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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785

“Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” tells the story of a ten-year-old African American who struggles to make his way in a racist world and encounters various obstacles interfering with his growth and development. His family, the Proudhammers, provide a strong barrier against those obstacles. Leo describes how...

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“Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” tells the story of a ten-year-old African American who struggles to make his way in a racist world and encounters various obstacles interfering with his growth and development. His family, the Proudhammers, provide a strong barrier against those obstacles. Leo describes how he and his brother Caleb are the best of friends and how they protect each other. His father, an immigrant from Barbados who has been crushed by life, still retains a strong sense of racial pride and an absolute commitment to his family. He believes that he comes from royalty, a race that was greater and nobler than the citizens of Rome or Judea and mightier than those of Egypt. He tries to instill this sense of background in his children and is frustrated by the fact that no one else recognizes his lineage. Leo recognizes the futility of his father’s vision. Already, as a ten-year-old, he recognizes that the most important part of life depends on learning how to fit into a world that shows him no mercy.

Mrs. Proudhammer is a model of the strong black woman who does what is necessary to provide for her family. Leo tells of a shopping trip during which his mother commands the storeowner to give them the food she requires although she lacks the money to pay for it. She tells the storekeeper to put the charge on her bill. It is evident that Leo takes pride in his mother for her willingness to do what it takes to take care of her family.

Caleb and Leo get into an argument about washing out the tub in the morning. When Leo claims that Caleb never cleans the tub, Caleb demands that Leo apologize. Their father comes to Leo’s defense and states that it is not necessary for Leo to apologize because the allegation is true. A major part of the relationship between the boys is that Caleb is responsible for Leo when they go out together. Caleb takes Leo along with him to the motion picture theater so that Leo can provide “cover” for Caleb when he in fact takes off to go out with his friends. Leo, small, frail, and sensitive, does not like Caleb’s friends, whom he views as aggressive and coarse. Leo describes himself as living in fear around those boys.

If Caleb fails to take Leo to the motion pictures, Leo has to hang around the box office and wait for some obliging adult to take him in. However, the worst part is the walk from their apartment to the theater several miles away. Each new neighborhood through which he must walk poses new dangers. He fears the other children, who are bigger and stronger, and white people, particularly police, whom he hates.

Leo describes his subway adventures. Usually, he can ride for free by sneaking under the turnstile. He loves to people-watch. However, on one Saturday evening, he forgets to get off the subway and gets lost. The train takes him far beyond his usual stop, and soon he finds himself surrounded by white people. As his panic rises, he loses any sense of how to find his way back to Harlem. Eventually, he speaks to a black man on the train, who is decent enough to respond to his situation. The man stays with him until he is sure the boy is on the right train to go home. Leo gets home without further incident but is grateful to the stranger for helping him.

Another evening when Caleb takes Leo to the motion picture theater, he leaves him there and goes out with his friends. When Leo leaves the theater, he decides to look for Caleb. Because it is a rainy night, Leo gets drenched. Worse, he is frightened of the night and hides out in the cellar of an abandoned house. Soon he hears the sound of scurrying rats and then the sound of two people making love, which he thinks is some form of violent activity. He panics, then runs out into the rain and straight home to Caleb, who calms the hysterical boy.

One evening, Leo and Caleb are confronted by a white police officer. The officer humiliates both of them by making threats and innuendoes that suggest they are up to some kind of criminal activity. When the boys come home and share the information with their father, he becomes enraged, partly at the indignity to his boys and partly at his helplessness to protect them. The discussion turns to the question of whether any white person is good. The story ends with the issue of justice for the black person unresolved.

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