Crowds begin to form in Harlem at the slightest provocation; store windows are smashed and clashes erupt. Ras agitates the pointless violence further. The narrator sends out Brotherhood members to discourage the violence and denounces the press for exaggerating minor incidents. He reports at the Brotherhood headquarters that the Harlem branch has instituted a clean-up campaign to clear the neighborhood of trash and distract the people from Tod Clifton’s death; he lies to them that Harlem has begun to quiet down and hands them a false list of new members. The Brotherhood fails to detect the narrator’s deception.
The narrator decides against using Emma to discover the real goals of the Brotherhood. Instead, he decides to use Sybil, a neglected wife of one of the Brotherhood members, who had once indicated that she wanted to get to know him better. Inviting her to his apartment, he plans to act smooth and charming like Rinehart. He succeeds, however, only in getting himself and Sybil drunk. She has no interest in politics and only wants him to play a black savage in her rape fantasy.
The narrator suddenly receives a frantic call from the Brotherhood in Harlem, asking him to come as soon as possible. He hears the sound of breaking glass, and the line goes dead. He grabs his briefcase and puts Sybil in a cab headed downtown. He himself walks uptown toward Harlem. As he passes under a bridge, a flock of birds flies over him and covers him with droppings.
A riot erupts in Harlem. The narrator encounters a group of looters who give conflicting stories about what caused the initial outbreak. One mentions a young man “everyone is mad about,” obviously referring to Clifton. Others mention Ras, while still others talk of a white woman having started the first clash.
I . . . recognized the absurdity of the whole night . . . And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others, whether for Ras’s or Jack’s.See Important Quotations Explained
The narrator learns that Ras is inciting the violent destruction, and he realizes that the Brotherhood had planned the race riots all along, deliberately ceding power to Ras and allowing Harlem to fall into mass chaos. He becomes caught up in one rioter’s plans to burn down a tenement building and runs from the burning building, only to realize he has left his briefcase inside. He risks the flames to retrieve it. He wants to put on his Rinehart costume, which is in his briefcase, but the sunglasses have broken. Continuing to run through the chaos, he comes to a looted building where bodies appear to hang lynched from the ceiling. In fact, the bodies are mannequins. He then encounters a spear-wielding Ras, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain and riding a black horse. Ras calls for his followers to lynch the narrator as a traitor to the black people and to hang him among the mannequins. The narrator tries to explain that the black community, by turning against itself now, by burning and looting its own homes and stores, is only falling into the trap that the Brotherhood has set. But Ras yells for the narrator’s death, and the narrator runs away. He escapes only to encounter two police officers in the street, who ask to see the contents of his briefcase. He runs and falls through an open manhole into a coal cellar. The police mock him and put the manhole cover back in place, trapping him underground.
In order to provide himself with light, the narrator burns the items in his briefcase one by one. These include his high school diploma and Clifton’s doll. He finds the slip of paper on which Jack had written his new Brotherhood name and also comes across the anonymous threatening letter. As the papers burn to ashes, he realizes that the handwriting on both is identical. He sleeps and dreams of Jack, Emerson, Bledsoe, Norton, and Ras. The men mock him, castrate him, and declare that they have stripped him of his illusions. He wakes with their cries of anguish and fury ringing in his ears. He decides to stay underground and affirms, “The end was in the beginning.”