Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison
  • Study Guide

Chapters 16–17

Summary Chapters 16–17

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.