The narrator leaves the subway and collapses on the street. Several people help to carry him to the home of a kind black woman named Mary. When he wakes, she asks him why he came to New York City from the South. He replies that he wanted to be an educator. She cautions against the city’s corrupting influence—she, too, came from the South—and says, “I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me.” The narrator gets up to leave, and Mary tells him that he should come back if he ever wants to rent a room somewhere besides the Men’s House, adding that she offers a fair rent.
The narrator’s white overalls draw hostile stares at the Men’s House. He knows that he can no longer live there. He scorns the ideals of older advocates of racial progress still mired in their dreams of black business empires; he pities those who still believe in the post–Civil War dreams of freedom within segregation. He mocks those who work insignificant jobs but don expensive clothing and affect the manners of courtly Southern congressmen, hoping to cover up their low social status.
As he heads for the elevator, the narrator sees a laughing man whom he mistakes for Dr. Bledsoe. He promptly empties a spittoon on the man’s head but then discovers that his victim is a prominent Baptist preacher. He escapes before anyone can catch him. He later persuades an amused porter to retrieve his belongings from inside the building and learns that the Men’s House has banned him for ninety-nine years and a day. The narrator takes a room at Mary’s apartment. He bristles with irritation at her constant expectation that he will take up some leadership role in the black community. Yet she never criticizes him when he fails to do so, or when he cannot pay for food or rent. The narrator begins to feel the desire for activism anyhow; within himself he feels a “spot of black anger.” His old urge to give speeches returns as winter settles over New York.
The narrator encounters a street vendor selling baked yams and experiences a sudden nostalgia for the South. He buys three to eat as he walks down the street, feeling totally free. He imagines his classmates’ shock at seeing him with these emblems of Southern culture. He scorns them for distancing themselves from all of the things that they in fact like: yams, chitterlings, and boiled hog’s maws. He comes upon a crowd of people gathered to watch as an eviction takes place. The crowd regards this act of dispossession as a common occurrence. White men drag household furnishings out of an apartment and lug one chair out the door with an old black woman still sitting in it. Looking at the contents of the old woman’s and her husband’s lives scattered roughly across the pavement, the narrator identifies acutely with the couple. He becomes angry and spontaneously delivers a rousing speech that incites the crowd to resistance. The crowd then carries the couple’s belongings back into the building.
The police arrive, and the narrator flees. He thinks that he has successfully escaped when he hears a voice behind him: “That was a masterful bit of persuasion, brother.” The voice belongs to a white man, who claims he is a friend. He takes the narrator to a coffeehouse and tries to persuade him to become a paid spokesperson for his political organization’s Harlem branch. The narrator turns him down; the man tells him that his name is Brother Jack and gives him a phone number to call should he change his mind.
The narrator changes his mind as soon as he returns to Mary’s home, realizing that she has been housing and feeding him for free since his compensation check from the factory ran out weeks earlier. He calls the number that Jack gave him and agrees to meet him on Lenox Avenue. A car pulls up with Jack and several other men inside. They drive to a hotel called the Chthonian, where a cocktail party seems to be taking place. Jack introduces the narrator to his mistress, Emma, who whispers not quite softly enough to Jack, “But don’t you think he should be a little blacker?”
Jack explains that his organization, called the Brotherhood, focuses on social activism, banding together to fight for people who have been “dispossessed of their heritage.” He says that the narrator will be given some documents to read to help him decide whether to join the Brotherhood. He asks the narrator if he would like to be the new Booker T. Washington and rambles on about an impending world crisis, declaring that destruction lies ahead if social changes are not made—changes that have to be brought about by the people.
The narrator accepts the position, and Jack informs him that he must change his name, move to an apartment provided by the Brotherhood, and make a complete break with his past. Jack writes down the narrator’s new name on a slip of paper and gives it to him. “This is your new identity,” he says. He also gives the narrator three hundred dollars for back rent, and explains that he will receive sixty dollars a week, a large sum. The narrator returns to Mary’s apartment late that night.
[T]he cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro . . . his face an enormous grin . . .
The next morning, the narrator notices for the first time an object standing next to his door: a cast-iron coin bank in the form of a black man with bright red lips. If one places a coin into the statue’s hand and presses a lever on the back, the coin flips into the grinning mouth. The narrator breaks the statue in a fury but then cleans up the pieces, along with the coins that scatter on the floor. Ashamed to tell Mary about his deed, he gathers the debris in an old newspaper and hides the package in his coat pocket. He pays his debt and leaves Mary’s house without telling her that he will not return.
The narrator throws the package into a garbage can outside, but an old woman demands that he take his trash out of her can. He leaves the package in the snow at an intersection. Another man, thinking that the narrator has left the package behind accidentally, follows him across the street and gives it back to him. The narrator finally drops the package into his briefcase and gets onto the subway. He notices people reading newspapers that declare in bold headlines: “Violent Protest Over Harlem Eviction.” He buys a new suit and calls Jack, who instructs him to go to his new apartment on the Upper East Side, where he will find literature on the Brotherhood awaiting his perusal. Jack wants the narrator to give a speech at a Harlem rally scheduled for that evening.
By the time the narrator returns to the Men’s House, he has made a break with Booker T. Washington’s philosophy that economic opportunities lead to freedom. This break is evidenced by his aggression toward the man who he momentarily believes to be Dr. Bledsoe. The narrator’s white overalls from the hospital recall the rebirth that he experienced there and his subsequent change in outlook. He mocks other blacks for their careful attempts to cover up their low social standing; he believes that those who spend their meager wages on expensive clothing just to look wealthy and sophisticated are merely enslaving themselves to shallow consumerism.
After the narrator’s figurative rebirth in Chapter 11, his relationship with Mary represents his second childhood, a rebuilding of his identity. In a sense, Mary is a mother figure. She prepares the narrator for his entry into society and helps him reclaim his Southern heritage. Her name, too, seems symbolic, evoking Mother Mary and images of the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus. After living with Mary for a few months, the narrator embraces his heritage and revels in eating baked yams, a food symbolic of Southern black culture. Whereas he devoted himself at college to the prescribed role of the model black citizen, affecting the sophistication of white culture rather than the perceived barbarism of black culture, the narrator now rejects that affectation and chooses to behave as he wishes, seizing his freedom and celebrating his own background. He returns to the culture of his childhood, which the college tried to strip from him.
The narrator’s embracing of his heritage occurs almost in tandem with his outrage at the eviction of the old black couple. When he sees mementos from the couple’s life strewn out over the pavement, he recognizes that he and they share a culture. He realizes that in conforming to the college’s ideology he had been accepting a value system contrary to this culture. His speech at the eviction doesn’t rely on empty abstractions and mythical symbolism as does Reverend Barbee’s earlier sermon about the Founder; nor is it riddled with vagueness, as is Jack’s description of the Brotherhood’s goals, which include fighting an “impending world crisis” and making unspecified “changes.” Rather, the narrator’s speech affirms his individuality in the context of the collective black American experience, one that he has recently come to embrace.
Yet, in joining the Brotherhood the narrator stands poised to abandon his heritage once again. By granting the narrator membership in a social and political movement, the Brotherhood temptingly revives his dreams of living a life of social significance. Additionally, the narrator’s position within the organization provides him with the opportunity to do what he loves most—impassioned public speaking. However, it soon becomes clear that the Brotherhood is using the narrator as a means toward its own ends. Emma’s comment to Jack that the narrator should be “blacker” indicates that the members of the Brotherhood relate to the narrator not as an individual human being but rather as an abstract symbol of his race. The Brotherhood calls on the narrator to assume a new identity and to break with his past, and he does so without resistance. That the hotel where the meeting takes place is named the Chthonian, a term that refers to the gods of the Greek underworld, symbolizes the sinister nature of the Brotherhood’s intentions.
The episode with the coin bank, coming immediately after the narrator’s decision to join the Brotherhood, seems to foreshadow a troubling relationship between the narrator and the Brotherhood. Although the narrator smashes the figurine in a rage against its offensive portrayal of blacks, his inability to rid himself of its fragments reflects his inability to escape the racism that the bank—and, as soon becomes clear, the Brotherhood—embodies. Indeed, the symbolism of this episode may serve not only to depict the persistent influence of racism but also to pass judgment on the narrator for submitting himself to it. For while the narrator seems doomed to live with the vestiges of Southern racism, the text suggests that the narrator is also willingly but unwittingly acting out the stereotype that the bank perpetuates—that of the grinning, obedient slave. In joining the Brotherhood and complaisantly agreeing to serve as their black advocate, the narrator allows himself to be seen as an abstraction of “blackness.” He subverts his own individuality in order to meet the expectations of powerful white men. That the narrator finally puts the fragments of the bank into the same briefcase that he is earlier awarded by the white men for conforming to the role of the good slave suggests that he is kowtowing in a similar manner to the Brotherhood.