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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
There is a passage of four months. The narrator has been studying with Hambro, "a tall, friendly man, a lawyer and the Brotherhood's chief theoretician." Hambro is a hard teacher, but he is fair, and the narrator feels, as the chapter opens, that he is ready for whatever the Brotherhood wants him to do. He has attended meetings regularly all over the city, he has come to know the Brotherhood ideology well, and he has learned the discipline that is involved in working for the Brotherhood.
On the day the action of the chapter begins, Brother Jack calls the narrator and drives him to Harlem, where they talk in a bar. He informs the narrator that he has been appointed chief spokesman of the Harlem district. The narrator is overjoyed. His dreams have been fulfilled. In this way he can work directly with his people. Brother Jack takes him to the office, introduces him to Brother Tarp, with whom he will be working, and reminds him to be there the next morning for a full committee meeting.
The meeting begins promptly at nine, and all the committee members are there except for Brother Tod Clifton. As Brother Jack begins the meeting by announcing the narrator's appointment as chief spokesman, Clifton comes in, a bandage on his face covering a wound he received fighting one of Ras the Exhorter's men. He is late because he had to go to the doctor.
Who is Ras the Exhorter? He is a short, stout black man who has been organizing
Harlem on a racist basis, preaching the gospel of black nationalism, and
sending his men to fight any organization, like the Brotherhood, that
advocates cooperation between blacks and whites. The conflict between
the Brotherhood (represented by the narrator and Tod Clifton) and Ras
the Exhorter serves as one of the central themes of the last third of
Tod Clifton and the narrator quickly become friends. Tod is an extremely handsome young black man who seems to carry in his genetic makeup the best features of both his African and Anglo-Saxon ancestry. He is a hard worker who welcomes the narrator as an ally. The narrator will organize the community leaders behind the Brotherhood's policy of fighting against evictions, and Tod will organize his youth groups to protect the narrator and other neighborhood speakers from being attacked on the street. Tod is excited about the plan for organizing Harlem. "It'll be bigger than anything since Garvey," he says.
NOTE: MARCUS GARVEY
Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was a native of Jamaica who came to New York in 1916 and started a black nationalist movement, urging American blacks to return to Africa. Garvey had an estimated two million followers during the 1920s. He was convicted of mail fraud in 1925 and returned to Jamaica in 1927 after serving time in prison. Some of Ras the Exhorter's ideas are very similar to those of Garvey, though the Exhorter is in no way an attempt by Ellison to depict Marcus Garvey.
Tod and the narrator take to the streets and are forced almost immediately into a confrontation with Ras the Exhorter's men, who interrupt the narrator's first speech that evening. The narrator tackles one of Ras' men, and Tod goes after Ras himself. The narrator beats his man, then goes to help Tod, whom he finds in an alley lying on his back with Ras, knife in hand, standing over him. Helpless, the narrator is forced to watch and to listen.
Ras is a fascinating figure, and in this scene you may find him both appealing and repulsive at the same time. He is crazy and violent, but to many readers what he says makes sense. You will have to weigh the arguments on both sides carefully as you think about Ras. He spares Tod's life because he loves him, he admires him, and he wants him to come over to his side. He wants the narrator, too. He says that Tod is first of all an African and that in Africa a man as handsome and intelligent as Tod would be king. He stands over Tod with his knife, essentially arguing with him, trying to persuade him to come over to the Black Nationalist cause. These white men will betray you, Ras tells Tod. They will get rid of you when it suits their purpose, so don't trust them. He accuses Tod and the narrator of joining the Brotherhood so they can enjoy white women. He pleads with them to be part of black unity, to break entirely with any organization run by white men. What do you think of these arguments? They are very similar to those used by black militants in the 1960s, most notably the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers. The Communists did, in effect, betray the black members of the party who worked so hard during the 1930s, and this might suggest that Ras is right. What is Ellison supporting? Is it possible to know at this point in the novel? Keep these questions in mind as you continue reading.
Chapter 17 ends with a brief scene the next morning in the narrator's office. Brother Tarp comes in and hangs a picture of Frederick Douglass on the wall facing the narrator's desk. Douglass is Tarp's hero, and he wants the narrator to see him as he works.
NOTE: FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Born a slave named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1817, this famous fighter for black rights ran away from his owner in 1838, ending up in Massachusetts, where he changed his name to Frederick Douglass. A brilliant speaker and writer, he devoted his life to work for the abolition of slavery and the elimination of racial discrimination. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845; revised 1881), is one of the great pieces of black American literature and became an inspiration to generations of blacks fighting for equality in America. Ellison's use of a variety of famous black leaders as possible models for the narrator is important. Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Douglass represent three different paths for blacks to follow. Brother Tarp would like the narrator to imitate Frederick Douglass, and the narrator at the end of Chapter 17 finds the idea very exciting.