Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

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Rinehart: a shadowy local figure, both a criminal and a preacher, for whom the narrator is repeatedly mistaken

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Brother Maceo: one of the missing brothers; when the narrator finally finds him, Brother Maceo doesn’t recognize him because the narrator has on his “Rinehart disguise”

Brother Hambro: the narrator’s “instructor”

The narrator goes to Harlem. He avoids conversation, listening instead to the general talk about Clifton’s death. Ras is speaking at a street corner, from a ladder, and picks out the narrator for special scrutiny. The crowd is sullen, but the narrator defends the Brotherhood and himself, and gets the crowd on his side. Soon afterward, the narrator is attacked by men loyal to Ras and realizes that Ras is becoming bolder.

Seeing the hipster dress of some men nearby, the narrator ducks into a drugstore and, despite the darkness, gets a pair of sunglasses. The world is different now, and so, it seems, is the narrator. He is immediately mistaken for someone named Rinehart. This happens a total of nine times in the chapter. Wherever the narrator goes, people call him Rinehart or simply assume that he is Rinehart, as long as he wears the dark glasses and the hat he buys. Also, it seems that Rinehart holds many jobs, for police, prostitutes, local toughs, and even churchgoers stop the narrator in the street.

The mistaken identity has its advantages, since Ras has continued his rhetoric and is motivating the crowd to vent its anger on whites and members of the Brotherhood. The narrator decides to go to Barrelhouse’s bar, where he finds Brother Maceo, whom the narrator had been seeking earlier. Unfortunately, both Maceo and Barrelhouse assume that the narrator is Rinehart, and a simple misunderstanding leads to sudden problems and near violence.

Finally, the narrator goes to see Hambro, in Manhattan. In response to the narrator’s concerns about the Harlem district, Hambro says that the membership must be sacrificed. True to the Brotherhood’s rigid adherence to discipline and “scientific objectivity,” Hambro agrees that, for the purposes of expediency, those people who have already left the Brotherhood must be considered expendable. According to this view, the committee has a plan that it will announce at the proper time, and there is nothing more to say.

Hambro goes further, saying that it is impossible not to take advantage of the people. The trick was to take advantage of them in their best interests, which would be decided by the committee, using scientific objectivity.

The narrator has heard enough. He leaves and spends the rest of the chapter wrestling with himself. He feels that he has failed the community, that the best he could offer them is the wretched maneuverings of small minds. The narrator resolves to agree with them all, to fool them by acting the fool.

The tension in Harlem is mounting steadily. The narrator is becoming more aware of the gulf between the people and the Brotherhood. As if confirming the public’s views of the Brotherhood, Brother Hambro’s prounouncements about the relationship between the masses and the Brotherhood repulse the narrator. He sees himself as an actor in a play. The Brotherhood’s program of utilizing “scientific objectivity” to manage and manipulate people reinforces the Brotherhood’s notion that individual people do not matter, as Brother Jack had told the narrator when the two first met. It seems that the Brotherhood is full of people that cannot really see other people for who they are.

That the narrator is mistaken for Rinehart is yet another example of what the narrator comes to believe: that when people look at him, they don’t really see him. They simply see what they are expecting to see, whether that’s an ignorant southern hayseed, a college boy, a factory worker, a fink, a speech giver, a criminal, a preacher, or a sexual object. The narrator becomes whatever the observer thinks he or she is seeing.

One of the journeys of this book has been the narrator’s realization that not only was his grandfather not crazy, but that what his grandfather said made perfect sense. At the end of the chapter, the narrator is ready for his new course of action.

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