Summary: Chapter 18
The narrator receives an anonymous, unstamped letter telling him not to “go too fast” and to remember that he is still a black man in a white world. He asks another black member of the Brotherhood, Brother Tarp, if anyone in the organization dislikes him. Tarp assures him that he is well liked and says that he doesn’t know who wrote the letter. Tarp asks the narrator if he comes from the South. Tarp then confides in him that he spent nineteen years in a black chain gang for having said “no” to a white man. He gives the narrator a leg iron to remind him of their real cause.
Another black member of the group, Brother Wrestrum, glimpses the leg iron on the narrator’s desk and suggests that he put it away because it “dramatizes” the racial differences in the Brotherhood. Wrestrum hints that some members of the Brotherhood hold racist attitudes, but the narrator disregards him. Wrestrum then suggests that every member of the Brotherhood wear a symbol so that the Brothers can recognize their own members: Tod Clifton once beat up a white Brother during a street brawl after mistaking him for one of the hoodlums trying to quash a Brotherhood rally.
A magazine editor calls the office to request an interview with the narrator. The narrator tries to persuade the editor to interview Clifton instead, but the editor cites the narrator’s favorable public image; he wants to give his readers a hero figure. The narrator explains that every Brother is a cog in the machine, each sacrificing personal ambitions for the benefit of the whole organization. Wrestrum silently encourages the narrator as he expresses these sentiments. However, the narrator yields and agrees to the interview, partly to spite the overbearing Wrestrum. Wrestrum leaves the office.
Two weeks later, Wrestrum accuses the narrator of using the Brotherhood to further his own personal ambitions. He points to the magazine interview as evidence. The narrator considers Wrestrum’s face a mask: behind the mask, he imagines, the real Wrestrum is laughing. The committee finds the narrator innocent in regard to the magazine article but decides to conduct a thorough investigation of his other work with the Brotherhood. They transfer him downtown, out of the Harlem District, and make him a women’s rights spokesperson for the duration of the investigation. Although disappointed, the narrator decides to dedicate himself fully to his new assignment. He packs his papers into his briefcase and leaves.
Summary: Chapter 19
After the narrator’s first lecture as a women’s rights activist, a white woman invites him into her home to discuss the Brotherhood’s ideology. She turns out to be a neglected wife who aims to seduce him. She and the narrator sleep together. Later in the night, the woman’s husband comes home. Since the husband and wife sleep in separate bedrooms, he simply pokes his head inside her darkened room, briefly asking her to wake him early in the morning. When the wife bids him a good night’s rest, he returns the sentiment, but with a short dry laugh. The narrator dresses and rushes from the building, unsure of whether he dreamed the husband, and incredulous that the husband seemed not to notice him. He vows never to get himself into such a situation again.
The Brotherhood summons the narrator to an emergency meeting. The members inform him that he will be transferred back to Harlem and that Clifton has disappeared. The Brotherhood has lost popularity in Harlem, while Ras has gained an ever larger following. Jack tells the narrator that he must attend a strategy meeting the next day.
Analysis: Chapters 18–19
Much of Ellison’s novel contemplates the advantages and disadvantages of invisibility; in Chapter 18, the narrator learns a lesson about visibility. He recognizes the extent of his visibility when he receives the anonymous letter. The letter’s author echoes a sentiment similar to that of the Southern whites, Bledsoe, and others—don’t fight too hard too fast for racial equality. By making himself a prominent figure in his contribution to the Brotherhood’s fight for social equality, the narrator may have gained power for his movement, but he also puts himself in jeopardy. In contrast, the letter writer gains power over the narrator by remaining invisible. Later in the chapter, the narrator again learns the dangers of visibility when Wrestrum accuses him of opportunism regarding the magazine interview—he objects to the narrator’s high profile and public image.
Brother Tarp’s dark past belies the notion that one can escape the South’s racist legacy by fleeing to the North. Although he escaped the brutal conditions of the chain gang, Tarp continues to suffer from the wounds that he incurred during his nineteen years of slavery; his persistent limp attests to these wounds’ permanence. Though no longer enslaved, he still walks as if in chains. He also believes in the importance of remembering this dark past: although he limps involuntarily, he quite deliberately chooses to keep his shackle as a reminder of his bondage. Like the narrator’s grandfather, he cautions the narrator never to become too complacent about his freedom; he gives the narrator his shackle to help him follow this advice. Tarp’s shackle recalls the shackle that Dr. Bledsoe keeps on his desk at the college. Yet Tarp’s shackle lies twisted and rusted from authentic use; Bledsoe’s attests to no personal past but, rather, serves rather as a superficial, inauthentic decoration. Bledsoe’s unbroken shackle symbolizes the continuing legacy of slavery, while Tarp’s shackle, broken open during his escape, signifies the freedom of a fugitive prisoner.
When Brother Wrestrum advises the narrator to put the leg shackle out of sight, noting that it dramatizes the racial differences within the Brotherhood, he exhibits a blindness and ideology similar to that of Bledsoe and the narrator’s college as an institution. The black college students emulate white culture and white values in return for the opportunity for social advancement. Much as the college students shun their black Southern cultural heritage and history, Wrestrum advises the narrator to hide this symbol of the brutal historical experiences of black Americans. Unlike Tarp, he wishes to forget and abandon that history. He believes servile invisibility will ease the racist attitudes of some of the Brotherhood’s members. When he cites the incident in which Clifton mistakenly beat a white Brother during a brawl, he seems to do so with an eye to the white community’s potential retaliation. In noting this possibility, he acknowledges the racist tendencies that permeate the North as well as the South. But Wrestrum would prefer to ignore rather than to address these racial tensions.
In the episode in which the narrator sleeps with the white woman, we see another instance of the North’s veiled version of racism. In the South in which the novel is set, mixed meetings with both black and white social activists would probably not occur, and very few white women would consider sleeping with a black man. Yet, while this Northern white woman listens politely to the narrator’s words, expresses admiration for him, and sleeps with him, she does not do so out of color blindness. Rather, to the white woman, the narrator embodies the “primitive” black male; she treats him as an object, using him to indulge her sexual fantasies.
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