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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Chapter 5 consists almost entirely of a long, brilliantly written sermon delivered by Reverend Homer A. Barbee of Chicago. The occasion for the sermon is Founder's Day, and the purpose of the sermon is to honor the unnamed founder of the college, a man whose life and work Barbee transforms into a myth, almost a religion.
NOTE: THE "FOUNDER" AND BOOKER T. WASHINGTON
The college in the novel is modeled in part on Tuskegee Institute, which Ellison attended from 1933 to 1936. The great black leader Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) founded Tuskegee in 1881 and ran it on the fundamental principles of "separate but equal," which became both custom and law in the South during the 1890s. Washington encouraged blacks to learn useful trades and not to aspire to equality with whites. He was an astute fund raiser and a politically adept leader who succeeded in building Tuskegee into a major national force in black education. You may wish to explore the extent to which the founder in the novel is modeled on Washington.
As the narrator waits for the sermon to begin, he thinks of the many hours
he has sat on those hard benches and listened to the choir sing songs
demanded by the distinguished white visitors. He thinks of the times he
has spoken and debated as a student leader, and he watches Dr. Bledsoe,
distinguished in his swallowtail coat and striped trousers, seating the
white guests on the platform.
At this point you must read very carefully. Ellison uses a technique that recurs throughout the novel. He lets the narrator tell you something with
a straight face, but invites you to see the humor or the irony that the narrator misses. Speaking of Bledsoe's arrival at the college as a child, he
tells us: "I remember the legend of how he had come to the college, a barefoot boy who in his fervor for education had trudged across two states.
And how he was given a job feeding slop to the hogs but had made himself the best slop dispenser in the history of the school...." From slop
How are you to take this story? Or the story of the Founder, told by the black minister, Homer A. Barbee, which makes the Founder seem like a combination of Moses and Jesus Christ? In both cases, the stories are obviously exaggerated. The myths of Bledsoe and the Founder endow these men with almost superhuman qualities. If you can understand why, then you can enjoy what Ellison is doing and what the narrator misses. It suits the college to mythologize Bledsoe's past. It suits Homer A. Barbee to make the Founder into a religious figure worthy of worship, because these legends and myths create loyalty in their followers. These legends keep the white philanthropists giving money and keep the students following their teachings. When the narrator hears Barbee's beautiful story of the life of the Founder, born a slave but devoted from his early childhood to learning, he feels guilty that he has wronged the college by his mistakes, and he believes that he, not Bledsoe, is the one who has acted improperly.
All the students are moved by the sermon, and they join in song, this time one sincerely felt. The narrator feels confused and apart, and when the orchestra plays excerpts from Antonin Dvorak's symphony From the New World he keeps hearing strains of his mother and his grandfather's favorite spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Too moved to listen, he leaves the chapel and hurries out into the dark.
NOTE: HOMER A. BARBEE
Ellison enjoys using symbols. At the end of Homer A. Barbee's speech, he stumbles and falls, his dark glasses drop to the floor, and the narrator realizes that the man is blind. The combination of his name and blindness suggest his role. He is Homer, the blind Greek bard (bard = barbee?), who sings the praises of his heroes, Bledsoe and the Founder, as Homer sang the praises of the Greek and Trojan warriors on the plains of Troy.
The moment the narrator has been dreading arrives: the confrontation with Bledsoe. Mostly dialogue, this would be a powerful scene to read aloud with a friend or to act out in front of a class. Bledsoe tears into the narrator for taking Norton to Trueblood's and the Golden Day. He accuses the boy of dragging the name of the college into the mud, and he expels him. But the narrator doesn't take it lying down. He fights back, calling Bledsoe a liar for going back on his word to Mr. Norton that he would not punish him. Bledsoe shocks the boy by suddenly changing tactics. He admires the boy's fight, and he levels with him for a moment. "I'm still the king down here," he tells the narrator, "and I will do whatever I have to do to keep my power. I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am."
Like an expert boxer, he shoots jabs and hooks at the narrator's weak defenses, reducing him to helplessness. You begin to see the implications of Bledsoe's name-he "bleeds his people so" in order to secure and advance his own power. He works with the whites because it suits him. This is too much for the narrator to handle. He thinks of all the events of this one day-Trueblood, Mr. Norton, the Golden Day, the vespers sermon, and now Bledsoe's confession. What does it all mean? He thinks of his grandfather, who had told him on his deathbed (at the outset of Chapter 1) "to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction." For a moment he wonders if his grandfather's advice has not been right. But he cannot let himself believe that his true role in life ought to be the undermining of white society. No, the school is right, Bledsoe is right, he thinks. He decides to accept his punishment, go to New York, and continue to build his "career" from there.
The next morning he rises early, packs his bags, and goes to Bledsoe's office to ask a favor: He would like letters of recommendation to some of the trustees, who then might help him find a job. With the job he will be able to earn the money to come back to school. He will suffer his punishment and return. Bledsoe seemingly agrees and gives the boy seven sealed letters. He is not to open them under any circumstances.