream centered about a bowl of steaming beef stew waiting for him upon the kitchen table. Beneath the measured rhythm of the teacher's voice came the quiet ticking of the wall clock, the sound of soft breathing, and an occasional scrape of a restless shoe. Through the west windows a flood of sun washed the classroom. Johnny hungered for the streets, his nostrils yearned for fresh air, his legs for movement, his lungs for shouting . . . Then the bowl of beef stew swam again before his eyes and he sighed.
BRAAAAAAAAANNG! . . .
The gong for closing made Johnny's body jump for joy. A buzz of whispers filled the air and the teacher rapped for order.
"You may pack your books," she said. "And, as each of you pass my desk, stop for your report card." She held aloft a batch of white sheets.
Murmurs of dismay and expectation. Johnny was glad; he wanted his card, for he knew that he had passed. And his mother would be happy when she saw his high marks.
Johnny turned and saw his pal, Billy, signaling him.
"Wait for me outside," Billy whispered.
"What's up?" Johnny asked.
"Gotta plan to go to the movies," Billy whispered.
"Okie doke," Johnny said.
Wow! His body tingled. The movies . . . maybe Billy had found some money . . .
The teacher rapped her knuckles upon the desk and ordered:
The class struggled to its feet and began to file
out.Standing prim behind her desk, the teacher handed a report card to each pupil as he passed, singing out names:
"Lucy Gerdain . . . Robert Holmes . . . James Dukes . . . "
Johnny inched forward, eager for his card and aching to get out of doors.
"Johnny Gibbs," the teacher sang, handing him his card.
"Thank you, ma'am, " he said.
The teacher smiled at him, crinkling her blue eyes behind thick spectacles. Johnny was scared of her, but her approval made him glow with pleasure. He glanced at his card. As . . . Yes, A's in every subject. Peaches and cream The world was rosy and he was happy. He jammed the card into his coat pocket, followed the long line into the corridor, through the big door, and down the front steps. About him boys and girls jostled, shouted, and whistled. jumping Jupiter, he was free until Monday morning. He caught a glimpse of a boy flashing a knife and he smiled superiorly. He had never owned anything but a tiny penknife; nobody ought to bring a big knife like that to school.
But where was Billy? He looked about vainly, then put two of his fingers in his mouth and blew two loud, short blasts, then a long one. He waited. Then, like an echo, the answer came from his left. He hurried forward. Yes, there was Billy waiting on the corner.
"Hi, Billy. What's up?" Johnny asked.
"My brother Jack's in from the army camp," Billy gushed.
"Yeah. And he's got a gun with 'im.
"The hell I am. Say, you want to go to the movies tonight?"
"Sure. But how?"
"Jack'll take us," Billy explained. "Superman's playing at Loew's State."
Johnny leaped a foot into the air, his eyes glowing. Then he looked crestfallen.
"I've only got thirty cents," Johnny wailed.
"My brother's taking us," Billy said. "He asked me to ask you."
"Wow, man," Johnny approved. "When are we going?"
"Come by the flat at eight," Billy instructed.
They separated, going in opposite directions, their minds filled with Superman. Johnny bubbled with elation. Billy was a good egg, a real pal. He darted homeward through Harlem streets, picturing Superman zooming out of windows, shooting through the sky, moving mountains, lifting up trains, traveling to the moon and back in ten seconds. A cold wind stung his black cheeks and made him turn up his coat collar. Thundering subway trains made the sidewalk quiver under his feet. He elbowed his way through the crowds, hearing a dog bark, a policeman's shrill whistle. Passing a tavern, he heard a jukebox blaring:
I want some seafood, mama . . .
"Hi, Johnny!" a black girl hailed him.
"Hi, Agnes," Johnny answered.
"Can you come over tonight?" Agnes asked.
"Nope," he sang cheerily. "Going to the movies." "Aw, gee . . . Wish I could go. Say, can't you take me?"
"Not tonight, Agnes," Johnny said, rushing on.
"You could at least stop long enough to say 'Hello, dog!" Agnes taunted him angrily, poking out her red tongue tip, and flouncing up her dress over her buttocks at him.
His eyes full of his waiting bowl of stew and images of Superman, Johnny sprang upon the stoop of the brownstone tenement in which he lived, pushed open the heavy glass door whose surface was so dimmed by dirty grease that it made the vestibule almost as pitch as night. Clutching the wooden banister, he swung up the steps four at a leap, his stomach crying for his beef stew. Fronting his door, he reached inside his shirt, pulled out the key suspended from his neck by a stout length of twine, inserted it into the lock, turned it, pushed the door in, and stepped into a brightly lit hallway. He paused, his lips parting. The garishly painted yellow walls of the corridor enclosed an alien pile of clutter that he had never seen before. Still as a stone, he blinked at suitcases, trunks, and cartons that blocked his path. What was happening? He had lived in this smelly, ramshackle tenement all his life, but he had never seen the hallway so crowded. Oh, maybe they were moving? Or maybe they had out-of-town visitors? But, no.
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