Toki and John on Freedom, Equality, and Rights

Chapters 17 & 18

Chapters seventeen and eighteen both reveal a hidden racist attitude in the Brotherhood, despite its purported dedication to the equality and freedom of all citizens. The various people IM converses with in these chapters offer various views on the state of the Brotherhood, and IM's role within it. In doing so they either point out or exemplify these flaws.

When Clifton and IM encounter Ras in the fight scene of chapter seventeen, Ras acknowledges that he has “been watching [the Brotherhood] a long time” and has noticed that some members of the Brotherhood are “high-class white” men that “hate… the black mahn” (371,3). These white men have no reason to collaborate on an equal level with people like IM, since they already have everything “they wahnt” in society (375). Ras argues that these elitist members of the Brotherhood trick IM into believing that he is an equal brother to manipulate him; they “tell [him] his freedom lie between her skinny legs,” and otherwise attempt to fool him with false symbols of liberation while [they] take all the power and the capital and don’t leave the black man not’ing” (373). According to Ras, one can truly “[fight] for the liberty of the black people” only by advocating black separatism, because the white population will never treat black people as equals (375).

Brother Jack exemplifies more innocent hypocrisy within the party. Earlier, he says that IM has the “freedom of action” despite being “under strict discipline to the committee” (360). Brother Jack then attempts to clarify the contradiction, saying: “don’t underestimate the discipline. It is very strict, but within its framework you are to have full freedom to do your work” (360). However, “Underestimate the discipline” itself implies that the party is more domineering than even IM fears. Ultimately, as the miscarriage of justice at the end of IM's trial comes to represent, IM has no freedom to guide the direction of his future, because the Brotherhood completely controls him and strips him of his right to independence (360).

In the beginning of chapter eighteen, IM finds an anonymous letter addressed to him that says, “Brother…you are from the South and you know that this is a white man’s world… They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do” (383). Referring to the white members of the Brotherhood as “they,” the stranger warns IM against the white opposition towards him within the Brotherhood, just like Ras. However, while Ras suggests that IM disassociate himself from white men altogether, the stranger simply advises IM to be less aggressive so that he does not make the white members of the Brotherhood feel threatened.

Later that morning, Brother Wrestrum comes into IM’s office and confesses to him that “there are those amongst [them] who don’t really believe in the Brotherhood” (393). While the white Brothers appear to respect IM, “the minute [he] turn[s his] back, [he’s] a black son of a bitch!” (393). Brother Wrestrum’s observations confirm Ras and the stranger’s conviction that the Brotherhood is not entirely colorblind.

Finally, in the emergency committee meeting concerning IM’s alleged opportunist motives, IM realizes that Brother Jack betrays him. Brother Jack’s “eyes… sparkl[e]” and reveal “traces of a smile” when he hears Wrestrum’s claim that IM is a threat to the Brotherhood; Brother Jack seems to mock IM in this moment. Later, IM notes that Brother Jack’s “real face,” covered by a “mask,” is “probably laughing” at him (401). Earlier, Ras similarly points out that “the white folks done gone off laughing in [IM’s] face” (375). In his trial and after IM's first speech, Brother Jack probably genuinely supports IM's position, but only for his own reputation, not for IM's sake. Thus, IM realizes that he does not really have the equality, freedom, and rights that the Brotherhood seems to give him; instead, the white men deceive IM and take advantage of him, much like the rest of American society.

Add a New Comment

Chapter 19

Chapter nineteen highlights the issue of IM’s liberty both as a member of the Brotherhood and as an African American man living in white society. When the woman advances IM and speaks of her desire for women to be “free as men,” IM silently retorts, “If I were really free… I’d get the hell out of here” (414). IM is furious that the Brotherhood relocates him to lecture on the Woman Question; given the choice, IM would return to Harlem to work on African American issues, his true passion. IM also holds growing doubts of the Brotherhood because it denies IM’s freedom to sleep with the woman. Much earlier in the novel, the vet remarks that IM might pursue relations with a white woman as a concrete token of new freedom, but IM quickly surmises that such an individual conquest conflicts with the Brotherhood’s communal ideals, and hinders the “building [of the] Brotherhood” (420). However, because the woman’s husband, a member of the Brotherhood, is away in Chicago and unable to witness IM, she insists that they should not worry because they “[a]re free” (415).

The next day, IM receives an emergency call to a meeting at the Brotherhood headquarters, and begins to worry frantically about his penalties for sleeping with the woman. He further concludes that the Brotherhood sets up the incident as a trap, sending IM away from Harlem “to be tripped up by a woman” (420). As such, IM wavers between guilt over his actions and fear of an eventual reprisal. Remembering the naked woman brought in during the battle royal scene to humiliate the teenage black students, IM angrily remarks that white society always strives to “mix their women into everything” in order to sidetrack the goals of black people (418). These white men use women to make people like IM “confus[e] the class struggle with the ass struggle,” undermining the movement for black equality and simultaneously reinforcing black stereotypes (418).

Finally, the white woman in chapter nineteen uses IM to satisfy her own sexual desires, revealing that even white women hold more power than the black population. The woman admires IM’s black, “primitive…naked power” and treats him as a sexual object. Although IM attempts to reject her advances multiple times, he ultimately finds himself unable to resist his “human” desires, and allows the woman to take control of him (420). In this chapter, Ellison demonstrates that all white people, both male and female, take advantage of African Americans and use them to satisfy their wishes. Even though slavery as an institution has been eliminated, black people continue to serve white society at their own expense.

Add a New Comment

Chapters 20 & 22

In chapter twenty, Ellison comments on racism in America with Brother Clifton’s Sambo dolls and his interaction with the police.

IM is shocked to find Clifton on the streets entertaining a crowd with Sambo dolls for money. While he previously advocates black equality and seeks to lower the racial barriers that divide black and white Americans, in this chapter, Clifton degrades the people of his own color and supports racial inequality by playing on the stereotype of Sambo, an African American dancing doll. Clifton’s new occupation completely contradicts his old motives in the Brotherhood. Clifton suddenly begins selling these dolls because he becomes disillusioned about the Brotherhood; when the organization sends IM away and decides to shift its focus to other broader national issues, Clifton realizes that the Brotherhood does not actually endorse the rise of African Americans in Harlem or recognize the urgency of the racial issue in America. In his extreme frustration, Clifton “plunges” from the Brotherhood and takes on this appalling activity (434).

It is possible that the imagery of the Sambo doll itself reflects the status of African Americans during Ellison’s time. IM observes that “some mysterious mechanism… cause[s the doll] to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion” (431). The “mysterious mechanism,” white society, controls the doll, the black population of America, and forces it to dance with puppet strings. The “dance [is] completely detached from the black, mask-like face,” demonstrating that the doll is unable to fight against the overwhelming force that dictates its movements (431). The oppressive power of the white class, in combination with the Brotherhood’s lack of interest in Harlem, reveals a bleak future for the equality, freedom, and rights of African Americans.

As IM wanders around the area after Clifton flees due to police, he spots a “cop push[ing and] jolting [Clifton] forward” “in a kind of march” (435-6). The cop continues to abuse Clifton, “his arm shooting out stiffly, sending [Clifton] in a head-snapping forward stumble until he [catches] himself” (436). IM draws a connection between their “march” and a white master’s treatment of a slave in the fields, emphasizing Ellison’s assertion that white people are continuing to treat African Americans like slaves (436). As soon as “Clifton sp[ins] on his toes… and sw[ings] his right arm,… sending the cop’s cap sailing into the street and his feet flying,” the cop shoots Clifton (436). IM views the police officer’s attack as racist, stressing the fact that Clifton is an “unarmed black man” against a white cop with a gun (467). Additionally, the policeman excessively shoots Clifton multiple times, sending the sound of “rapid explosions” into the air (436). This incident suggests that if African Americans attempt to rise in society, white Americans will immediately suppress their efforts, making them face severe consequences. Thus, black people have no option but to fulfill their role as slaves in society, with no opportunity for freedom.

Add a New Comment

Chapter 23

In this chapter IM fully breaks with the Brotherhood, figures out his grandfather’s message and altogether radically redefines his worldview.

Near the beginning, IM runs into Ras and his posse, and they once again argue over each other’s views. IM states, "We are Americans, all of us, whether black or white, regardless of what the man on the ladder there tells you" (481). This shows the hopeful delusions IM still fosters as a result of the Brotherhood's influence. In IM's world there is very little commonality between black and white, and what contrary ideals the Brotherhood seems to demonstrate are a sham. "That mahn is a paid stooge of the white enslaver! Wheere he has been for the last few months when our black babies and women have been suffering—" (481).

After a run-in with Ras, IM is inspired to acquire a disguise to avoid harassment. This represents yet another way the Brotherhood limits his rights. Because of his work with them, IM has effectively lost the right to not be harassed, and ironically given the major theme of the book, the right to anonymity. Putting on the glasses and hat he literally becomes someone else totally unassociated with the Brotherhood, and thereby reacquires these rights. Conversely, Rinehart represents the new horizons of little history. Without having the political power the Brotherhood so admires, one can still be extraordinarily influential to a wide number of people. From Rinehart’s successful entrepreneurship IM gains a mirror to view his own anonymity and thus invisibility. Rinehart’s cons further convince IM that as appearances are more important, truth is less important to society than he previously thought.

Finally, in his meeting with Hambro, IM learns the truth of the Brotherhood's intentions, if not their exact plan. When IM tells Hambro about the disrepair of the party, Hambro says “That’s regrettable, but there’s nothing to be done about it that wouldn’t upset the larger plan” (501). This proves that the Brothers’ interest in helping Harlem is not as direct or as genuine as IM imagined. Even in its own eyes, the Brotherhood’s scope is national, hence the “larger plan,” and local issues, just like little history, are of little consequence. In fact however, Harlem’s relationship with the Brotherhood is worse than that. Hambro says, "We don't have to worry about the aggressiveness of the Negroes…. In fact, we now have to slow them down for their own good. It's a scientific necessity." (503). This is the first blatantly racist theory of the Brotherhood IM has heard, and it proves that their scientific approach is not a means to color-blindness as IM presumably hoped, but yet another way of understanding blacks as permanently the tools of whites. The Brotherhood’s deceit finally engrains the concept of society’s valuation of appearance over essence in IM’s mind, and from this concept the validity of his grandfather’s mantra is finally apparent; society’s bias keeps it fixed on the “yeses” while it does not notice itself “busting wide open.”

Add a New Comment

Chapter 25 & Epilogue

In this chapter IM finally becomes fully aware of his invisibility, finds out exactly what the Brotherhood has planned, and realizes the failings of his grandfather's mantra, previously the one guiding, if elusive, principle of the book.

The initial scenes describing the riot provide short commentaries on the various issues blacks face. In the opening scene, as cops attempt to stop some looters carting away a safe with guns, a stray bullet grazes IM. Ellison does not really examine the moral implications of this scene, but it provides yet another example of the white police denying the rights of black people. Even looting does not warrant the use of a lethal weapon, and the police certainly are not entitled to use such a weapon so dangerously that innocent bystanders like himself are caught in the cross fire.

Later IM and his band pass a woman throwing out free beer from a milk cart, reflecting IM's beverage of choice at the woman’s apartment in chapter 19. The consumption of beer with the spilling of milk foreshadows the dire consequences the riot will surely have, the very destruction that the party plans by reducing their presence in Harlem.

The tenement scene represents a final form of protest against the ancient problem of the abusive landholding. Thus, it forms a counterpart to the eviction where IM’s first speech was. As Scofield indicates when he responds “You call this living?” the landlords clearly have very low standards of maintenance, probably to an extent that would be illegal today (545). In the earlier scene, the by-standers advocate for direct action, while IM tries to convince them to pursue more legal action. Here, however, IM goes along with no qualms, as they play their ultimate bargaining chip against the landlord. Significantly, IM almost loses his briefcase, a symbol of his old self, as he participates in these acts of revolt.

IM finally deduces the Brotherhood objects to his entire tenure as he watches Scofield with his pistol. When one man says he wants to stay “if it becomes a sho ‘nough race riot,” IM realizes that the Brotherhood’s goal all along has been to incite the bloodshed (552). He says “It was not suicide, but murder. The committee had planned it.” (553). This shows that his rights within the Brotherhood had been even fewer than even the likes of Brother Tarp imagines. IM is never more than a pawn used to incite anger, and does not share the camaraderie that "Brotherhood" implies.

Lastly, IM’s final recognition of his invisibility during the underground portions of the chapter can be recast in light of rights. IM realizes that no one truly sees him for who he is during his old life. He accepts his invisibility, but at the same time, views visibility as something which everybody, including African-Americans, deserves. His book is an appeal to the reader to understand and to recognize him, but also to be aware of the invisibility of their own existence, as he says in the final line. In this way IM tries to return visibility to the people by recognizing it, and recognizing where it is lacking. IM no longer tries to be a part of big history, but attempts to make everyone a part of little history through the reclamation of identity.

Add a New Comment