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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?”
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