Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677

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Brother Tarp: an older man who works at the Harlem Brotherhood office

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Brother Tod Clifton: another member of the Brotherhood’s Harlem office, a charismatic young man

Four months have passed, during which the narrator has studied rigorously with Brother Hambro. The narrator and Brother Jack go to a bar in Harlem, where the narrator learns that he is the new chief spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Harlem office. Brother Jack cautions the narrator about the uses and misuses of what he has learned. Then the two go to the Harlem office, where they meet Brother Tarp. An old, physically disabled man, he shows the narrator his new office.

The next morning, Brother Jack calls a meeting in the Harlem office. Brother Tod Clifton is late; his entrance is understated and somewhat dramatic. The narrator describes him as very black and handsome, with a curiously Anglo-Saxon face.

Brother Clifton tells Brother Jack he was late due to a doctor’s appointment. He is bandaged, having fought with Ras the Exhorter and his men. The narrator does not recall the name, yet it turns out that the narrator does remember when he first came to New York City, in Chapter Seven, and saw a man speaking from a ladder. That man was Ras.

Brother Jack reminds them that the Brotherhood is opposed to violence. Then Brother Jack leaves, and discussions on strategy and future activities continue. They compare their efforts to galvanize the people to the work of Marcus Garvey, a political activist from many years before who was deported by the U.S. Government.

The narrator and Brother Clifton are speaking to a youth group when Ras and his men arrive. A street fight ensues. Ras defeats Clifton and is poised over him with a knife. Seeing in Clifton a color-traitor, Ras says that he should kill him. Yet Ras is moved to tears, and the narrator sees that Ras is indeed an exhorter.

Ras says that black pride is sapped by whites, that the dregs of white womanhood are offered up as a reward for the essence and the sweat of black men, and that working for the Brotherhood is a fool’s paradise. The narrator is held as if by magic, yet both the narrator and Clifton call Ras crazy. The spell is broken only when Clifton knocks Ras out. Clifton and the narrator leave, discussing Ras further.

The next morning, Brother Tarp gives the narrator a picture of Frederick Douglass. The two converse about the great work being done. The narrator calls community leaders regarding plans to protest evictions and gradually notices that his new Brotherhood name is becoming well-known in Harlem.

The responsibility that the narrator has been seeking is finally his. Having learned the Brotherhood’s platform and ideology, he is ensconced as head of the Harlem office. Yet despite the ways in which black and white people are working together, the narrator’s ambivalence remains.

Along with Mary, Brother Clifton is one of the most admirable characters the reader has met. His charisma is reflected in the way the narrator describes him, and even in what Ras says to him. This also seems to be a time when the narrator is acting with the noblest of intentions as well. Yet what both Clifton and the narrator say to Ras may cause us to wonder whether or not either of them are such heroes after all.

One of the most telling moments of the chapter is when the narrator says to Clifton that Ras is crazy, to which Clifton agrees. This epithet of “crazy” is clearly a response based on what a listener is hearing, but does not wish to hear. This has occurred before, in the grandfather’s deathbed speech and from Mr. Norton regarding the Vet at the Golden Day. But the narrator himself has never pronounced anyone “crazy” until now. This suggests that the narrator is finally in a position to realize when someone is telling him more truth than he is comfortable with hearing.

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