Chapter 18 Summary:
The narrator comes across an anonymous note in his mail which alarms him as it warns him to go slowly and carefully so he can continue to work for his people without being cut down. Alarmed, he questions Brother Tarp to see if he has any enemies. Tarp reassures him, noting how some of his plans had met with criticism at first but had become well supported and successful. He then shares some of his history with the narrator, relating his time on a chain gang and giving to him the broken link he has saved from breaking through after nineteen years. He accepts the token out of respect for the man.
Brother Wrestrum visits as well on the day of the mystery note, and incites suspicion with the narrator because he seems meddlesome. He speaks of a change being needed and warns that they must watch themselves. He criticizes Tarp's link as being an emotionally dangerous and dividing piece of the past. Stressing the need for real brotherhood, his idea is for a Brotherhood emblem interests the narrator. He agrees to alert the committee of the idea.A phone call interrupts their conversation and the narrator is asked for an interview by a respected publication. The narrator agrees to be interviewed by a Harlem publication after trying to get them to speak to Clifton, mainly to annoy Wrestrum who had been motioning to him on what to say.
Two weeks later, the narrator attends a strategy meeting. Unexpectedly, an interrogation begins concerning the narrator's work. Wrestrum has brought charges against him to the committee. Wrestrum announces that the narrator is a danger to the Brotherhood and charges him with attempting to overshadow and dominate the Brotherhood. He presents the article the narrator was interviewed for as evidence, crying that he is an opportunist and has illustrated himself as the Brotherhood instead of part of it. Wrestrum also names an unknown plot against the Brotherhood that the narrator has evolved, through which he trains supporters to only listen to him, for example. The narrator defends himself but the committee must talk it over. They decide that the article is not harmful but state that they will need to investigate the other claims. Until the accusations are cleared, the narrator has the choice to become inactive or to speak on the Woman Question downtown. Angered but determined not stop speaking, as that is his job, he agrees to the new assignment.
Brother Tarp, whom the narrator calls into his office when he receives an anonymous note warning him to be careful in the white man's world, is instantly linked with the character of the grandfather. Tarp notices that the narrator looks as if he has seen a ghost. The narrator sees his dead grandfather's face on Tarp when and is only able to look him in the eyes when the vision disappears. In this manner, Ellison is drawing Tarp as another warning figure for the narrator. Tarp's story, which he relates wholeheartedly to the narrator, illustrates his punishment for protecting his family from the white man. He is part of a chain gang for the nineteen years but comments that the punishment was never fully paid and will never be in the terms his oppressors wanted. He makes the significant point that he received his punishment for saying No. The consequences when a black man says no to a white man is contrasted by the grandfather's dying notion of yessing a white man to death. The two men provide two different options of resisting the white power, neither of which the narrator is capable of discerning against or deciding between at this point in his narrative. Tarp gives the narrator the chain link he broke to escape the chain gang to give the narrator strength. The narrator acknowledges to himself that he does not really want the link but takes it from the old man out of respect and sympathy for him and his condition. However, he subconsciously must reflect on the inherent power associated with the symbolic link as he will keep it with him for the rest of the novel, often grasping it in times when he is being attacked or questioned. Tarp himself is a link to the deep and dire struggle against oppression. Tarp was forced to escape from actual chains whereas the narrator is kept running by the men in power who have stripped him of his own meaning but whom he runs to please. By giving the narrator the link, Tarp is enabling him with the symbolic power to escape his oppressors. First, though, he must discover the power within himself in order to use the link. Because of this power, the character of Wrestrum is disgusted by the link. As one of the power structure, he finds the symbolic weight of the chain link to be dangerous. He makes the ironic point that the link is " a good reminder of what our movement is fighting against".
Wrestrum surfaces again later in the chapter when the narrator is called down to a committee meeting and brought up on charges that Wrestrum has accused him with. The support the narrator has gathered in his community alarms the Brother, who claims that he is a betrayer to the movement. Wrestrum's name sounds similar to the word restroom and takes on the connotations suggested by that reference. He is a dirty and undignified man, jealous of the narrator's success. The narrator notes that the dirty, childish interrogate makes him feel as if he is back in the South and, more notably, like he is naked. Although he has bought an entire new wardrobe to join the Brotherhood, in one swoop the narrator has again been stripped down to nothing. He comments that he feels empty and devoid of feeling. Yet instead of fighting back as the link he has received from Tarp would suggest, he admits that they have a logic he must accept because to be a part of the Brotherhood, one must give himself completely. By allowing himself to dissolve and accept, he sticks himself further in the muck of Wrestrum's lies and in the inevitability of his own invisibility.
Chapter 19 Summary:
Frustrated by the move but willing to try it, he gives his first speech with enthusiasm. A woman approaches him after in hopes that he will talk over some points in the ideology. She is beautiful and persuades him to come over for coffee. He learns that she is married and they talk further on ideological concepts. The concepts turn more into her complimenting the primitive force behind his speeches. Thank to the wine they have instead of coffee, the narrator feels at ease to talk at length on his ideas for the Woman Question. Soon, she leads him into the bedroom, ignoring a ringing telephone.He resists for awhile asking about her husband and making her get the phone, but finally gives into her seductive ways. Her husband appears during the night but appears not not alarmed by the narrator's presence. Still he dresses quickly and leaves.
The affair stays with him though he does not see her again, as he is frightened that the Brotherhood will find out about her and use it against him. He wonders if the husband was some part of a test. He calls the woman but is too embarrassed to ask her. He sits paranoid in his office the next day but by late afternoon realizes that they would have already called if there was a problem. A week or so passes and he watches for changes in the Brothers towards him, but detects none. Soon he is summoned to another emergency meeting which alerts him to Clifton's disappearance and reinstates him in Harlem to deal with the resulting crisis.
The narrator's struggles with the definition of humanity. He has an affair with a white woman who feigns interest extreme interest in the Brotherhood's ideology concerning the Woman Question. Though seemingly dangerous to him as she is white and seductive and rich and married, he notes that beyond all of those qualities he felt comfortable with her because she was still human. In a sense, their statures in American society are similar because they are both forced into submission and oppression, she being a woman and he being black. It is not surprising that her husband is absent and returns later in the night, unconcerned that she is openly cheating on him because she has become nearly invisible as well. Therefore she too is given no name by Ellison.
Yet in her relationship to the narrator, she is able to dominate since she creates a division among his thoughts. He is painfully divided on how to feel and does not know how to react to her persuasive seduction. As he comments, he wants "both to smash her and to say with her". She edges him closer to her large white bed and one is reminded of Trueblood's dream where a white woman in her manor house appears out of a clock, out of time, and sinks into her large bed. This threat to Trueblood is manifested in horrible reality as he finds himself raping his daughter, his own flesh and blood. Similarly, the narrator is strangely related to the woman but also falls victim to her, sinking into her seductive bed. He cannot help but feel trapped by the situation and takes off running. He escapes from her bed and her husband, running out in the middle of the night and spends the entire next week worrying whether he was tricked into some scam by the Brotherhood. He continues to run, controlled by other minds. Instances in his life have no meaning outside of the Brotherhood. Consequently, when he learns that Clifton, one of his best friends, has disappeared, he thinks not of Clifton as much as the relief that the pressure has been taken off of himself.
Chapter 20 Summary:
Returning to his old post, he finds that much is changed in the short time he has been gone. Brother Maceo, a good contact, is not where the narrator expects to find him, at the Jolly Dollar bar near his office. The other men in the bar treat him like a stranger when he greets them as brothers and Barrelhouse, the bartender, has to calm them down. He tells the narrator that much of the community feels similarly to the men in the bar, that the Brotherhood has let them down.Returning to his office, Tarp has disappeared too and the decorations in his office were stripped away.
The next morning, many members appear at the office who he sent to look for Clifton. However he knows that the atmosphere is still not right and he suspects that a committee meeting may be occurring without his notification. He runs to where the meetings are held and hears that it has started. Angered by the obvious offense, he strangely decides to buy new shoes, making him a little lighter of foot. By chance, he finds Clifton performing on the street nearby. Not aware who the man is at first, he watches Clifton display a dancing, paper Sambo doll accompanied by a catchy spiel. Disgusted and intrigued, the narrator slowly realizes the street seller's identity and their eyes meet. The police notice the performance and Clifton lifts his items and takes off. Left on the sidewalk bewildered, the narrator remarks that Clifton is out of history and decides to forget him. He heads back to the office, but notices a police chase. Feeling somewhat responsible for Clifton, he follows in case he will need to pay a fine. Clifton resists the arrest however and fights back. Frozen, the narrator watches Clifton crumple to the ground and realizes that he has been shot. He attempts to help but the cops do not allow him to come closer. Finally they ask him questions about Clifton and tell him that he is dead.
Wandering back to his district, his mind turns over the events and he questions Clifton's motives. He is upset at the unjust killing and feels he must act. Remarking how many men stand outside of history, he is glad to have found a place in the Brotherhood. He still questions if he is right and for the first time notices many of the people around the neighborhoods which he has not been able to help. He realizes that he has been asleep and ignorant.
With Clifton's disappearance, Harlem seems to have become distorted and changed. The district does not resembles the place the narrator left, but one he has seen before. Visions from his past appear in the text. He passes men in the street who are kneeling as though looking for lost coins, much as he and other boys once did after the battle royal. Moreover, he finds himself nearly at Mary's door but quickly turns and runs the other way. The Brotherhood greeting he gives in the Jolly Dollar is met with criticism and disdain. The narrator feels as if he has entered another world. The game has changed its rules but he has not been told, as he often felt in the hands of Dr. Bledsoe and at the paint factory. In this confusion, he hopes to talk to Brother Tarp who could reassure him like he once did when faced with the anonymous note. Tarp however is gone too. Tarp had offered a way to face his situation and the narrator had not taken advantage of it. Instead he accepted his mission to leave Harlem in order to accommodate the Brotherhood. It appears as if his exit from Harlem has resulted in the exit of supportive members and the positive changes he had created as well.
The narrator is made glaringly aware of his dispossession from Harlem and the Brotherhood when he reaches the strategy meeting to find it already in session. The district is altered and he is no longer welcome at Brotherhood meetings. Not a part of Mary's life and no longer fully welcomed by the Brotherhood, the narrator wanders the streets much as he did before the eviction. The connection exists because he fulfills the role first played by the old couple. His house has thrown him out onto the streets. In this place of dispossession, the narrator buys new shoes because he feels the need to possess something of his own. Thus, by giving his running feet new wear he feels temporarily rejuvenated. He finds his desire for new shoes to be a strange need but it temporarily satisfies the void left by his race for identity.
The Sambo doll that Clifton is found to be selling is an allusion to the Negro bank that the narrator had found in Mary's apartment. Both are disgustingly degrading toward African-Americans, promoting stereotypical features and actions. That Clifton has moved from an important member in the Brotherhood to the position of Sambo progenitor places him outside of history similar to how Clifton described Ras in their fight scene. Cracking underneath the deep hypocrisy the Brotherhood represents and which Ras exhorted, Clifton moves to be a symbol of the other extreme. Perhaps, the reader must wonder though, if Clifton had fallen into the advice given by the grandfather. He is yessing the white men to death. The police men note something more harsh and bitter in Clifton than his being an illegal vendor. Clifton was tired of fighting back the fears he felt when challenged by Ras and so makes a complete turn and attacks from the underbelly. In this too he fails. As Clifton sings in his advertising jingle, Sambo is more than a toy, he is "the twentieth century miracle". The miracle of blatant oppression and inequality keeps the narrator running . He tries to avoid the message of the toy which is the miracle of accommodation. He too has been made to dance, controlled by the Brotherhood, but he wishes to erase the Clifton episode from his mind. Ironically, he instead takes comfort in knowing that he has found the Brotherhood and decides to make a greater push toward bringing others in as well.