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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Chapter 13 is the central chapter of the novel. In a novel with 25 chapters, a Prologue, and an Epilogue, it is near the exact middle. That is no accident, for in this chapter the narrator undergoes the most important event in his life thus far: He finds a calling as a spokesman for his people. There are three important events in the chapter: (1) the episode with the yam seller, (2) the narrator's speech at the eviction, and (3) his first conversation with the dominant figure of the second half of the novel, Brother Jack.
As the chapter opens, the narrator is profoundly unsettled. He has no job, no money, no identity. As he rushes out of the house into the street, he runs into the yam seller, an old man "wrapped in an army overcoat, his feet covered with gunny sacks, his head in a knitted cap...." Had the narrator run into the yam seller even as much as two or three chapters earlier, he would have avoided him as the very type of black man he most disapproved of-an old country black, uneducated, crude, and poor. But something in the factory experience has changed the narrator, and the yams remind him of home, of his family and childhood. He is hungry-both literally and figuratively-for the hot yams, bubbling with butter and syrup. He buys one and eats it, right there on the street. All at once he has what James Joyce called an "epiphany"- a sudden moment of illumination, of insight into himself. He says, "It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper... to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me."
He buys two yams and eats them on the street for all to see. He feels a new
sense of freedom, and he announces, "I yam what I am."
He suddenly thinks of proper Dr. Bledsoe, that model of propriety, eating chitterlings secretly in private so white men won't see him. He laughs and accuses Bledsoe of being a secret chitterling eater, of "relishing hog bowels." He will expose Bledsoe as a fraud.
Sometimes called "chitlins" or "chittlings," chitterlings are the cooked small intestines of hogs. In this section, Ellison has the narrator mention not only chitterlings, but also pigs' ears, pork chops, black-eyed peas, and mustard greens. All these are foods commonly eaten by southern blacks. Bledsoe and the narrator have been trying to deny both their blackness and their southern heritage. They have denied their fundamental roots in black folk culture. The narrator suddenly realizes that he really likes these foods, but that he has stopped eating them because he is afraid of what others will think.
Armed with this new understanding about himself, that I am what I am, I am what I like, I can choose what I want to do on the basis of personal preference, the narrator feels both free and frightened. This new ability to be one's self implies the making of personal choices. He has never done that. He always did what others expected of him. As he thinks about this, he comes upon a scene in the street. An old black couple is being evicted from their apartment. All their personal belongings and furniture are being piled in the street by white marshals. A crowd has gathered, sullen, angry, resentful at what is being done.
The narrator has never seen an eviction. His eyes are opened for the first time to the reality of black life in America. He has always worked for whites. Now he begins seeing, both literally and figuratively. He sees the couple's possessions on the street, and he understands the meaning of these possessions. It is as if his own grandparents are being evicted. He feels a sense of emotional identification with these old people. They are his people. "It is as though I myself was being dispossessed of some painful yet precious thing which I could not bear to lose...."
The old woman, Mrs. Provo, tries to go back into the house to pray one last time, but the marshals refuse to let her. One of them strikes her, and suddenly the mob becomes angry. Then almost without warning the narrator becomes a leader. He fears the violence of the crowd and of himself, and he starts speaking to the group, trying to move the people to constructive action instead of useless violence. All the speeches he made in school and college seem to have prepared him for this moment. The words come pouring out. He plays on the theme of dispossession, saying that all blacks are dispossessed, and he tries to persuade the marshals to let them all go in and pray. The crowd, moved by his speech, rushes past the marshals into the house, punching and beating them as they go. The narrator himself is caught up in the emotion of the scene. "Let's go in and pray," he shouts, "But we'll need some chairs." From chairs it is just a step to everything else, and the crowd excitedly starts carrying all the articles from the street back into the house.
At this point the narrator notices two white people, a man and a woman, who don't seem to be marshals. They act friendly, but not like anyone the narrator has ever seen before. They encourage the people to have a protest march, but before anything can be organized, the police come and break up the scene. The white woman tells the narrator to escape across the roofs of the buildings. "The longer you remain unknown to the police, the longer you'll be effective," she says. The narrator doesn't understand what she's saying, but he does what she suggests. He takes off across the roofs, followed by the white man who seems to be chasing him. He outdistances the man, goes down the stairs of another building at the end of the block, and walks out into the street. The police are nowhere to be seen, but he has not lost the man, who comes up to him and says, "That was a masterful bit of persuasion, brother."
The man takes the narrator to a cafeteria, buys him coffee and cheesecake (which the narrator has never tasted), and explains who he is. His name is Brother Jack and he works for an organization known as the Brotherhood. He is impressed with the narrator's speaking ability and wants him to join the organization and become a spokesman in Harlem, "someone who can articulate the grievances of the people." The narrator is hesitant. What is this organization? What do they want with him? Are they just interested in using him like everyone else? He thinks about it, then turns Brother Jack down, but he takes his phone number in case he changes his mind. Another important piece of paper!
NOTE: THE BROTHERHOOD AND THE COMMUNIST PARTY
Much has been written by a variety of critics about the relationship between the Brotherhood and the Communist party. Ellison himself comments on it in his "Art of Fiction" interview, and the American scholar and social critic Irving Howe (see The Critics) discusses it in some detail. This study guide comments on Ellison's relation to the Communists in the The Author and His Times section. While Ellison did not intend the Brotherhood to represent only the Communist party, he never denied that the parallel was valid. The Brotherhood may represent any organization that uses individuals and/or minority groups to enhance its own cause. We will explore this topic further as we go along.