Summary: Chapter 16

Members of the Brotherhood drive the narrator to a rally, telling him to hold off his speech until the crowd becomes frenzied. The rally takes place in a former boxing ring. The narrator notices a torn photograph of a former prizefight champion who lost his vision during a rigged fight and later died in a home for the blind. As the narrator climbs the ramp to the stage, the spotlight blinds him temporarily. The crowd chants, “No more dispossessing of the dispossessed!” As the narrator steps to the microphone, the glaring light prevents him from seeing the audience. In his nervousness, he forgets all of the catchphrases that he has read in the literature of the Brotherhood and decides to improvise.

The narrator’s speech plays on an extended metaphor of blindness and aligns itself along a dichotomy of “they” and “we.” In his oratory, the narrator says that “they” have dispossessed each one of “us” of an eye. “We” walk down the sidewalks, he says, blind on one side, while an oily scoundrel in the middle of the street throws stones at “us.” The narrator calls to the crowd to regain “our” sight and band together so that “we” might see both sides of the street. The audience applauds thunderously when he finishes. He steps blindly from the platform, stumbling into the arms of his admirers.

Afterward, some of the Brothers criticize his speech for its inflammatory, unscientific style. They decide to send the narrator to Brother Hambro to nurture his natural talent for speaking but infuse it with the rhetoric of the Brotherhood. The narrator returns home feeling like a new person, radically different from the boy expelled from college. Yet, in his moment of pride and triumph, memories of his grandfather fleetingly haunt him.

Summary: Chapter 17

After the narrator has studied the Brotherhood’s ideology intensely for months, the committee votes to appoint him as chief spokesperson for the Harlem district. The narrator receives his own office and meets Tod Clifton, a Black member of the executive committee, who informs him that Ras the Exhorter, a militant Black nationalist, remains the chief opponent of the Brotherhood in Harlem. Ras—whom the narrator sees giving an impassioned speech when he first arrives in New York—calls for complete and utter distrust of white culture.

One day, the Brotherhood holds a rally in protest of what it deems to be racist eviction policies in Harlem. Ras and his followers disrupt the rally, and a brawl ensues. In the darkness of the night, the narrator has difficulty distinguishing his followers from those of Ras. He finds Clifton and Ras locked in an intense fight. Ras pulls a knife but decides to spare Clifton, citing their common skin color. He asks Clifton why he works with the Brotherhood, in which Black members constitute the minority, and accuses him of turning his back on his heritage. He insinuates that the Brotherhood lured Clifton with the promise of white women and warns that the white members of the Brotherhood will eventually betray the Black members.

The narrator begins calling Harlem community leaders for support in the Brotherhood’s fight against unfair eviction. These leaders all fall in line behind the Brotherhood on the issue. The narrator’s new name becomes well known in the community. He throws himself into his work, organizing marches and rallies. Yet he still has nightmares about Dr. Bledsoe, Lucius Brockway, and his grandfather, and he feels a profound split between his public and private selves.

Analysis: Chapters 16 & 17

In his speech at the rally in Chapter 16, the narrator uses an extended metaphor of blindness to illustrate oppression. Blindness has divided oppressed people throughout the novel: the college’s faculty and students disowned Jim Trueblood because of their blind allegiance to an ideology; Bledsoe betrays the narrator for the same reason. Brockway betrays the union due to his fear of losing his job and his naïve faith in the ability of white power structures to help him maintain his position. At the same time, the union refuses to allow the narrator to speak for himself, and does so out of its own utter distrust of the Black Brockway. The narrator calls for an end to the blindness that causes such interracial divisions and urges the formation of a united front. His speech, however, becomes ironic when we learn that he cannot even see his audience; he becomes a blind leader of a blind audience. The narrator stumbles blindly as he leaves the microphone, just as Reverend Barbee does after his sermon in Chapter 5, and as the prizefighter must have done after his blinding bout in the ring.

Read an essay about forms of blindness in the novel.

Some members of the Brotherhood become dissatisfied with the speech’s lack of “scientific” content—their term for abstract rhetoric and ideological jargon. The narrator has spoken freely as an individual rather than as the propaganda tool that they would have him be. The narrator agrees to have Brother Hambro “educate” him, but he fails to see the similarities between this education and the one that he received in college: though he believes in each as a means toward advancement—in college, his own advancement; in Harlem, the advancement of his people—each requires his blind adherence to an ideology imposed from the outside, and each squelches his individual identity.

The first rally that the narrator attends as the Brotherhood’s Harlem spokesperson contains additional ominous signs that his involvement with the Brotherhood will not be promising. The narrator’s inability to differentiate between his followers and Ras’s, in the nighttime brawl that breaks out in Chapter 17, seems a sign of the unproductiveness of this confrontation, since both groups are fighting for Black advancement. Ellison does not condone Ras’s violence; however, Ras’s gesture of sparing Clifton because of their shared skin color is a concrete demonstration of respect for a Black man, whereas the speeches that the narrator makes for the Brotherhood are abstract and help Black people in a much less immediate way. The nightmares that the narrator experiences about his old life seem to evidence a subconscious feeling that the Brotherhood, as Ras predicts, will eventually betray him.

Read important quotes from Chapters 16–17.

Although the narrator initially believes that his membership in the Brotherhood has made him into a new person, his nightmares about figures from the past suggest that his past cannot be erased and that it will continue to haunt him. By dedicating himself to his work, the narrator has indeed gained a well-known public identity. However, he suffers intense internal conflict between his public and private selves, and consequently feels as if he is “running a foot race” against himself. The narrator’s observation echoes his dream in Chapter 1 in which he opens his briefcase to find the envelope containing a paper that reads “Keep This N-----Boy Running.” Clearly, the Brotherhood’s attempt to refashion the narrator’s identity doesn’t celebrate his individuality but rather keeps him running, searching to define himself against stereotypes.

While Ras correctly intuits an underlying racism among the Brotherhood’s leadership, his own Black nationalist philosophy offers a similarly specious liberation. Like the ideologies of the Brotherhood and the narrator’s college, it demands that individuals break completely with their past and submit to someone else’s definition of their identity.

Read a mini essay about the competing ideologies of the Brotherhood and the college.