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[4 of 5] Invisible Man, Chapters 16-20, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

“Chapters 16-20.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

Chapter 16

At seven-thirty Brother Jack and some of the others picked me up and we shot up to Harlem in a taxi. As before, no one spoke a word. There was only the sound made by a man in the corner who drew noisily on a pipeful of rum-flavored tobacco, causing it to glow on and off, a red disk in the dark. I rode with mounting nervousness; the taxi seemed unnaturally warm. We got out in a side street and went down a narrow alley in the dark to the rear of the huge, barn-like building. Other members had already arrived.

“Ah, here we are,” Brother Jack said, leading the way through a dark rear door to a dressing room lighted by naked, low-hanging bulbs — a small room with wooden benches and a row of steel lockers with a network of names scratched on the doors. It had a football-locker smell of ancient sweat, iodine, blood and rubbing alcohol, and I felt a welling up of memories.

“We remain here until the building fills,” Brother Jack said. “Then we make our appearance — just at the height of their impatience.” He gave me a grin. “Meanwhile, you think about what you’ll say. Did you look over the material?”

“All day,” I said.

“Good. I suggest, however, that you listen carefully to the rest of us. We’ll all precede you so that you can get pointers for your remarks. You’ll be last.”

I nodded, seeing him take two of the other men by the arm and retreat to a corner. I was alone, the others were studying their notes, talking. I went across the room to a torn photograph tacked to the faded wall. It was a shot, in fighting stance, of a former prizefight champion, a popular fighter who had lost his sight in the ring. It must have been right here in this arena, I thought. That had been years ago. The photograph was that of a man so dark and battered that he might have been of any nationality. Big and loose-muscled, he looked like a good man. I remembered my father’s story of how he had been beaten blind in a crooked fight, of the scandal that had been suppressed, and how the fighter had died in a home for the blind. Who would have thought I’d ever come here? How things were twisted around! I felt strangely sad and went and slouched on a bench. The others talked on, their voices low. I watched them with a sudden resentment. Why did I have to come last? What if they bored the audience to death before I came on! I’d probably be shouted down before I could get started . . . But perhaps not, I thought, jabbing my suspicions away. Perhaps I could make an effect through the sheer contrast between my approach and theirs. Maybe that was the strategy . . . Anyway, I had to trust them. I had to.

Still a nervousness clung to me. I felt out of place. From beyond the door I could hear a distant scrape of chairs, a murmur of voices. Little worries whirled up within me: That I might forget my new name; that I might be recoginzed from the audience. I bent forward, suddenly conscious of my legs in new blue trousers. But how do you know they’re your legs? What’s your name? I thought, making a sad joke with myself. It was absurd, but it relieved my nervousness. For it was as though I were looking at my own legs for the first time — independent objects that could of their own volition lead me to safety or danger. I stared at the dusty floor. Then it was as though I were returning after a long suspension of consciousness, as though I stood simultaneously at opposite ends of a tunnel. I seemed to view myself from the distance of the campus while yet sitting there on a bench in the old arena; dressed in a new blue suit; sitting across the room from a group of intense men who talked among themselves in hushed, edgy voices; while yet in the distance I could hear the clatter of chairs, more voices, a cough. I seemed aware of it all from a point deep within me, yet there was a disturbing vagueness about what I saw, a disturbing unformed quality, as when you see yourself in a photo exposed during adolescence: the expression empty, the grin without character, the ears too large, the pimples, “courage bumps,” too many and too well-defined. This was a new phase, I realized, a new beginning, and I would have to take that part of myself that looked on with remote eyes and keep it always at the distance of the campus, the hospital machine, the battle royal — all now far behind. Perhaps the part of me that observed listlessly but saw all, missing nothing, was still the malicious, arguing part; the dissenting voice, my grandfather part; the cynical, disbelieving part — the traitor self that always threatened internal discord. Whatever it was, I knew that I’d have to keep it pressed down. I had to. For if I were successful tonight, I’d be on the road to something big. No more flying apart at the seams, no more remembering forgotten pains . . . No, I thought, shifting my body, they’re the same legs on which I’ve come so far from home. And yet they were somehow new. The new suit imparted a newness to me. It was the clothes and the new name and the circumstances. It was a newness too subtle to put into thought, but there it was. I was becoming someone else.

I sensed vaguely and with a flash of panic that the moment I walked out upon the platform and opened my mouth I’d be someone else. Not just a nobody with a manufactured name which might have belonged to anyone, or to no one. But another personality. Few people knew me now, but after tonight . . . How was it? Perhaps simply to be known, to be looked upon by so many people, to be the focal point of so many concentrating eyes, perhaps this was enough to make one different; enough to transform one into something else, someone else; just as by becoming an increasingly larger boy one became one day a man; a man with a deep voice — although my voice had been deep since I was twelve. But what if someone from the campus wandered into the audience? Or someone from Mary’s — even Mary herself? “No, it wouldn’t change it,” I heard myself say softly, “that’s all past.” My name was different; I was under orders. Even if I met Mary on the street, I’d have to pass her by unrecognized. A depressing thought — and I got up abruptly and went out of the dressing room and into the alley.

Without my overcoat it was cold. A feeble light burned above the entrance, sparkling the snow. I crossed the alley to the dark side, stopping near a fence that smelled of carbolic acid, which, as I looked back across the alley, caused me to remember a great abandoned hole that had been the site of a sports arena that had burned before my birth. All that was left, a cliff drop of some forty feet below the heat-buckled walk, was the shell of concrete with weirdly bent and rusted rods that had been its basement. The hole was used for dumping, and after a rain it stank with stagnant water. And now in my mind I stood upon the walk looking out across the hole past a Hooverville shanty of packing cases and bent tin signs, to a railroad yard that lay beyond. Dark depthless water lay without motion in the hole, and past the Hooverville a switch engine idled upon the shining rails, and as a plume of white steam curled slowly from its funnel I saw a man come out of the shanty and start up the path which led to the walk above. Stooped and dark and sprouting rags from his shoes, hat and sleeves, he shuffled slowly toward me, bringing a threatening cloud of carbolic acid. It was a syphilitic who lived alone in the shanty between the hole and the railroad yard, coming up to the street only to beg money for food and disinfectant with which to soak his rags. Then in my mind I saw him stretching out a hand from which the fingers had been eaten away and I ran — back to the dark, and the cold and the present.

I shivered, looking toward the street, where up the alley through the tunneling dark, three mounted policemen loomed beneath the circular, snow-sparkling beam of the street lamp, grasping their horses by their bridles, the heads of both men and animals bent close, as though plotting; the leather of saddles and leggings shining. Three white men and three black horses. Then a car passed and they showed in full relief, their shadows flying like dreams across the sparkle of snow and darkness. And, as I turned to leave, one of the horses violently tossed its head and I saw the gauntleted fist yanked down. Then there was a wild neigh and the horse plunged off in the dark, the crisp, frantic clanking of metal and the stomping of hooves followed me to the door. Perhaps this was something for Brother Jack to know.

But inside they were still in a huddle, and I went back and sat on the bench.

I watched them, feeling very young and inexperienced and yet strangely old, with an oldness that watched and waited quietly within me. Outside, the audience had begun to drone; a distant, churning sound that brought back some of the terror of the eviction. My mind flowed. There was a child standing in rompers outside a chicken-wire fence, looking in upon a huge black-and-white dog, log-chained to an apple tree. It was Master, the bulldog; and I was the child who was afraid to touch him, although, panting with heat, he seemed to grin back at me like a fat good-natured man, the saliva roping silvery from his jowls. And as the voices of the crowd churned and mounted and became an impatient splatter of hand claps, I thought of Master’s low hoarse growl. He had barked the same note when angry or when being brought his dinner, when lazily snapping flies, or when tearing an intruder to shreds. I liked, but didn’t trust old Master; I wanted to please, but did not trust the crowd. Then I looked at Brother Jack and grinned: That was it; in some ways, he was like a toy bull terrier.

But now the roar and clapping of hands became a song and I saw Brother Jack break off and bounce to the door. “Okay, Brothers,” he said, “that’s our signal.”

We went in a bunch, out of the dressing room and down a dim passage aroar with the distant sound. Then it was brighter and I could see a spotlight blazing the smoky haze. We moved silently, Brother Jack following two very black Negroes and two white men who led the procession, and now the roar of the crowd seemed to rise above us, flaring louder. I noticed the others falling into columns of four, and I was alone in the rear, like the pivot of a drill team. Ahead, a slanting shaft of brightness marked the entrance to one of the levels of the arena, and now as we passed it the crowd let out a roar. Then swiftly we were in the dark again, and climbing, the roar seeming to sink below us and we were moved into a bright blue light and down a ramp; to each side of which, stretching away in a curve, I could see rows of blurred faces — then suddenly I was blinded and felt myself crash into the man ahead of me. “It always happens the first time,” he shouted, stopping to let me get my balance, his voice small in the roar. “It’s the spotlight!”

It had picked us up now, and, beaming just ahead, led us into the arena and encircled us full in its beam, the crowd thundering. The song burst forth like a rocket to the marching tempo of clapping hands:

John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave — His soul is marching on!

Imagine that, I thought, they make the old song sound new. At first I was as remote as though I stood in the highest balcony looking on. Then I walked flush into the vibrations of the voices and felt an electric tingling along my spine. We marched toward a flag-draped platform set near the front of the arena, moving through an aisle left between rows of people in folding chairs, then onto the platform past a number of women who stood when we came on. With a nod Brother Jack indicated our chairs and we faced the applause standing.

Below and above us was the audience, row after row of faces, the arena a bowl-shaped aggregation of humanity. Then I saw the policemen and was disturbed. What if they recognized me? They were all along the wall. I touched the arm of the man ahead, seeing him turn, his mouth halting in a verse of the song.

“Why all the police?” I said, leaning forward on the back of his chair.

“Cops? Don’t worry. Tonight they’re ordered to protect us. This meeting is of great political consequence!” he said, turning away.

Who ordered them to protect us? I thought — But now the song was ending and the building rang with applause, yells, until the chant burst from the rear and spread:

No more dispossessing of the dispossessed! No more dispossessing of the dispossessed!

The audience seemed to have become one, its breathing and articulation synchronized. I looked at Brother Jack. He stood up front beside a microphone, his feet planted solidly on the dirty canvas-covered platform, looking from side to side; his posture dignified and benign, like a bemused father listening to the performance of his adoring children. I saw his hand go up in a salute, and the audience thundered. And I seemed to move in close, like the lens of a camera, focusing into the scene and feeling the heat and excitement and the pounding of voice and applause against my diaphragm, my eyes flying from face to face, swiftly, fleetingly, searching for someone I could recognize, for someone from the old life, and seeing the faces become vaguer and vaguer the farther they receded from the platform.

The speeches began. First an invocation by a Negro preacher; then a woman spoke of what was happening to the children. Then came speeches on various aspects of the economic and political situation. I listened carefully, trying to snatch a phrase here, a word there, from the arsenal of hard, precise terms. It was becoming a high-keyed evening. Songs flared between speeches, chants exploded as spontaneously as shouts at a southern revival. And I was somehow attuned to it all, could feel it physically. Sitting with my feet on the soiled canvas I felt as though I had wandered into the percussion section of a symphony orchestra. It worked on me so thoroughly that I soon gave up trying to memorize phrases and simply allowed the excitement to carry me along.

Someone pulled on my coat sleeve — my turn had come. I went toward the microphone where Brother Jack himself waited, entering the spot of light that surrounded me like a seamless cage of stainless steel. I halted. The light was so strong that I could no longer see the audience, the bowl of human faces. It was as though a semi-transparent curtain had dropped between us, but through which they could see me — for they were applauding — without themselves being seen. I felt the hard, mechanical isolation of the hospital machine and I didn’t like it. I stood, barely hearing Brother Jack’s introduction. Then he was through and there was an encouraging burst of applause. And I thought, They remember, some of them were there.

The microphone was strange and unnerving. I approached it incorrectly, my voice sounding raspy and full of air, and after a few words I halted, embarrassed. I was getting off to a bad start, something had to be done. I leaned toward the vague audience closest to the platform and said, “Sorry, folks. Up to now they’ve kept me so far away from these shiny electric gadgets I haven’t learned the technique . . . And to tell you the truth, it looks to me like it might bite! Just look at it, it looks like the steel skull of a man! Do you think he died of dispossession?”

It worked and while they laughed someone came and made an adjustment. “Don’t stand too close,” he advised.

“How’s that?” I said, hearing my voice boom deep and vibrant over the arena. “Is that better?”

There was a ripple of applause.

“You see, all I needed was a chance. You’ve granted it, now it’s up to me!”

The applause grew stronger and from down front a man’s far-carrying voice called out, “We with you, Brother. You pitch ’em we catch ’em!”

That was all I needed, I’d made a contact, and it was as though his voice was that of them all. I was wound up, nervous. I might have been anyone, might have been trying to speak in a foreign language. For I couldn’t remember the correct words and phrases from the pamphlets. I had to fall back upon tradition and since it was a political meeting, I selected one of the political techniques that I’d heard so often at home: The old down-to-earth,

I’m-sick-and-tired-of-the-way-they’ve-been-treating-us approach. I couldn’t see them so I addressed the microphone and the co-operative voice before me.

“You know, there are those who think we who are gathered here are dumb,” I shouted. “Tell me if I’m right.”

“That’s a strike, Brother,” the voice called. “You pitched a strike.” “Yes, they think we’re dumb. They call us the ‘common people.’ But

I’ve been sitting here listening and looking and trying to understand what’s so common about us. I think they’re guilty of a gross mis-statement of fact –we are the uncommon people –“

“Another strike,” the voice called in the thunder, and I paused holding up my hand to halt the noise.

“Yes, we’re the uncommon people — and I’ll tell you why. They call us dumb and they treat us dumb. And what do they do with dumb ones? Think about it, look around! They’ve got a slogan and a policy. They’ve got what Brother Jack would call a ‘theory and a practice.’ It’s ‘Never give a sucker an even break!’ It’s dispossess him! Evict him! Use his empty head for a spittoon and his back for a door mat! It’s break him! Deprive him of his wages! It’s use his protest as a sounding brass to frighten him into silence, it’s beat his ideas and his hopes and homely aspirations, into a tinkling cymbal! A small, cracked cymbal to tinkle on the Fourth of July! Only muffle it! Don’t let it sound too loud! Beat it in stoptime, give the dumb bunnies the soft-shoe dance! The Big Wormy Apple, The Chicago Get Away, the Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me!

“And do you know what makes us so uncommon?” I whispered hoarsely. “We let them do it.”

The silence was profound. The smoke boiled in the spotlight.

“Another strike,” I heard the voice call sadly. “Ain’t no use to protest the decision!” And I thought, Is he with me or against me?

“Dispossession! Dis-possession is the word!” I went on. “They’ve tried to dispossess us of our manhood and womanhood! Of our childhood and adolescence — You heard the sister’s statistics on our infant mortality rate. Don’t you know you’re lucky to be uncommonly born? Why, they even tried to dispossess us of our dislike of being dispossessed! And I’ll tell you something else — if we don’t resist, pretty soon they’ll succeed! These are the days of dispossession, the season of homelessness, the time of evictions. We’ll be dispossessed of the very brains in our heads! And we’re so uncommon that we can’t even see it! Perhaps we’re too polite. Perhaps we don’t care to look at unpleasantness. They think we’re blind — uncommonly blind. And I don’t wonder. Think about it, they’ve dispossessed us each of one eye from the day we’re born. So now we can only see in straight white lines. We’re a nation of one-eyed mice — Did you ever see such a sight in your life? Such an uncommon sight!”

“An’ ain’t a farmer’s wife in the house,” the voice called through the titters of bitter laughter. “It’s another strike!”

I leaned forward. “You know, if we aren’t careful, they’ll slip up on our blind sides and — plop! out goes our last good eye and we’re blind as bats! Someone’s afraid we’ll see something. Maybe that’s why so many of our fine friends are present tonight — blue steel pistols and blue serge suits and all! — but I believe one eye is enough to lose without resistance and I think that’s your belief. So let’s get together. Did you ever notice, my dumb one-eyed brothers, how two totally blind men can get together and help one another along? They stumble, they bump into things, but they avoid dangers too; they get along. Let’s get together, uncommon people. With both our eyes we may see what makes us so uncommon, we’ll see who makes us so uncommon! Up to now we’ve been like a couple of one-eyed men walking down opposite sides of the street. Someone starts throwing bricks and we start blaming each other and fighting among ourselves. But we’re mistaken! Because there’s a third party present. There’s a smooth, oily scoundrel running down the middle of the wide gray street throwing stones — He’s the one! He’s doing the damage! He claims he needs the space — he calls it his freedom. And he knows he’s got us on our blind side and he’s been popping away till he’s got us silly — uncommonly silly! In fact, In fact, his freedom has got us damn-nigh blind! Hush now, don’t call no names!” I called, holding up my palm. “I say to hell with this guy! I say come on, cross over! Let’s make an alliance! I’ll look out for you, and you look out for me! I’m good at catching and I’ve got a damn good pitching arm!”

“You don’t pitch no balls, Brother! Not a single one!”

“Let’s make a miracle,” I shouted. “Let’s take back our pillaged eyes! Let’s reclaim our sight; let’s combine and spread our vision. Peep around the corner, there’s a storm coming. Look down the avenue, there’s only one enemy. Can’t you see his face?”

It was a natural pause and there was applause, but as it burst I realized that the flow of words had stopped. What would I do when they started to listen again? I leaned forward, straining to see through the barrier of light. They were mine, out there, and I couldn’t afford to lose them. Yet I suddenly felt naked, sensing that the words were returning and that something was about to be said that I shouldn’t reveal.

“Look at me!” The words ripped from my solar plexus. “I haven’t lived here long. Times are hard, I’ve known despair. I’m from the South, and since coming here I’ve known eviction. I’d come to distrust the world . . . But look at me now, something strange is happening. I’m here before you. I must confess . . .”

And suddenly Brother Jack was beside me, pretending to adjust the microphone. “Careful now,” he whispered. “Don’t end your usefulness before you’ve begun.”

“I’m all right,” I said, leaning toward the mike.

“May I confess?” I shouted. “You are my friends. We share a common disinheritance, and it’s said that confession is good for the soul. Have I your permission?”

“Your batting .500, Brother,” the voice called.

There was a stir behind me. I waited until it was quiet and hurried on.

“Silence is consent,” I said, “so I’ll have it out, I’ll confess it!” My shoulders were squared, my chin thrust forward and my eyes focused straight into the light. “Something strange and miraculous and transforming is taking place in me right now . . . as I stand here before you!”

I could feel the words forming themselves, slowly falling into place. The light seemed to boil opalescently, like liquid soap shaken gently in a bottle.

“Let me describe it. It is something odd. It’s something that I’m sure I’d never experience anywhere else in the world. I feel your eyes upon me. I hear the pulse of your breathing. And now, at this moment, with your black and white eyes upon me, I feel . . . I feel . . .”

I stumbled in a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time.

“What is it, son, what do you feel?” a shrill voice cried.

My voice fell to a husky whisper, “I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity! No, wait, let me confess . . . I feel the urge to affirm my feelings . . . I feel that here, after a long and desperate and uncommonly blind journey, I have come home . . . Home! With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. I feel that here tonight, in this old arena, the new is being born and the vital old revived. In each of you, in me, in us all.




The applause struck like a clap of thunder. I stood, transfixed, unable to see, my body quivering with the roar. I made an indefinite movement. What should I do — wave to them? I faced the shouts, cheers, shrill whistling, my eyes burning from the light. I felt a large tear roll down my face and I wiped it away with embarrassment. Others were starting down. Why didn’t someone help me get out of the spot before I spoiled everything? But with the tears came an increase of applause and I lifted my head, surprised, my eyes streaming. The sound seemed to roar up in waves. They had begun to stomp the floor and I was laughing and bowing my head now unashamed. It grew in volume, the sound of splitting wood came from the rear. I grew tired, but still they cheered until, finally, I gave up and started back toward the chairs. Red spots danced before my eyes. Someone took my hand, and leaned toward my ear.

“You did it, goddamnit! You did it!” And I was puzzled by the hot mixture of hate and admiration bursting through his words as I thanked him and removed my hand from his crushing grasp.

“Thanks,” I said, “but the others had raised them to the right pitch.” I shuddered; he sounded as though he would like to throttle me. I

couldn’t see and there was much confusion and suddenly someone spun me around, pulling me off balance, and I felt myself pressed against warm feminine softness, holding on.

“Oh, Brother, Brother!” a woman’s voice cried into my ear, “Little Brother!” and I felt the hot moist pressure of her lips upon my cheek.

Blurred figures bumped about me. I stumbled as in a game of blindman’s buff. My hands were shaken, my back pounded. My face was sprayed with the saliva of enthusiasm, and I decided that the next time I stood in the spotlight it would be wise to wear dark glasses.

It was a deafening demonstration. We left them cheering, knocking over chairs, stomping the floor. Brother Jack guided me off the platform. “It’s time we left,” he shouted. “Things have truly begun to move. All that energy must be organized!”

He guided me through the shouting crowd, hands continuing to touch me as I stumbled along. Then we entered the dark passage and when we reached the end the spots faded from my eyes and I began to see again. Brother Jack paused at the door.

“Listen to them,” he said. “Just waiting to be told what to do!” And I could still hear the applause booming behind us. Then several of the others broke off their conversation and faced us, as the applause muffled down behind the closing door.

“Well, what do you think?” Brother Jack said enthusiastically. “How’s that for a starter?”

There was a tense silence. I looked from face to face, black and white, feeling swift panic. They were grim.

“Well?” Brother Jack said, his voice suddenly hard. I could hear the creaking of someone’s shoes. “Well?” he repeated.

Then the man with the pipe spoke up, a swift charge of tension building with his words.

“It was a most unsatisfactory beginning,” he said quietly, punctuating the “unsatisfactory” with a stab of his pipe. He was looking straight at me and I was puzzled. I looked at the others. Their faces were noncommittal, stolid.

“Unsatisfactory!” Brother Jack exploded. “And what alleged process of

thought led to that brilliant pronouncement?”

“This is no time for cheap sarcasm, Brother,” the brother with the pipe said.

“Sarcasm? You made the sarcasm. No, it isn’t a time for sarcasms nor for imbecilities. Nor for plain damn-fooleries! This is a key moment in the struggle, things have just begun to move — and suddenly you are unhappy. You are afraid of success? What’s wrong? Isn’t this just what we’ve been working for?”

“Again, ask yourself. You are the great leader. Look into your crystal ball.”

Brother Jack swore. “Brothers!” someone said.

Brother Jack swore and swung to another brother. “You,” he said to the husky man. “Have you the courage to tell me what’s going on here? Have we become a street-corner gang?”

Silence. Someone shuffled his feet. The man with the pipe was looking now at me.

“Did I do something wrong?” I said.

“The worst you could have done,” he said coldly. Stunned, I looked at him wordlessly.

“Never mind,” Brother Jack said, suddenly calm. “Just what is the problem, Brother? Let’s have it out right here. Just what is your complaint?”

“Not a complaint, an opinion. If we are still allowed to express our opinions,” the brother with the pipe said.

“Your opinion, then,” Brother Jack said.

“In my opinion the speech was wild, hysterical, politically irresponsible and dangerous,” he snapped. “And worse than that, it was incorrect!” He pronounced “incorrect” as though the term described the most heinous crime imaginable, and I stared at him open-mouthed, feeling a vague guilt.

“Soooo,” Brother Jack said, looking from face to face, “there’s been a caucus and decisions have been made. Did you take minutes, Brother Chairman? Have you recorded your wise disputations?”

“There was no caucus and the opinion still holds,” the brother with the pipe said.

“No meeting, but just the same there has been a caucus and decisions have been reached even before the event is finished.”

“But, Brother,” someone tried to intervene.

“A most brilliant, operation,” Brother Jack went on, smiling now. “A consummate example of skilled theoretical Nijinskys leaping ahead of history. But come down. Brothers, come down or you’ll land on your dialectics; the stage of history hasn’t built that far. The month after next, perhaps, but not yet. And what do you think, Brother Wrestrum?” he asked, pointing to a big fellow of the shape and size of Supercargo.

“I think the brother’s speech was backward and reactionary!” he said. I wanted to answer but could not. No wonder his voice had sounded

so mixed when he congratulated me. I could only stare into the broad face with its hate-burning eyes.

“And you,” Brother Jack said.

“I liked the speech,” the man said, “I thought it was quite effective.” “And you?” Brother Jack said to the next man.

“I am of the opinion that it was a mistake.” “And just why?”

“Because we must strive to reach the people through their intelligence . . .”

“Exactly,” the brother with the pipe said. “It was the antithesis of the scientific approach. Ours is a reasonable point of view. We are champions of a scientific approach to society, and such a speech as we’ve identified ourselves with tonight destroys everything that has been said before. The audience isn’t thinking, it’s yelling its head off.”

“Sure, it’s acting like a mob,” the big black brother said.

Brother Jack laughed. “And this mob,” he said, “Is it a mob against us, or is it a mob for us — how do our muscle-bound scientists answer that?”

But before they could answer he continued, “Perhaps you’re right, perhaps it is a mob; but if it is, then it seems to be a mob that’s simply boiling over to come along with us. And I shouldn’t have to tell you theoreticians that science bases its judgments upon experiment! You’re jumping to conclusions before the experiment has run its course. In fact, what’s happening here tonight represents only one step in the experiment. The initial step, the release of energy. I can understand that it should make you timid — you’re afraid of carrying through to the next step — because it’s up to you to organize that energy. Well, it’s going to be organized and not by a bunch of timid sideline theoreticians arguing in a vacuum, but by getting out and leading the people!”

He was fighting mad, looking from face to face, his red head bristling, but no one answered his challenge.

“It’s disgusting,” he said, pointing to me. “Our new brother has succeeded by instinct where for two years your ‘science’ has failed, and now all you can offer is destructive criticism.”

“I beg to differ,” the brother with the pipe said. “To point out the dangerous nature of his speech isn’t destructive criticism. Far from it. Like the rest of us, the new brother must learn to speak scientifically. He must be trained!”

“So at last it occurs to you,” Brother Jack said, pulling down the corners of his mouth. “Training. All is not lost. There’s hope that our wild but effective speaker may be tamed. The scientists perceive a possibility! Very well, it has been arranged; perhaps not scientifically but arranged nevertheless. For the next few months our new brother is to undergo a period of intense study and indoctrination under the guidance of Brother Hambro. That’s right,” he said, as I started to speak. “I meant to tell you later.”

“But that’s a long time,” I said. “How am I going to live?”

“Your salary will continue,” he said. “Meanwhile, you’ll be guilty of no further unscientific speeches to upset our brothers’ scientific tranquillity. In fact, you are to stay completely out of Harlem. Perhaps then we’ll see if you brothers are as swift at organizing as you are at criticizing. It’s your move, Brothers.”

“I think Brother Jack is correct,” a short, bald man said. “And I don’t think that we, of all people, should be afraid of the people’s enthusiasm. What we’ve got to do is to guide it into channels where it will do the most good.”

The rest were silent, the brother with the pipe looking at me unbendingly.

“Come,” Brother Jack said. “Let’s get out of here. If we keep our eyes on the real goal our chances are better than ever before. And let’s remember that science isn’t a game of chess, although chess may be played scientifically. The other thing to remember is that if we are to organize the masses we must first organize ourselves. Thanks to our new brother, things have changed; we mustn’t fail to make use of our opportunity. From now on it’s up to you.”

“We shall see,” the brother with the pipe said. “And as for the new brother, a few talks with Brother Hambro wouldn’t harm anyone.”

Hambro, I thought, going out, who the hell is he? I suppose I’m lucky they didn’t fire me. So now I’ve got to go to school again.

Out in the night the group was breaking up and Brother Jack drew me aside. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll find Brother Hambro interesting, and a period of training was inevitable. Your speech tonight was a test which you passed with flying colors, so now you’ll be prepared for some real work. Here’s the address; see Brother Hambro the first thing in the morning. He’s already been notified.”

When I reached home, tiredness seemed to explode within me. My nerves remained tense even after I had had a hot shower and crawled into bed. In my disappointment, I wanted only to sleep, but my mind kept wandering back to the rally. It had actually happened. I had been lucky and had said the right things at the right time and they had liked me. Or perhaps I had said the wrong things in the right places — whatever, they had liked it regardless of the brothers, and from now on my life would be different. It was different already. For now I realized that I meant everything that I had said to the audience, even though I hadn’t known that I was going to say those things. I had intended only to make a good appearance, to say enough to keep the Brotherhood interested in me. What had come out was completely uncalculated, as though another self within me had taken over and held forth. And lucky that it had, or I might have been fired.

Even my technique had been different; no one who had known me at college would have recognized the speech. But that was as it should have been, for I was someone new — even though I had spoken in a very old-fashioned way. I had been transformed, and now, lying restlessly in bed in the dark, I felt a kind of affection for the blurred audience whose faces I had never clearly seen. They had been with me from the first word. They had wanted me to succeed, and fortunately I had spoken for them and they had recognized my words. I belonged to them. I sat up, grasping my knees in the dark as the thought struck home. Perhaps this was what was meant by being “dedicated and set aside.” Very well, if so, I accepted it. My possibilities were suddenly broadened. As a Brotherhood spokesman I would represent not only my own group but one that was much larger. The audience was mixed, their claims broader than race. I would do whatever was necessary to serve them well. If they could take a chance with me, then I’d do the very best that I could. How else could I save myself from disintegration?

I sat there in the dark trying to recall the sequence of the speech. Already it seemed the expression of someone else. Yet I knew that it was mine and mine alone, and if it was recorded by a stenographer, I would have a look at it tomorrow.

Words, phrases skipped through my mind; I saw the blue haze again. What had I meant by saying that I had become “more human”? Was it a phrase that I had picked up from some preceding speaker, or a slip of the tongue? For a moment I thought of my grandfather and quickly dismissed him. What had an old slave to do with humanity? Perhaps it was something that Woodridge had said in the literature class back at college. I could see him vividly, half-drunk on words and full of contempt and exaltation, pacing before the blackboard chalked with quotations from Joyce and Yeats and Sean O’Casey; thin, nervous, neat, pacing as though he walked a high wire of meaning upon which no one of us would ever dare venture. I could hear him: “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record . . . We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture. Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn’t exist? For, you see, blood and skin do not think!”

But no, it wasn’t Woodridge. “More human” . . . Did I mean that I had become less of what I was, less a Negro, or that I was less a being apart; less an exile from down home, the South? . . . But all this is negative. To become less — in order to become more? Perhaps that was it, but in what way more human? Even Woodridge hadn’t spoken of such things. It was a mystery once more, as at the eviction I had uttered words that had possessed me.

I thought of Bledsoe and Norton and what they had done. By kicking me into the dark they’d made me see the possibility of achieving something greater and more important than I’d ever dreamed. Here was a way that didn’t lead through the back door, a way not limited by black and white, but a way which, if one lived long enough and worked hard enough, could lead to the highest possible rewards. Here was a way to have a part in making the big decisions, of seeing through the mystery of how the country, the world, really operated. For the first time, lying there in the dark, I could glimpse the possibility of being more than a member of a race. It was no dream, the possibility existed. I had only to work and learn and survive in order to go to the top. Sure I’d study with Hambro, I’d learn what he had to teach and a lot more. Let tomorrow come. The sooner I was through with this Hambro, the sooner I could get started with my work.

Chapter 17

Four months later when Brother Jack called the apartment at midnight to tell me to be prepared to take a ride I became quite excited. Fortunately, I was awake and dressed, and when he drove up a few minutes later I was waiting expectantly at the curb. Maybe, I thought, as I saw him hunched behind the wheel in his topcoat, this is what I’ve been waiting for.

“How have you been, Brother?” I said, getting in.

“A little tired,” he said. “Not enough sleep, too many problems.” Then, as he got the car under way, he became silent, and I decided not to ask any questions. That was one thing I had learned thoroughly. There must be something doing at the Chthonian, I thought, watching him staring at the road as though lost in thought. Maybe the brothers are waiting to put me through my paces. If so, fine; I’ve been waiting for an examination . . .

But instead of going to the Chthonian I looked out to discover that he had brought me to Harlem and was parking the car.

“We’ll have a drink,” he said, getting out and heading for where the neon-lighted sign of a bull’s head announced the El Toro Bar.

I was disappointed. I wanted no drink; I wanted to take the next step that lay between me and an assignment. I followed him inside with a surge of irritation.

The barroom was warm and quiet. The usual rows of bottles with exotic names were lined on the shelves, and in the rear, where four men argued in Spanish over glasses of beer, a juke box, lit up green and red, played “Media Luz.” And as we waited for the bartender, I tried to figure the purpose of the trip.

I had seen very little of Brother Jack after beginning my studies with Brother Hambro. My life had been too tightly organized. But I should have known that if anything was going to happen, Brother Hambro would have let me know. Instead, I was to meet him in the morning as usual. That Hambro, I thought, is he a fanatic teacher! A tall, friendly man, a lawyer and the Brotherhood’s chief theoretician, he had proved to be a hard taskmaster. Between daily discussions with him and a rigid schedule of reading, I had been working harder than I’d ever found necessary at college. Even my nights were organized; every evening found me at some rally or meeting in one of the many districts (though this was my first trip to Harlem since my speech) where I’d sit on the platform with the speakers, making notes to be discussed with him the next day. Every occasion became a study situation, even the parties that sometimes followed the meetings. During these I had to make mental notes on the ideological attitudes revealed in the guests’ conversations. But I had soon learned the method in it: Not only had I been learning the many aspects of the Brotherhood’s policy and its approach to various social groupings, but the city-wide membership had grown familiar with me. My part in the eviction was kept very much alive, and although I was under orders to make no speeches, I had grown accustomed to being introduced as a kind of hero.

Yet it had been mainly a time for listening and, being a talker, I had grown impatient. Now I knew most of the Brotherhood arguments so well –those I doubted as well as those I believed — that I could repeat them in my sleep, but nothing had been said about my assignment. Thus I had hoped the midnight call meant some kind of action was to begin . . .

Beside me, Brother Jack was still lost in thought. He seemed in no hurry to go elsewhere or to talk, and as the slow-motion bartender mixed our drinks I puzzled vainly as to why he had brought me here. Before me, in the panel where a mirror is usually placed, I could see a scene from a bullfight, the bull charging close to the man and the man swinging the red cape in sculptured folds so close to his body that man and bull seemed to blend in one swirl of calm, pure motion. Pure grace, I thought, looking above the bar to where, larger than life, the pink and white image of a girl smiled down from a summery beer ad on which a calendar said April One. Then, as our drinks were placed before us, Brother Jack came alive, his mood changing as though in the instant he had settled whatever had been bothering him and felt suddenly free.

“Here, come back,” he said, nudging me playfully. “She’s only a cardboard image of a cold steel civilization.”

I laughed, glad to hear him joking. “And that?” I said, pointing to the bullfight scene.

“Sheer barbarism,” he said, watching the bartender and lowering his voice to a whisper. “But tell me, how have you found your work with Brother Hambro?”

“Oh, fine,” I said. “He’s strict, but if I’d had teachers like him in college, I’d know a few things. He’s taught me a lot, but whether enough to satisfy the brothers who disliked my arena speech, I don’t know. Shall we converse scientifically?”

He laughed, one of his eyes glowing brighter than the other. “Don’t worry about the brothers,” he said. “You’ll do very well. Brother Hambro’s reports on you have been excellent.”

“Now, that’s nice to hear,” I.said, aware now of another bullfight scene further down the bar in which the matador was being swept skyward on the black bull’s horns. “I’ve worked pretty hard trying to master the ideology.”

“Master it,” Brother Jack said, “but don’t overdo it. Don’t let it master you. There is nothing to put the people to sleep like dry ideology. The ideal is to strike a medium between ideology and inspiration. Say what the people want to hear, but say it in such a way that they’ll do what we wish.” He laughed. “Remember too, that theory always comes after practice. Act first, theorize later; that’s also a formula, a devastatingly effective one!”

He looked at me as though he did not see me and I could not tell whether he was laughing at me or with me. I was sure only that he was laughing.

“Yes,” I said, “I’ll try to master all that is required.”

“You can,” he said. “And now you don’t have to worry about the brothers’ criticism. Just throw some ideology back at them and they’ll leave you alone — provided, of course, that you have the right backing and produce the required results. Another drink?”

“Thanks, I’ve had enough.” “Are you sure?”


“Good. Now to your assignment: Tomorrow you are to become chief spokesman of the Harlem District . . .”


“Yes. The committee decided yesterday.” “But I had no idea.”

“You’ll do all right. Now listen. You are to continue what you started at the eviction. Keep them stirred up. Get them active. Get as many to join as possible. You’ll be given guidance by some of the older members, but for the time being you are to see what you can do. You will have freedom of action — and you will be under strict discipline to the committee.”

“I see,” I said.

“No, you don’t quite see,” he said, “but you will. You must not underestimate the discipline, Brother. It makes you answerable to the entire organization for what you do. Don’t underestimate the discipline. It is very strict, but within its framework you are to have full freedom to do your work. And your work is very important. Understand?” His eyes seemed to crowd my face as I nodded yes. “We’d better go now so that you can get some sleep,” he said, draining his glass. “You’re a soldier now, your health belongs to the organization.”

“I’ll be ready,” I said.

“I know you will. Until tomorrow then. You’ll meet with the executive committee of the Harlem section at nine A.M. You know the location of course?”

“No, Brother, I don’t.”

“Oh? That’s right — then you’d better come up with me for a minute. I have to see someone there and you can take a look at where you’ll work. I’ll drop you off on the way down,” he said.

THE district offices were located in a converted church structure, the main floor of which was occupied by a pawn shop, its window crammed with loot that gleamed dully in the darkened street. We took a stair to the third floor, entering a large room beneath a high Gothic ceiling.

“It’s down here,” Brother Jack said, making for the end of the large room where I saw a row of smaller ones, only one of which was lighted. And now I saw a man appear in the door and limp forward.

“Evening, Brother Jack,” he said.

“Why, Brother Tarp, I expected to find Brother Tobitt.”

“I know. He was here but he had to leave,” the man said. “He left this envelope for you and said he’d call you later on tonight.”

“Good, good,” Brother Jack said. “Here, meet a new brother . . .” “Pleased to meet you,” the brother said, smiling. “I heard you speak

at the arena. You really told ’em.” “Thanks,” I said.

“So you liked it, did you, Brother Tarp?” Brother Jack said. “The boy’s all right with me,” the man said.

“Well, you’re going to see a lot of him, he’s your new spokesman.” “That’s fine,” the man said. “Looks like we’re going to get some changes made.”

“Correct,” Brother Jack said. “Now let’s take a look at his office and we’ll be going.”

“Sure, Brother,” Tarp said, limping before me into one of the dark rooms and snapping on a light. “This here is the one.”

I looked into a small office, containing a flat-top desk with a telephone, a typewriter on its table, a bookcase with shelves of books and pamphlets, and a huge map of the world inscribed with ancient nautical signs and a heroic figure of Columbus to one side.

“If there’s anything you need, just see Brother Tarp,” Brother Jack said. “He’s here at all times.”

“Thanks, I shall,” I said. “I’ll get oriented in the morning.”

“Yes, and we’d better go so you can get some sleep. Good night, Brother Tarp. See that everything is ready for him in the morning.”

“He won’t have to worry about a thing, Brother. Good night.”

“It’s because we attract men like Brother Tarp there that we shall triumph,” he said as we climbed into the car. “He’s old physically, but ideologically he’s a vigorous young man. He can be depended upon in the most precarious circumstance.”

“He sounds like a good man to have around,” I said.

“You’ll see,” he said and lapsed into a silence that lasted until we reached my door.

The committee was assembled in the hall with the high Gothic ceiling when I arrived, sitting in folding chairs around two small tables pushed together to form a unit.

“Well,” Brother Jack said, “you are on time. Very good, we favor precision in our leaders.”

“Brother, I shall always try to be on time,” I said.

“Here he is, Brothers and Sisters,” he said, “your new spokesman. Now to begin. Are we all present?”

“All except Brother Tod Clifton,” someone said. His red head jerked with surprise. “So?”

“He’ll be here,” a young brother said. “We were working until three this morning.”

“Still, he should be on time — Very well,” Brother Jack said, taking out a watch, “let us begin. I have only a little time here, but a little time is all that is needed. You all know the events of the recent period, and the role our new brother has played in them. Briefly, you are here to see that it isn’t wasted. We must achieve two things: We must plan methods of increasing the effectiveness of our agitation, and we must organize the energy that has already been released. This calls for a rapid increase of membership. The people are fully aroused; if we fail to lead them into action, they will become passive, or they will become cynical. Thus it is necessary that we strike immediately and strike hard!

“For this purpose,” he said, nodding toward me, “our brother has been appointed district spokesman. You are to give him your loyal support and regard him as the new instrument of the committee’s authority . . .”

I heard the slight applause splatter up — only to halt with the opening of the door, and I looked down past the rows of chairs to where a hatless young man about my own age was coming into the hall. He wore a heavy sweater and slacks, and as the others looked up I heard the quick intake of a woman’s pleasurable sigh. Then the young man was moving with an easy Negro stride out of the shadow into the light, and I saw that he was very black and very handsome, and as he advanced mid-distance into the room, that he possessed the chiseled, black-marble features sometimes found on statues in northern museums and alive in southern towns in which the white offspring of house children and the black offspring of yard children bear names, features and character traits as identical as the rifling of bullets fired from a common barrel. And now close up, leaning tall and relaxed, his arms outstretched stiffly upon the table, I saw the broad, taut span of his knuckles upon the dark grain of the wood, the muscular, sweatered arms, the curving line of the chest rising to the easy pulsing of his throat, to the square, smooth chin, and saw a small X-shaped patch of adhesive upon the subtly blended, velvet-over-stone, granite-over-bone, Afro-Anglo-Saxon contour of his cheek.

He leaned there, looking at us all with a remote aloofness in which I sensed an unstated questioning beneath a friendly charm. Sensing a possible rival, I watched him warily, wondering who he was.

“Ah so, Brother Tod Clifton is late,” Brother Jack said. “Our leader of the youth is late. Why is this?”

The young man pointed to his cheek and smiled. “I had to see the doctor,” he said.

“What is this?” Brother Jack said, looking at the cross of adhesive on the black skin.

“Just a little encounter with the nationalists. With Ras the Exhorter’s boys,” Brother Clifton said. And I heard a gasp from one of the women who gazed at him with shining, compassionate eyes.

Brother Jack gave me a quick look. “Brother, you have heard of Ras?

He is the wild man who calls himself a black nationalist.” “I don’t recall so,” I said.

“You’ll hear of him soon enough. Sit down, Brother Clifton; sit down. You must be careful. You are valuable to the organization, you must not take chances.”

“This was unavoidable,” the young man said.

“Just the same,” Brother Jack said, returning to the discussion with a call for ideas.

“Brother, are we still to fight against evictions?” I said. “It has become a leading issue, thanks to you.”

“Then why not step up the fight?”

He studied my face. “What do you suggest?”

“Well, since it has attracted so much attention, why not try to reach the whole community with the issue?”

“And how would you suggest we go about it?”

“I suggest we get the community leaders on record in support of us.” “There are certain difficulties in face of this,” Brother Jack said.

“Most of the leaders are against us.”

“But I think he’s got something there,” Brother Clifton said. “What if we got them to support the issue whether they like us or not? The issue is a community issue, it’s non-partisan.”

“Sure,” I said, “that’s how it looks to me. With all the excitement over evictions they can’t afford to come out against us, not without appearing to be against the best interests of the community . . .”

“So we have them across a barrel,” Clifton said. “That is perceptive enough,” Brother Jack said. The others agreed.

“You see,” Brother Jack said with a grin, “we’ve always avoided these leaders, but the moment we start to advance on a broad front, sectarianism becomes a burden to be cast off. Any other suggestions?” He looked around.

“Brother,” I said, remembering now, “when I first came to Harlem one of the first things that impressed me was a man making a speech from a ladder. He spoke very violently and with an accent, but he had an enthusiastic audience . . . Why can’t we carry our program to the street in the same way?”

“So you have met him,” he said, suddenly grinning. “Well, Ras the Exhorter has had a monopoly in Harlem. But now that we are larger we might give it a try. What the committee wants is results!”

So that was Ras the Exhorter, I thought.

“We’ll have trouble with the Extortor — I mean the Exhorter,” a big woman said. “His hoodlums would attack and denounce the white meat of a roasted chicken.”

We laughed.

“He goes wild when he sees black people and white people together,” she said to me.

“We’ll take care of that,” Brother Clifton said, touching his cheek. “Very well, but no violence,” Brother Jack said. “The Brotherhood is

against violence and terror and provocation of any kind — aggressive, that is. Understand, Brother Clifton?”

“I understand,” he said.

“We will not countenance any aggressive violence. Understand? Nor attacks upon officials or others who do not attack us. We are against all forms of violence, do you understand?”

“Yes, Brother,” I said.

“Very well, having made this clear I leave you now,” he said. “See what you can accomplish. You’ll have plenty support from other districts and all the guidance you need. Meanwhile, remember that we are all under discipline.”

He left and we divided the labor. I suggested that each work in the area he knew best. Since there was no liaison between the Brotherhood and the community leaders I assigned myself the task of creating one. It was decided that our street meetings begin immediately and that Brother Tod Clifton was to return and go over the details with me.

While the discussion continued I studied their faces. They seemed absorbed with the cause and in complete agreement, blacks and whites. But when I tried to place them as to type I got nowhere. The big woman who looked like a southern “sudsbuster” was in charge of women’s work, and spoke in abstract, ideological terms. The shy-looking man with the liver splotches on his neck spoke with a bold directness and eagerness for action. And this Brother Tod Clifton, the youth leader, looked somehow like a hipster, a zoot suiter, a sharpie — except his head of Persian lamb’s wool had never known a straightener. I could place none of them. They seemed familiar but were just as different as Brother Jack and the other whites were from all the white men I had known. They were all transformed, like familiar people seen in a dream. Well, I thought, I’m different too, and they’ll see it when the talk is finished and the action begins. I’ll just have to be careful not to antagonize anyone. As it is, someone might resent my being placed in charge.

But when Brother Tod Clifton came into my office to discuss the street meeting I saw no signs of resentment, but a complete absorption in the strategy of the meeting. With great care he went about instructing me how to deal with hecklers, on what to do if we were attacked, and upon how to recognize our own members from the rest of the crowd. For all his seeming zoot-suiter characteristics his speech was precise and I had no doubt that he knew his business.

“How do you think we’ll do?” I said when he had finished.

“It’ll go big, man,” he said. “It’ll be bigger than anything since Garvey.”

“I wish I could be so sure,” I said. “I never saw Garvey.”

“I didn’t either,” he said, “but I understand that in Harlem he was very big.”

“Well, we’re not Garvey, and he didn’t last.”

“No, but he must have had something,” he said with sudden passion. “He must have had something to move all those people! Our people are hell to move. He must have had plenty!”

I looked at him. His eyes were turned inward; then he smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We have a scientific plan and you set them off. Things are so bad they’ll listen, and when they listen they’ll go along.”

“I hope so,” I said.

“They will. You haven’t been around the movement as I have, for three years now, and I can feel the change. They’re ready to move.”

“I hope your feelings are right,” I said.

“They’re right, all right,” he said. “All we have to do is gather them in.”

The evening was almost of a winter coldness, the corner well lighted and the all-Negro crowd large and tightly packed. Up on the ladder now I was surrounded by a group of Clifton’s youth division, and I could see, beyond their backs with upturned collars, the faces of the doubtful, the curious and the convinced in the crowd. It was early and I threw my voice hard down against the traffic sounds, feeling the damp coldness of the air upon my cheeks and hands as my voice warmed with my emotion. I had just begun to feel the pulsing set up between myself and the people, hearing them answering in staccato applause and agreement when Tod Clifton caught my eye, pointing. And over the heads of the crowd and down past the dark storefronts and blinking neon signs I saw a bristling band of about twenty men quick-stepping forward. I looked down.

“It’s trouble, keep talking,” Clifton said. “Give the boys the signal.” “My Brothers, the time has come for action,” I shouted. And now I saw the youth members and some older men move around to the back of the crowd, and up to meet the advancing group. Then something sailed up out of the dark and landed hard against my forehead, and I felt the crowd surge in close, sending the ladder moving backwards, and I was like a man tottering above a crowd on stilts, then dropping backwards into the street and clear, hearing the ladder clatter down. They were milling in a panic now, and I saw Clifton beside me. “It’s Ras the Exhorter,” he yelled. “Can you use your hands?”

“I can use my fists!” I was annoyed.

“Well, all right then. Here’s your chance. Come on, let’s see you duke!”

He moved forward and seemed to dive into the whirling crowd, and I beside him, seeing them scatter into doorways and pound off in the dark.

“There’s Ras, over there,” Clifton cried. And I heard the sound of breaking glass and the street went dark. Someone had knocked out the light, and through the dimness I saw Clifton heading to where a red neon sign glowed in a dark window as something went past my head. Then a man ran up with a length of pipe and I saw Clifton close with him, ducking down and working in close and grabbing the man’s wrist and twisting suddenly like a soldier executing an about-face so that now he faced me, the back of the man’s elbow rigid across his shoulder and the man rising on tiptoe and screaming as Clifton straightened smoothly and levered down on the arm.

I heard a dry popping sound and saw the man sag, and the pipe rang upon the walk; then someone caught me hard in the stomach and suddenly I knew that I was fighting too. I went to my knees and rolled and pulled erect, facing him. “Get up, Uncle Tom,” he said, and I clipped him. He had his hands and I had mine and the match was even but he was not so lucky. He wasn’t down and he wasn’t out, but I caught him two good ones and he decided to fight elsewhere. When he turned I tripped him and moved away.

The fight was moving back into the dark where the street lights had been knocked out clear to the corner, and it was quiet except for the grunting and straining and the sound of footfalls and of blows. It was confusing in the dark and I couldn’t tell ours from theirs and moved cautiously, trying to see. Someone up the street in the dark yelled, “Break it up! Break it up!” and I thought, Cops, and looked around for Clifton. The neon sign glowed mysteriously and there was a lot of running and cursing, and now I saw him working skillfully in a store lobby before a red CHECKS CASHED HERE sign and I hurried over, hearing objects sailing past my head and the crash of glass. Clifton’s arms were moving in short, accurate jabs against the head and stomach of Ras the Exhorter, punching swiftly and scientifically, careful not to knock him into the window or strike the glass with his fists, working Ras between rights and lefts jabbed so fast that he rocked like a drunken bull, from side to side. And as I came up Ras tried to bull his way out and I saw Clifton drive him back and down into a squat, his hands upon the dark floor of the lobby, his heels back against the door like a runner against starting blocks. And now, shooting forward, he caught Clifton coming in, butting him, and I heard the burst of breath and Clifton was on his back and something flashed in Ras’s hand and he came forward, a short, heavy figure as wide as the lobby now with the knife, moving deliberately. I spun, looking for the length of pipe, diving for it and crawling on hands and knees and here, here — and coming up to see Ras reach down, getting one hand into Clifton’s collar, the knife in the other, looking down at Clifton and panting, bull-angry. I froze, seeing him draw back the knife and stop it in mid-air; draw back and stop, cursing; then draw back and stop again, all very quickly, beginning to cry now and talking rapidly at the same time; and me easing slowly forward.

“Mahn,” Ras blurted, “I ought to kill you. Godahm, I ought to kill you and the world be better off. But you black, mahn. Why you be black, mahn? I swear I ought to kill you. No mahn strike the Exhorter, godahmit, no mahn!”

I saw him raise the knife again and now as he lowered it unused he pushed Clifton into the street and stood over him, sobbing.

“Why you with these white folks? Why? I been watching you a long time. I say to myself, ‘Soon he get smart and get tired. He get out of that t’ing.’ Why a good boy like you still with them?”

Still moving forward, I saw his face gleam with red angry tears as he stood above Clifton with the still innocent knife and the tears red in the glow of the window sign.

“You my brother, mahn. Brothers are the same color; how the hell you call these white men brother? Shit, mahn. That’s shit! Brothers the same color. We sons of Mama Africa, you done forgot? You black, BLACK! You –Godahm, mahn!” he said, swinging the knife for emphasis. “You got bahd hair! You got thick lips! They say you stink! They hate you, mahn. You Afrian. AFRICAN! Why you with them? Leave that shit, mahn. They sell you out. That shit is old-fashioned. They enslave us — you forget that? How can they mean a black mahn any good? How they going to be your brother?”

I had reached him now and brought the pipe down hard, seeing the knife fly off into the’ dark as he grabbed his wrist, and I raised the pipe again, suddenly hot with fear and hate, as he looked at me out of his narrow little eyes, standing his ground.

“And you, mahn,” the Exhorter said, “a reg’lar little black devil! A godahm sly mongoose! Where you think you from, going with the white folks? I know, godahm; don’t I know it! You from down South! You from Trinidad! You from Barbados! Jamaica, South Africa, and the white mahn’s foot in your ass all the way to the hip. What you trying to deny by betraying the black people? Why you fight against us? You young fellows. You young black men with plenty education; I been hearing your rabble rousing. Why you go over to the enslaver? What kind of education is that? What kind of black mahn is that who betray his own mama?”

“Shut up,” Clifton said, leaping to his feet. “Shut up!”

“Hell, no,” Ras cried, wiping his eyes with his fists. “I talk! Bust me with the pipe but, by God, you listen to the Exhorter! Come in with us, mahn. We build a glorious movement of black people. Black People! What they do, give you money? Who wahnt the dahm stuff? Their money bleed black blood, mahn. It’s unclean! Taking their money is shit, mahn. Money without dignity — That’s bahd shit!”

Clifton lunged toward him. I held him, shaking my head. “Come on, the man’s crazy,” I said, pulling on his arm.

Ras struck his thighs with his fists. “Me crazy, mahn? You call me crazy? Look at you two and look at me — is this sanity? Standing here in three shades of blackness! Three black men fighting in the street because of the white enslaver? Is that sanity? Is that consciousness, scientific understahnding? Is that the modern black mahn of the twentieth century? Hell, mahn! Is it self-respect — black against black? What they give you to betray — their women? You fall for that?”

“Let’s go,” I said, listening and remembering and suddenly alive in the dark with the horror of the battle royal, but Clifton looked at Ras with a tight, fascinated expression, pulling away from me.

“Let’s go,” I repeated. He stood there, looking.

“Sure, you go,” Ras said, “but not him. You contahminated but he the real black mahn. In Africa this mahn be a chief, a black king! Here they say he rape them godahm women with no blood in their veins. I bet this mahn can’t beat them off with baseball bat — shit! What kind of foolishness is it? Kick him ass from cradle to grave then call him brother? Does it make mahthematics? Is it logic? Look at him, mahn; open your eyes,” he said to me. “I look like that I rock the blahsted world! They know about me in Japan, India — all the colored countries. Youth! Intelligence! The mahn’s a natural prince! Where is your eyes? Where your self-respect? Working for them dahm people? Their days is numbered, the time is almost here and you fooling ’round like this was the nineteenth century. I don’t understahnd you. Am I ignorant? Answer me, mahn!”

“Yes,” Clifton burst out. “Hell, yes!”

“You t’ink I’m crazy, is it c’ase I speak bahd English? Hell, it ain’t my mama tongue, mahn, I’m African! You really t’ink I’m crazy?”

“Yes, yes!”

“You believe that?” said Ras. “What they do to you, black mahn? Give you them stinking women?”

Clifton lunged again, and again I grabbed him; and again Ras held his ground, his head glowing red.

“Women? Godahm, mahn! Is that equality? Is that the black mahn’s freedom? A pat on the back and a piece of cunt without no passion? Maggots! They buy you that blahsted cheap, mahn? What they do to my people! Where is your brains? These women dregs, mahn! They bilge water! You know the high-class white mahn hates the black mahn, that’s simple. So now he use the dregs and wahnt you black young men to do his dirty work. They betray you and you betray the black people. They tricking you, mahn. Let them fight among themselves. Let ’em kill off one another. We organize –organization is good — but we organize black. BLACK! To hell with that son of a bitch! He take one them strumpets and tell the black mahn his freedom lie between her skinny legs — while that son of a gun, he take all the power and the capital and don’t leave the black mahn not’ing. The good white women he tell the black mahn is a rapist and keep them locked up and ignorant while he makes the black mahn a race of bahstards.

“When the black mahn going to tire of this childish perfidity? He got you so you don’t trust your black intelligence? You young, don’t play you’self cheap, mahn. Don’t deny you’self! It took a billion gallons of black blood to make you. Recognize you’self inside and you wan the kings among men! A mahn knows he’s a mahn when he got not’ing, when he’s naked — nobody have to tell him that. You six foot tall, mahn. You young and intelligent. You black and beautiful — don’t let ’em tell you different! You wasn’t them t’ings you be dead, mahn. Dead! I’d have killed you, mahn. Ras the Exhorter raised up his knife and tried to do it, but he could not do it. Why don’t you do it? I ask myself. I will do it now, I say; but somet’ing tell me, ‘No, no! You might be killing your black king!’ And I say, yas, yas! So I accept your humiliating ahction. Ras recognized your black possibilities, mahn. Ras would not sahcrifice his black brother to the white enslaver. Instead he cry. Ras is a mahn — no white mahn have to tell him that — and Ras cry. So why don’t you recognize your black duty, mahn, and come jine us?”

His chest was heaving and a note of pleading had come into the harsh voice. He was an exhorter, all right, and I was caught in the crude, insane eloquence of his plea. He stood there, awaiting an answer. And suddenly a big transport plane came low over the buildings and I looked up to see the firing of its engine, and we were all three silent, watching.

Suddenly the Exhorter shook his fist toward the plane and yelled, “Hell with him, some day we have them too! Hell with him!”

He stood there, shaking his fist as the plane rattled the buildings in its powerful flight. Then it was gone and I looked about the unreal street. They were fighting far up the block in the dark now and we were alone. I looked at the Exhorter. I didn’t know if I was angry or amazed.

“Look,” I said, shaking my head, “let’s talk sense. From now on we’ll be on the street corners every night and we’ll be prepared for trouble. We don’t want it, especially with you, but we won’t run either . . .”

“Goddam, mahn,” he said, leaping forward, “this is Harlem. This is my territory, the black mahn’s territory. You think we let white folks come in and spread their poison? Let ’em come in like they come and take over the numbers racket? Like they have all the stores? Talk sense, mahn, if you talking to Ras, talk sense!”

“This is sense,” I said, “and you listen as we listened to you. We’ll be out here every night, understand. We’ll be out here and the next time you go after one of our brothers with a knife — and I mean white or black –well, we won’t forget it.”

He shook his head, “Nor will I forget you either, mahn.”

“Don’t. I don’t want you to; because if you forget there’ll be trouble. You’re mistaken, don’t you see you’re outnumbered? You need allies to win . . .”

“That there is sense. Black allies. Yellow and brown allies!” “All men who want a brotherly world,” I said.

“Don’t be stupid, mahn. They white, they don’t have to be allies with no black people. They get what they wahnt, they turn against you. Where’s your black intelligence?”

“Thinking like that will get you lost in the backwash of history,” I said. “Start thinking with your mind and not your emotions.”

He shook his head vehemently, looking at Clifton.

“This black mahn talking to me about brains and thinking. I ask both of you, are you awake or sleeping? What is your pahst and where are you going? Never mind, take your corrupt ideology and eat out your own guts like a laughing hyena. You are nowhere, mahn. Nowhere! Ras is not ignorant, nor is Ras afraid. No! Ras, he be here black and fighting for the liberty of the black people when the white folks have got what they wahnt and done gone off laughing in your face and you stinking and choked up with white maggots.”

He spat angrily into the dark street. It flew pink in the red glow. “That’ll be all right with me,” I said. “Only remember what I said.

Come on, Brother Clifton. This man’s full of pus, black pus.”

We started away, a piece of glass crunching under my foot.

“Maybe so,” Ras said, “but I ahm no fool! I ahm no black educated fool who t’inks everything between black mahn and white mahn can be settled with some blahsted lies in some bloody books written by the white mahn in the first place. It’s three hundred years of black blood to build this white mahn’s civilization and wahn’t be wiped out in a minute. Blood calls for blood! You remember that. And remember that I am not like you. Ras recognizes the true issues and he is not afraid to be black. Nor is he a traitor for white men. Remember that: I am no black traitor to the black people for the white people.”

And before I could answer Clifton spun in the dark and there was a crack and I saw Ras go down and Clifton breathing hard and Ras lying there in the street, a thick, black man with red tears on his face that caught the reflection of the CHECKS CASHED HERE sign.

And again, as Clifton looked gravely down he seemed to ask a silent question.

“Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s go!”

We started away as the screams of sirens sounded, Clifton cursing quietly to himself.

Then we were out of the dark onto a busy street and he turned to me. There were tears in his eyes.

“That poor, misguided son of a bitch,” he said.

“He thinks a lot of you, too,” I said. I was glad to be out of the dark and away from that exhorting voice.

“The man’s crazy,” Clifton said. “It’ll run you crazy if you let it.” “Where’d he get that name?” I said.

“He gave it to himself. I guess he did. Ras is a title of respect in the East. It’s a wonder he didn’t say something about ‘Ethiopia stretching forth her wings,’ ” he said, mimicking Ras. “He makes it sound like the hood of a cobra fluttering . . . I don’t know . . . I don’t know . . .”

“We’ll have to watch him now,” I said.

“Yes, we’d better,” he said. “He won’t stop fighting . . . And thanks for getting rid of his knife.”

“You didn’t have to worry,” I said. “He wouldn’t kill his king.”

He turned and looked at me as though he thought I might mean it; then he smiled.

“For a while there I thought I was gone,” he said.

As we headed for the district office I wondered what Brother Jack would say about the fight.

“We’ll have to overpower him with organization,” I said.

“We’ll do that, all right. But it’s on the inside that Ras is strong,” Clifton said. “On the inside he’s dangerous.”

“He won’t get on the inside,” I said. “He’d consider himself a traitor.” “No,” Clifton said, “he won’t get on the inside. Did you hear how he

was talking? Did you hear what he was saying?” “I heard him, sure,” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history . . .”


“Plunge outside, turn his back . . . Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts.”

I didn’t answer. Maybe he’s right, I thought, and was suddenly very glad I had found Brotherhood.

The next morning it rained and I reached the district before the others arrived and stood looking through the window of my office, past the jutting wall of a building, and on beyond the monotonous pattern of its bricks and mortar I saw a row of trees rising tall and graceful in the rain. One tree grew close by and I could see the rain streaking its bark and its sticky buds. Trees were rowed the length of the long block beyond me, rising tall in dripping wetness above a series of cluttered backyards. And it occurred to me that cleared of its ramshackle fences and planted with flowers and grass, it might form a pleasant park. And just then a paper bag sailed from a window to my left and burst like a silent grenade, scattering garbage into the trees and pancaking to earth with a soggy, exhausted plop! I started with disgust, then thought, The sun will shine in those backyards some day. A community clean-up campaign might be worthwhile for a slack season, at that. Everything couldn’t possibly be as exciting as last night.

Turning back to my desk I sat facing the map now as Brother Tarp appeared.

“Morning, son, I see you already on the job,” he said.

“Good morning. I have so much to do that I thought I’d better get started early,” I said.

“You’ll do all right,” he said. “But I didn’t come in here to take up your time, I want to put something on the wall.”

“Go right ahead. Can I give you a hand?”

“No, I can make it all right,” he said, clambering with his lame leg upon a chair that sat beneath the map and hanging a frame from the ceiling molding, straightening it carefully, and getting down to come over beside my desk.

“Son, you know who that is?”

“Why, yes,” I said, “it’s Frederick Douglass.”

“Yessir, that’s just who it is. You know much about him?”

“Not much. My grandfather used to tell me about him though.” “That’s enough. He was a great man. You just take a look at him

once in a while. You have everything you need — paper and stuff like that?” “Yes, I have, Brother Tarp. And thanks for the portrait of Douglass.” “Don’t thank me, son,” he said from the door. “He belongs to all of us.”

I sat now facing the portrait of Frederick Douglass, feeling a sudden piety, remembering and refusing to hear the echoes of my grandfather’s voice. Then I picked up the telephone and began calling the community leaders.

They fell in line like prisoners: preachers, politicians, various professionals, proving Clifton correct. The eviction fight was such a dramatic issue that most of the leaders feared that their followers would have rallied to us without them. I slighted no one, no matter how unimportant; bigshots, doctors, real-estate men and store-front preachers. And it went so fast and smoothly that it seemed not to happen to me but to someone who actually bore my new name. I almost laughed into the phone when I heard the director of Men’s House address me with profound respect. My new name was getting around. It’s very strange, I thought, but things are so unreal for them normally that they believe that to call a thing by name is to make it so. And yet I am what they think I am . . .

Our work went so well that a few Sundays later we threw a parade that clinched our hold on the community. We worked feverishly. And now the clashing and conflict of my last days at Mary’s seemed to have moved out into the struggles of the community, leaving me inwardly calm and controlled. Even the hustle and bustle of picketing and speechmaking seemed to stimulate me for the better; my wildest ideas paid off.

Upon hearing that one of the unemployed brothers was an ex-drill master from Wichita, Kansas, I organized a drill team of six-footers whose duty it was to march through the streets striking up sparks with their hobnailed shoes. On the day of the parade they drew crowds faster than a dogfight on a country road. The People’s Hot Foot Squad, we called them, and when they drilled fancy formations down Seventh Avenue in the springtime dusk they set the streets ablaze. The community laughed and cheered and the police were dumfounded. But the sheer corn of it got them and the Hot Foot Squad went shuffling along. Then came the flags and banners and the cards bearing slogans; and the squad of drum majorettes, the best-looking girls we could find, who pranced and twirled and just plain girled in the enthusiastic interest of Brotherhood. We pulled fifteen thousand Harlemites into the street behind our slogans and marched down Broadway to City Hall. Indeed, we were the talk of the town.

With this success I was pushed forward at a dizzy pace. My name spread like smoke in an airless room. I was kept moving all over the place. Speeches here, there, everywhere, uptown and down. I wrote newspaper articles, led parades and relief delegations, and so on. And the Brotherhood was going out of its way to make my name prominent. Articles, telegrams and many mailings went out over my signature — some of which I’d written, but most not. I was publicized, identified with the organization both by word and image in the press. On the way to work one late spring morning I counted fifty greetings from people I didn’t know, becoming aware that there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary, the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself.

Still, I liked my work during those days of certainty. I kept my eyes wide and ears alert. The Brotherhood was a world within a world and I was determined to discover all its secrets and to advance as far as I could. I saw no limits, it was the one organization in the whole country in which I could reach the very top and I meant to get there. Even if it meant climbing a mountain of words. For now I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words. Sometimes I sat watching the watery play of light upon Douglass’ portrait, thinking how magical it was that he had talked his way from slavery to a government ministry, and so swiftly. Perhaps, I thought, something of the kind is happening to me. Douglass came north to escape and find work in the shipyards; a big fellow in a sailor’s suit who, like me, had taken another name. What had his true name been? Whatever it was, it was as Douglass that he became himself, defined himself. And not as a boatwright as he’d expected, but as an orator. Perhaps the sense of magic lay in the unexpected transformations. “You start Saul, and end up Paul,” my grandfather had often said. “When you’re a youngun, you Saul, but let life whup your head a bit and you starts to trying to be Paul — though you still Sauls around on the side.”

No, you could never tell where you were going, that was a sure thing. The only sure thing. Nor could you tell how you’d get there — though when you arrived it was somehow right. For hadn’t I started out with a speech, and hadn’t it been a speech that won my scholarship to college, where I had expected speechmaking to win me a place with Bledsoe and launch me finally as a national leader? Well, I had made a speech, and it had made me a leader, only not the kind I had expected. So that was the way it was. And no complaints, I thought, looking at the map; you started looking for red men and you found them — even though of a different tribe and in a bright new world. The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control.

Thus for one lone stretch of time I lived with the intensity displayed by those chronic numbers players who see clues to their fortune in the most minute and insignificant phenomena: in clouds, on passing trucks and subway cars, in dreams, comic strips, the shape of dog-luck fouled on the pavements. I was dominated by the all-embracing idea of Brotherhood. The organization had given the world a new shape, and me a vital role. We recognized no loose ends, everything could be controlled by our science. Life was all pattern and discipline; and the beauty of discipline is when it works. And it was working very well.

Chapter 18

Only my Bledsoe-trustee inspired compulsion to read all papers that touched my hands prevented me from throwing the envelope aside. It was unstamped and appeared to be the least important item in the morning’s mail:


This is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down. You are from the South and you know that this is a white man’s world. So take a friendly advice and go easy so that you can keep on helping the colored people. They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do. Be smart . . .

I shot to my feet, the paper rattling poisonously in my hands. What did it mean? Who’d send such a thing?

“Brother Tarp!” I called, reading again the wavery lines of a handwriting that was somehow familiar. “Brother Tarp!”

“What is it, son?”

And looking up, I received another shock. Framed there in the gray, early morning light of the door, my grandfather seemed to look from his eyes. I gave a quick gasp, then there was a silence in which I could hear his wheezing breath as he eyed me unperturbed.

“What’s wrong?” he said, limping into the room.

I reached for the envelope. “Where did this come from?” I said. “What is it?” he said, taking it calmly from my hands.

“It’s unstamped.”

“Oh, yes — I saw it myself,” he said. “I reckon somebody put it in the box late last night. I took it out with the regular mail. Is it something that wasn’t for you?”

“No,” I said, avoiding his eyes. “But — it isn’t dated. I was wondering when it arrived — Why are you staring at me?”

“Because looks to me like you seen a ghost. You feel sick?” “It’s nothing,” I said. “Just a slight upset.”

There was an awkward silence. He stood there and I forced myself to look at his eyes again, finding my grandfather gone, leaving only the searching calm. I said, “Sit down a second, Brother Tarp. Since you’re here I’d like to ask you a question.”

“Sure,” he said, dropping into a chair. “Go ‘head.”

“Brother Tarp, you get around and know the members — how do they really feel about me?”

He cocked his head. “Why, sure — they think you’re going to make a real leader –“


“Ain’t no buts, that’s what they think and I don’t mind telling you.” “But what about the others?”

“What others?”

“The ones who don’t think so much of me?” “Them’s the ones I haven’t heard about, son.”

“But I must have some enemies,” I said.

“Sure, I guess everybody has ’em, but I never heard of anybody here in the Brotherhood not liking you. As far as folks up here is concerned they think you’re it. You heard any different?”

“No, but I was wondering. I’ve been going along taking them so much for granted that I thought I’d better check so that I can keep their support.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry. So far, nearly everything you had anything to do with has turned out to be what the folks like, even things some of ’em resisted. Take that there,” he said, pointing to the wall near my desk.

It was a symbolic poster of a group of heroic figures: An American Indian couple, representing the dispossessed past; a blond brother (in overalls) and a leading Irish sister, representing the dispossessed present; and Brother Tod Clifton and a young white couple (it had been felt unwise simply to show Clifton and the girl) surrounded by a group of children of mixed races, representing the future, a color photograph of bright skin texture and smooth contrast.

“So?” I said, staring at the legend:

“After the Struggle: The Rainbow of America’s Future”

“Well, when you first suggested it, some of the members was against you.”

“That’s certainly true.”

“Sho, and they raised the devil about the youth members going into the subways and sticking ’em up in place of them constipation ads and things — but do you know what they doing now?”

“I guess they’re holding it against me because some of the kids were arrested,” I said.

“Holding it against you? Hell, they going around bragging about it. But what I was about to say is they taking them rainbow pictures and tacking ’em to their walls ‘long with ‘God Bless Our Home’ and the Lord’s Prayer. They’re crazy about it. And same way with the Hot-Footers and all that. You don’t have to worry, son. They might resist some of your ideas, but

when the deal goes down, they with you right on down to the ground. The only enemies you likely to have is somebody on the outside who’s jealous to see you spring up all of a sudden and start to doing some of the things what should of been done years ago. And what do you care when some folks start knocking you? It’s a sign you getting some place.”

“I’d like to believe so, Brother Tarp,” I said. “As long as I have the people with me I’ll believe in what I’m doing.”

“That’s right,” he said. “When things get rough it kind of helps to know you got support –” His voice broke off and he seemed to stare down at me, although he faced me at eye level acrosis the desk.

“What is it, Brother Tarp?”

“You from down South, ain’t you, son?” “Yes,” I said.

He turned in his chair, sliding one hand into his pocket as he rested his chin upon the other. “I don’t really have the words to say what just come into my head, son. You see, I was down there for a long time before I come up here, and when I did come up they was after me. What I mean is, I had to escape, I had to come a-running.”

“I guess I did too, in a way,” I said. “You mean they were after you too?”

“Not really, Brother Tarp, I just feel that way.”

“Well this ain’t exactly the same thing,” he said. “You notice this limp I got?”


“Well, I wasn’t always lame, and I’m not really now ’cause the doctors can’t find anything wrong with that leg. They say it’s sound as a piece of steel. What I mean is I got this limp from dragging a chain.”

I couldn’t see it in his face or hear it in his speech, yet I knew he was neither lying nor trying to shock me. I shook my head.

“Sure,” he said. “Nobody knows that about me, they just think I got rheumatism. But it was that chain and after nineteen years I haven’t been able to stop dragging my leg.”

“Nineteen years!”

“Nineteen years, six months and two days. And what I did wasn’t much; that is, it wasn’t much when I did it. But after all that time it changed into something else and it seemed to be as bad as they said it was. All that time made it bad. I paid for it with everything I had but my life. I lost my wife and my boys and my piece of land. So what started out as an argument between a couple of men turned out to be a crime worth nineteen years of my life.”

“What on earth did you do, Brother Tarp?”

“I said no to a man who wanted to take something from me; that’s what it cost me for saying no and even now the debt ain’t fully paid and will never be paid in their terms.”

A pain throbbed in my throat and I felt a kind of numb despair. Nineteen years! And here he was talking quietly to me and this no doubt the first time he’d tried to tell anyone about it. But why me, I thought, why pick me?

“I said no,” he said. “I said hell, no! And I kept saying no until I broke the chain and left.”

“But how?”

“They let me get close to the dogs once in a while, that’s how. I made friends with them dogs and I waited. Down there you really learn how to wait. I waited nineteen years and then one morning when the river was flooding I left. They thought I was one of them who got drowned when the levee broke, but I done broke the chain and gone. I was standing in the mud holding a long-handled shovel and I asked myself, Tarp, can you make it? And inside me I said yes; all that water and mud and rain said yes, and I took off.”

Suddenly he gave a laugh so gay it startled me.

“I’m tellin’ it better’n I ever thought I could,” he said, fishing in his pocket and removing something that looked like an oilskin tobacco pouch, from which he removed an object wrapped in a handkerchief.

“I’ve been looking for freedom ever since, son. And sometimes I’ve done all right. Up to these here hard times I did very well, considering that I’m a man whose health is not too good. But even when times were best for me I remembered. Because I didn’t want to forget those nineteen years I just kind of held on to this as a keepsake and a reminder.”

He was unwrapping the object now and I watched his old man’s hands.

“I’d like to pass it on to you, son. There,” he said, handing it to me. “Funny thing to give somebody, but I think it’s got a heap of signifying wrapped up in it and it might help you remember what we’re really fighting against. I don’t think of it in terms of but two words, yes and no; but it signifies a heap more . . .”

I saw him place his hand on the desk. “Brother,” he said, calling me “Brother” for the first time, “I want you to take it. I guess it’s a kind of luck piece. Anyway, it’s the one I filed to get away.”

I took it in my hand, a thick, dark, oily piece of filed steel that had been twisted open and forced partly back into place, on which I saw marks that might have been made by the blade of a hatchet. It was such a link as I had seen on Bledsoe’s desk, only while that one had been smooth, Tarp’s bore the marks of haste and violence, looking as though it had been attacked and conquered before it stubbornly yielded.

I looked at him and shook my head as he watched me inscrutably. Finding no words to ask him more about it, I slipped the link over my knuckles and struck it sharply against the desk.

Brother Tarp chuckled. “Now there’s a way I never thought of using it,” he said. “It’s pretty good. It’s pretty good.”

“But why do you give it to me, Brother Tarp?”

“Because I have to, I guess. Now don’t go trying to get me to say what I can’t. You’re the talker, not me,” he said, getting up and limping toward the door. “It was lucky to me and I think it might be lucky to you. You just keep it with you and look at it once in a while. Course, if you get tired of it, why, give it back.”

“Oh, no,” I called after him, “I want it and I think I understand. Thanks for giving it to me.”

I looked at the dark band of metal against my fist and dropped it upon the anonymous letter. I neither wanted it nor knew what to do with it; although there was no question of keeping it if for no other reason than that I felt that Brother Tarp’s gesture in offering it was of some deeply felt significance which I was compelled to respect. Something, perhaps, like a man passing on to his son his own father’s watch, which the son accepted not because he wanted the old-fashioned time-piece for itself, but because of the overtones of unstated seriousness and solemnity of the paternal gesture which at once joined him with his ancestors, marked a high point of his present, and promised a concreteness to his nebulous and chaotic future. And now I remembered that if I had returned home instead of coming north my father would have given me my grandfather’s old-fashioned Hamilton, with its long, burr-headed winding stem. Well, so my brother would get it and I’d never wanted it anyway. What were they doing now, I brooded, suddenly sick for home.

I could feel the air from the window hot against my neck now as through the smell of morning coffee I heard a throaty voice singing with a mixture of laughter and solemnity:

Don’t come early in the morning Neither in the heat of the day

But come in the sweet cool of the Evening and wash my sins away . . .

A whole series of memories started to well up, but I threw them off. There was no time for memory, for all its images were of times passed.

There had been only a few minutes from the time that I’d called in Brother Tarp about the letter and his leaving, but it seemed as though I’d plunged down a well of years. I looked calmly now at the writing which, for a moment, had shaken my total structure of certainty, and was glad that Brother Tarp had been there to be called rather than Clifton or some of the others before whom I would have been ashamed of my panic. Instead he’d left me soberly confident. Perhaps from the shock of seeming to see my grandfather looking through Tarp’s eyes, perhaps through the calmness of his voice alone, or perhaps through his story and his link of chain, he had restored my perspective.

He’s right, I thought; whoever sent the message is trying to confuse me; some enemy is trying to halt our progress by destroying my faith through touching upon my old southern distrust, our fear of white betrayal. It was as though he had learned of my experience with Bledsoe’s letters and was trying to use that knowledge to destroy not only me but the whole Brotherhood. Yet that was impossible; no one knew that story who knew me now. It was simply an obscene coincidence. If only I could get my hands upon his stupid

throat. Here in the Brotherhood was the one place in the country where we were free and given the greatest encouragement to use our abilities, and he was trying to destroy it! No, it wasn’t me he was worrying about becoming too big, it was the Brotherhood. And becoming big was exactly what the Brotherhood wanted. Hadn’t I just received orders to submit ideas for organizing more people? And “a white man’s world” was just what the Brotherhood was against. We were dedicated to building a world of Brotherhood.

But who had sent it — Ras the Exhorter? No, it wasn’t like him. He was more direct and absolutely against any collaboration between blacks and whites. It was someone else, someone more insidious than Ras. But who, I wondered, forcing it below my consciousness as I turned to the tasks at hand.

The morning began with people asking my advice on how to secure relief; members coming in for instructions for small committee meetings being held in corners of the large hall; and I had just dismissed a woman seeking to free her husband, who had been jailed for beating her, when Brother Wrestrum entered the room. I returned his greeting and watched him ease into a chair, his eyes sweeping over my desk-with uneasiness. He seemed to possess some kind of authority in the Brotherhood, but his exact function was unclear. He was, I felt, something of a meddler.

And hardly had he settled himself when he stared at my desk, saying, “What you got there, Brother?” and pointed toward a pile of my papers.

I leaned slowly back in my chair, looking him in the eye. “That’s my work,” I said coldly, determined to stop any interference from the start.

“But I mean that,” he said, pointing, his eyes beginning to blaze, “that there.”

“It’s work,” I said, “all my work.”

“Is that too?” he said, pointing to Brother Tarp’s leg link.

“That’s just a personal present, Brother,” I said. “What could I do for you?”

“That ain’t what I asked you, Brother. What is it?”

I picked up the link and held it toward him, the metal oily and strangely skinlike now with the slanting sun entering the window. “Would you care to examine it, Brother? One of our members wore it nineteen years on the chain gang.”

“Hell, no!” He recoiled. “I mean, no, thank you. In fact, Brother, I don’t think we ought to have such things around!”

“You think so,” I said. “And just why?”

“Because I don’t think we ought to dramatize our differences.”

“I’m not dramatizing anything, it’s my personal property that happens to be lying on my desk.”

“But people can see it!”

“That’s true,” I said. “But I think it’s a good reminder of what our movement is fighting against.”

“No, suh!” he said, shaking his head, “no, suh! That’s the worse kind of thing for Brotherhood — because we want to make folks think of the things we have in common. That’s what makes for Brotherhood. We have to change this way we have of always talking about how different we are. In the Brotherhood we are all brothers.”

I was amused. He was obviously disturbed by something deeper than a need to forget differences. Fear was in his eyes. “I never thought of it in just that way, Brother,” I said, dangling the iron between my finger and thumb.

“But you want to think about it,” he said. “We have to discipline ourselves. Things that don’t make for Brotherhood have to be rooted out. We have enemies, you know. I watch everything I do and say so as to be sure that I don’t upset the Brotherhood — ’cause this is a wonderful movement, Brother, and we have to keep it that way. We have to watch ourselves, Brother. You know what I mean? Too often we’re liable to forget that this is something that’s a privilege to belong to. We’re liable to say things that don’t do nothing but make for more misunderstanding.”

What’s driving him, I thought, what’s all this to do with me? Could he have sent me the note? Dropping the iron I fished the anonymous note from beneath the pile and held it by a corner, so that the slanting sun shone through the page and outlined the scrawling letters. I watched him intently. He was leaning upon the desk now, looking at the page but with no recognition in his eyes. I dropped the page upon the chain, more disappointed than relieved.

“Between you and me, Brother,” he said, “there are those amongst us

who don’t really believe in Brotherhood.” “Oh?”

“You damn right they don’t! They’re just in it to use it for their own ends. Some call you Brother to your face and the minute you turn your back, you’re a black son of a bitch! You got to watch ’em.”

“I haven’t encountered any of that, Brother,” I said.

“You will. There’s lots of poison around. Some don’t want to shake your hand and some don’t like the idea of seeing too much of you; but goddam it, in the Brotherhood they gotta!”

I looked at him. It had never occurred to me that the Brotherhood could force anyone to shake my hand, and that he found satisfaction that it could was both shocking and distasteful.

Suddenly he laughed. “Yes, dammit, they gotta! Me, I don’t let ’em get away with nothing. If they going to be brothers let ’em be brothers! Oh, but I’m fair,” he said, his face suddenly self-righteous. “I’m fair. I ask myself every day, ‘What are you doing against Brotherhood?’ and when I find it, I root it out, I burn it out like a man cauterizing a mad-dog bite. This business of being a brother is a full-time job. You have to be pure in heart, and you have to be disciplined in body and mind. Brother, you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, I think I do,” I said. “Some folks feel that way about their religion.”

“Religion?” He blinked his eyes. “Folks like me and you is full of distrust,” he said. “We been corrupted ’til it’s hard for some of us to believe in Brotherhood. And some even want revenge! That’s what I’m talking about. We have to root it out! We have to learn to trust our other brothers. After all, didn’t they start the Brotherhood? Didn’t they come and stretch out their hand to us black men and say, ‘We want y’all for our brothers?’ Didn’t they do it? Didn’t they, now? Didn’t they set out to organize us, and help fight our battle and all like that? Sho they did, and we have to remember it twenty-four hours a day. Brotherhood. That’s the word we got to keep right in front of our eyes every second. Now this brings me to why I come to see you, Brother.”

He sat back, his huge hands grasping his knees. “I got a plan I want to talk over with you.”

“What is it, Brother?” I said.

“Well, it’s like this. I think we ought to have some way of showing what we are. We ought to have some banners and things like that. Specially for us black brothers.”

“I see,” I said, becoming interested. “But why do you think this is important?”

” ‘Cause it helps the Brotherhood, that’s why. First, if you remember, when you watch our people when there’s a parade or a funeral, or a dance or anything like that, they always have some kind of flags and banners even if they don’t mean anything. It kind of makes the occasion seem more important like. It makes people stop look and listen. ‘What’s coming off here?’ But you know and I know that they ain’t none of ’em got no true flag –except maybe Ras the Exhorter, and he claims he’s Ethiopian or African. But none of us got no true flag ’cause that flag don’t really belong to us. They want a true flag, one that’s as much theirs as anybody else’s. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, I think I do,” I said, remembering that there was always that sense in me of being apart when the flag went by. It had been a reminder, until I’d found the Brotherhood, that my star was not yet there . . .

“Sure, you know,” Brother Wrestrum said. “Everybody wants a flag. We need a flag that stands for Brotherhood, and we need a sign we can wear.”

“A sign?”

“You know, a pin or a button.” “You mean an emblem?”

“That’s it! Something we can wear, a pin or something like that. So that when a Brother meets a Brother they can know it. That way that thing what happened to Brother Tod Clifton wouldn’t have happened . . .”

“What wouldn’t have happened?”

He sat back. “Don’t you know about it?” “I don’t know what you mean.”

“It’s something that’s best forgot about,” he said, leaning close, his big hands gripped and stretched before him. “But you see, there was a rally and some hoodlums tried to break up the meeting, and in the fighting Brother Tod Clifton got holt to one of the white brothers by mistake and was beating him, thought he was one of the hoodlums, he said. Things like that is bad, Brother, very bad. But with some of these emblems, things like that wouldn’t happen.”

“So that actually happened,” I said.

“Sure did. That Brother Clifton goes wild when he gits mad . . . But what do you think of my idea?”

“I think it should be brought to the attention of the committee,” I said guardedly, as the phone rang. “Excuse me a moment, Brother,” I said.

It was the editor of a new picture magazine requesting an interview of “one of our most successful young men.”

“That’s very flattering,” I said, “but I’m afraid I’m too busy for an interview. I suggest, however, that you interview our youth leader, Brother Tod Clifton; you’ll find him a much more interesting subject.”

“No, no!” Wrestrum said, shaking his head violently as the editor said, “But we want you. You’ve –“

“And you know,” I interrupted, “our work is considered very controversial, certainly by some.”

“That’s exactly why we want you. You’ve become identified with that controversy and it’s our job to bring such subjects to the eyes of our readers.”

“But so has Brother Clifton,” I said.

“No, sir; you’re the man and you owe it to our youth to allow us to tell them your story,” he said, as I watched Brother Wrestrum leaning forward. “We feel that they should be encouraged to keep fighting toward success. After all, you’re one of the latest to fight his way to the top. We need all the heroes we can get.”

“But, please,” I laughed over the phone, “I’m no hero and I’m far from the top; I’m a cog in a machine. We here in the Brotherhood work as a unit,” I said, seeing Brother Wrestrum nod his head in agreement.

“But you can’t get around the fact that you’re the first of our people to attract attention to it, can you now?”

“Brother Clifton was active at least three years before me. Besides, it isn’t that simple. Individuals don’t count for much; it’s what the group wants, what the group does. Everyone here submerges his personal ambitions for the common achievement.”

“Good! That’s very good. People want to hear that. Our people need to have someone say that to them. Why don’t you let me send out an interviewer? I’ll have her there in twenty minutes.”

“You’re very insistent, but I’m very busy,” I said.

And if Brother Wrestrum hadn’t been wig-wagging, trying to tell me what to say I would have refused. Instead, I consented. Perhaps, I thought, a little friendly publicity wouldn’t hurt. Such a magazine would reach many timid souls living far from the sound of our voices. I had only to remember to say little about my past.

“I’m sorry for this interruption, Brother,” I said, putting down the phone and looking into his curious eyes. “I’ll bring your idea to the attention of the committee as quickly as possible.”

I stood to discourage further talk and he got up, fairly bursting to continue.

“Well, I’ve got to see some other brothers myself,” he said, “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

“Anytime,” I said, avoiding his hand by picking up some papers. Going out, he turned with his hand on the door frame, frowning.

“And, Brother, don’t forget what I said about that thing you got on your desk. Things like that don’t do nothin’ but cause confusion. They ought to be kept out of sight.”

I was glad to see him go. The idea of his trying to tell me what to say in a conversation only part of which he could have heard! And it was obvious that he disliked Clifton. Well, I disliked him. And all that foolishness and fear over the leg chain. Tarp had worn it for nineteen years and could laugh, but this big —

Then I forgot Brother Wrestrum until about two weeks later at our downtown headquarters, where a meeting had been called to discuss strategy.

EVERYONE had arrived before me. Long benches were arranged at one side of the room, which was hot and filled with smoke. Usually such meetings sounded like a prizefight or a smoker, but now everyone was silent. The white brothers looked uncomfortable and some of the Harlem brothers belligerent. Nor did they leave me time to think about it. No sooner had I apologized for my lateness than Brother Jack struck the table with his gavel, addressing his first remarks to me.

“Brother, there seems to be a serious misunderstanding among some of the brothers concerning your work and recent conduct,” he said.

I stared at him blankly, my mind groping for connections. “I’m sorry, Brother Jack,” I said, “but I don’t understand. You mean there’s something wrong with my work?”

“So it seems,” he said, his face completely neutral. “Certain charges have just been made . . .”

“Charges? Have I failed to carry out some directive?”

“About that there seems to be some doubt. But we’d better let Brother Wrestrum speak of this,” he said.

“Brother Wrestrum!”

I was shocked. He hadn’t been around since our talk, and I looked across the table into his evasive face, seeing him stand with a slouch, a rolled paper protruding from his pocket.

“Yes, Brothers,” he said, “I brought charges, much as I hated to have to do it. But I been watching the way things have been going and I’ve decided that if they don’t stop soon, this brother is going to make a fool out of the Brotherhood!”

There were some sounds of protest.

“Yes, I said it and I mean it! This here brother constitutes one of the greatest dangers ever confronted by our movement.”

I looked at Brother Jack; his eyes were sparkling. I seemed to see traces of a smile as he scribbled something on a pad. I was becoming very hot.

“Be more specific, Brother,” Brother Garnett, a white brother, said. “These are serious charges and we all know that the brother’s work has been splendid. Be specific.”

“Sho, I’ll be specific,” Wrestrum boomed, suddenly whipping the paper from his pocket, unrolling it and throwing it on the table. “This here’s what I mean!”

I took a step forward; it was a portrait of me looking out from a magazine page.

“Where did that come from?” I said.

“That’s it,” he boomed. “Make out like you never seen it.” “But I haven’t,” I said. “I really haven’t.”

“Don’t lie to these white brothers. Don’t lie!”

“I’m not lying. I never saw it before in my life. But suppose I had, what’s wrong with it?”

“You know what’s wrong!” Wrestrum said.

“Look, I don’t know anything. What’s on your mind? You have us all here, so if you have anything to say, please get it over with.”

“Brothers, this man is a — a — opportunist! All you got to do is read this article to see. I charge this man with using the Brotherhood movement to advance his own selfish interests.”

“Article?” Then I remembered the interview which I had forgotten. I met the eyes of the others as they looked from me to Wrestrum.

“And what does it say about us?” Brother Jack said, pointing to the magazine.

“Say?” Wrestrum said. “It doesn’t say anything. It’s all about him. What he thinks, what he does; what he’s going to do. Not a word about the rest of us who’s been building the movement before he was ever heard of. Look at it, if you think I’m lying. Look at it!”

Brother Jack turned to me. “Is this true?”

“I haven’t read it,” I said. “I had forgotten that I was interviewed.” “But you remember it now?” Brother Jack said.

“Yes, I do now. And he happened to be in the office when the appointment was made.”

They were silent.

“Hell, Brother Jack,” Wrestrum said, “it’s right here in black and white. He’s trying to give people the idea that he’s the whole Brotherhood movement.”

“I’m doing nothing of the sort. I tried to get the editor to interview Brother Tod Clifton, you know that. Since you know so little about what I’m doing, why not tell the brothers what you’re up to.”

“I’m exposing a double-dealer, that’s what I’m doing. I’m exposing you. Brothers, this man is a pure dee opportunist!”

“All right,” I said, “expose me if you can, but stop the slander.”

“I’ll expose you, all right,” he said, sticking out his chin. “I’m going to. He’s doing everything I said, Brothers. And I’ll tell you something else –he’s trying to sew things up so that the members won’t move unless he tells them to. Look at a few weeks ago when he was off in Philly. We tried to get a rally going and what happens? Only about two hundred people turned out. He’s trying to train them so they won’t listen to no one but him.”

“But, Brother, didn’t we decide that the appeal had been improperly phrased?” a brother interrupted.

“Yeah, I know, but that wasn’t it . . .”

“But the committee analyzed the appeal and –“

“I know, Brothers, and I don’t aim to dispute the committee. But, Brothers, it just seems that way ’cause you don’t know this man. He works in the dark, he’s got some kind of plot . . .”

“What kind of plot?” one of the brothers said, leaning across the table.

“Just a plot,” Wrestrum said. “He aims to control the movement uptown. He wants to be a dictator!”

The room was silent except for the humming of fans. They looked at him with a new concern.

“These are very serious charges, Brother,” two brothers said in unison.

“Serious? I know they’re serious. That’s how come I brought them. This opportunist thinks that because he’s got a little more education he’s better than anybody else. He’s what Brother Jack calls a petty — petty individualist!”

He struck the conference table with his fist, his eyes showing small and round in his taut face. I wanted to punch that face. It no longer seemed real, but a mask behind which the real face was probably laughing, both at me and at the others. For he couldn’t believe what he had said. It just wasn’t possible. He was the plotter and from the serious looks on the committee’s faces he was getting away with it. Now several brothers started to speak at once, and Brother Jack knocked for order.

“Brothers, please!” Brother Jack said. “One at a time. What do you know about this article?” he said to me.

“Not very much,” I said. “The editor of the magazine called to say he was sending a reporter up for an interview. The reporter asked a few questions and took a few pictures with a little camera. That’s all I know.” “Did you give the reporter a prepared handout?”

“I gave her nothing except a few pieces of our official literature. I told her neither what to ask me nor what to write. I naturally tried to co-operate. If an article about me would help make friends for the movement I felt it was my duty.”

“Brothers, this thing was arranged,” Wrestrum said. “I tell you this opportunist had that reporter sent up there. He had her sent up and he told her what to write.”

“That’s a contemptible lie,” I said. “You were present and you know I tried to get them to interview Brother Clifton!”

“Who’s a lie?”

“You’re a liar and a fat-mouthed scoundrel. You’re a liar and no brother of mine.”

“Now he’s calling me names. Brothers, you heard him.”

“Let’s not lose our tempers,” Brother Jack said calmly. “Brother Wrestrum, you’ve made serious charges. Can you prove them?”

“I can prove them. All you have to do is read the magazine and prove them for yourself;”

“It will be read. And what else?”

“All you have to do is listen to folks in Harlem. All they talk about is him. Never nothing about what the rest of us do. I tell you, Brothers, this man constitutes a danger to the people of Harlem. He ought to be thrown out!”

“That is for the committee to decide,” Brother Jack said. Then to me, “And what have you to say in your defense, Brother?”

“In my defense?” I said, “Nothing. I haven’t anything to defend. I’ve tried to do my work and if the brothers don’t know that, then it’s too late to tell them. I don’t know what’s behind this, but I haven’t gotten around to controlling magazine writers. And I didn’t realize that I was coming to stand trial either.”

“This was not intended as a trial,” Brother Jack said. “If you’re ever put on trial, and I hope you’ll never be, you’ll know it. Meantime, since this is an emergency the committee asks that you leave the room while we read and discuss the questioned interview.”

I left the room and went into a vacant office, boiling with anger and disgust. Wrestrum had snatched me back to the South in the midst of one of the top Brotherhood committees and I felt naked. I could have throttled him — forcing me to take part in a childish dispute before the others. Yet I had to fight him as I could, in terms he understood, even though we sounded like characters in a razor-slinging vaudeville skit. Perhaps I should mention the anonymous note, except that someone might take it to mean that I didn’t have the full support of my district. If Clifton were here, he’d know how to handle this clown. Were they taking him seriously just because he was black? What was wrong with them anyway, couldn’t they see that they were dealing with a clown? But I would have gone to pieces had they laughed or even smiled, I thought, for they couldn’t laugh at him without laughing at me as well . . . Yet if they had laughed, it would have been less unreal — Where the hell am I?

“You can come in now,” a brother called to me; and I went out to hear their decision.

“Well,” Brother Jack said, “we’ve all read the article, Brother, and we’re happy to report that we found it harmless enough. True, it would have been better had more wordage been given to other members of the Harlem district. But we found no evidence that you had anything to do with that. Brother Wrestrum was mistaken.”

His bland manner and the knowledge that they had wasted time to see the truth released the anger within me.

“I’d say that he was criminally mistaken,” I said. “Not criminal, over-zealous,” he said.

“To me it seems both criminal and over-zealous,” I said. “No, Brother, not criminal.”

“But he attacked my reputation . . .”

Brother Jack smiled. “Only because he was sincere, Brother. He was thinking of the good of the Brotherhood.”

“But why slander me? I don’t follow you, Brother Jack. I’m no enemy, as he well knows. I’m a brother too,” I said, seeing his smile.

“The Brotherhood has many enemies, and we must not be too harsh with brotherly mistakes.”

Then I saw the foolish, abashed expression on Wrestrum’s face and relaxed.

“Very well, Brother Jack,” I said. “I suppose I should be glad you found me innocent –“

“Concerning the magazine article,” he said, stabbing the air with his finger.

Something tensed in the back of my head; I got to my feet. “Concerning the article! You mean to say that you believe that other

pipe-dream? Is everyone reading Dick Tracy these days?”

“This is no matter of Dick Tracy,” he snapped. “The movement has many enemies.”

“So now I have become an enemy,” I said. “What’s happened to everybody? You act as though none of you has any contact with me at all.”

Jack looked at the table. “Are you interested in our decision, Brother?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Yes, I am. I’m interested in all manner of odd behavior. Who wouldn’t be, when one wild man can make a roomful of what I’d come to regard as some of the best minds in the country take him seriously. Certainly, I’m interested. Otherwise I’d act like a sensible man and run out of here!”

There were sounds of protest and Brother Jack, his face red, rapped for order.

“Perhaps I should address a few words to the brother,” Brother MacAfee said.

“Go ahead,” Brother Jack said thickly.

“Brother, we understand how you feel,” Brother MacAfee said, “but you must understand that the movement has many enemies. This is very true, and we are forced to think of the organization at the expense of our personal feelings. The Brotherhood is bigger than all of us. None of us as individuals count when its safety is questioned. And be assured that none of us have anything but goodwill toward you personally. Your work has been splendid. This is simply a matter of the safety of the organization, and it is our responsibility to make a thorough investigation of all such charges.”

I felt suddenly empty; there was a logic in what he said which I felt compelled to accept. They were wrong, but they had the obligation to discover their mistake. Let them go ahead, they’d find that none of the charges were true and I’d be vindicated. What was all this obsession with enemies anyway? I looked into their smoke-washed faces; not since the beginning had I faced such serious doubts. Up to now I had felt a wholeness about my work and direction such as I’d never known; not even in my mistaken college days. Brotherhood was something to which men could give themselves completely; that was its strength and my strength, and it was this sense of wholeness that guaranteed that it would change the course of history. This I had believed with all my being, but now, though still inwardly affirming that belief, I felt a blighting hurt which prevented me from trying further to defend myself. I stood there silently, waiting their decision. Someone drummed his fingers against the table top. I heard the dry-leaf rustle of onionskin papers.

“Be assured that you can depend upon the fairness and wisdom of the committee,” Brother Tobitt’s voice drifted from the end of the table, but there was smoke between us and I could barely see his face.

“The committee has decided,” Brother Jack began crisply, “that until all charges have been cleared, you are to have the choice of becoming inactive in Harlem, or accepting an assignment downtown. In the latter case you are to wind up your present assignment immediately.”

I felt weak in my legs. “You mean I am to give up my work?” “Unless you choose to serve the movement elsewhere.”

“But can’t you see –” I said, looking from face to face and seeing the blank finality in their eyes.

“Your assignment, should you decide to remain active,” Brother Jack said, reaching for his gavel, “is to lecture downtown on the Woman Question.”

Suddenly I felt as though I had been spun like a top. “The what!”

“The Woman Question. My pamphlet, ‘On the Woman Question in the United States,’ will be your guide. And now, Brothers,” he said, his eyes sweeping around the table, “the meeting is adjourned.”

I stood there, hearing the rapping of his gavel echoing in my ears, thinking the woman question and searching their faces for signs of amusement, listening to their voices as they filed out into the hall for the slightest sound of suppressed laughter, stood there fighting the sense that I

had just been made the butt of an outrageous joke and all the more so since their faces revealed no awareness.

My mind fought desperately for acceptance. Nothing would change matters. They would shift me and investigate and I, still believing, still bending to discipline, would have to accept their decision. Now was certainly no time for inactivity; not just when I was beginning to approach some of the aspects of the organization about which I knew nothing (of higher committees and the leaders who never appeared, of the sympathizers and allies in groups that seemed far removed from our concerns), not at a time when all the secrets of power and authority still shrouded from me in mystery appeared on the way toward revelation. No, despite my anger and disgust, my ambitions were too great to surrender so easily. And why should I restrict myself, segregate myself? I was a spokesman — why shouldn’t I speak about women, or any other subject? Nothing lay outside the scheme of our ideology, there was a policy on everything, and my main concern was to work my way ahead in the movement.

I left the building still feeling as though I had been violently spun but with optimism growing. Being removed from Harlem was a shock but one which would hurt them as much as me, for I had learned that the clue to what Harlem wanted was what I wanted; and my value to the Brotherhood was no different from the value to me of my most useful contact: it depended upon my complete frankness and honesty in stating the community’s hopes and hates, fears and desires. One spoke to the committee as well as to the community. No doubt it would work much the same downtown. The new assignment was a challenge and an opportunity for testing how much of what happened in Harlem was due to my own efforts and how much to the sheer eagerness of the people themselves. And, after all, I told myself, the assignment was also proof of the committee’s goodwill. For by selecting me to speak with its authority on a subject which elsewhere in our society I’d have found taboo, weren’t they reaffirming their belief both in me and in the principles of Brotherhood, proving that they drew no lines even when it came to women? They had to investigate the charges against me, but the assignment was their unsentimental affirmation that their belief in me was unbroken. I shivered in the hot street. I hadn’t allowed the idea to take concrete form in my mind, but for a moment I had almost allowed an old, southern backwardness which I had thought dead to wreck my career. Leaving Harlem was not without its regrets, however, and I couldn’t bring myself to say good-bye to anyone, not even to Brother Tarp or Clifton — not to mention the others upon whom I depended for information concerning the lowest groups in the community. I simply slipped my papers into my brief case and left as though going downtown for a meeting.

Chapter 19

I went to my first lecture with a sense of excitement. The theme was a sure-fire guarantee of audience interest and the rest was up to me. If only I were a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, I could simply stand before them with a sign across my chest, stating i KNOW ALL ABOUT THEM, and they’d be as awed as though I were the original boogey man –somehow reformed and domesticated. I’d no more have to speak than Paul Robeson had to act; they’d simply thrill at the sight of me.

And it went well enough; they made it a success through their own enthusiasm, and the barrage of questions afterwards left no doubts in my mind. It was only after the meeting was breaking up that there came the developments which even my volatile suspicions hadn’t allowed me to foresee. I was exchanging greetings with the audience when she appeared, the kind of woman who glows as though consciously acting a symbolic role of life and feminine fertility. Her problem, she said, had to do with certain aspects of our ideology.

“It’s rather involved, really,” she said with concern, “and while I shouldn’t care to take up your time, I have a feeling that you –“

“Oh, not at all,” I said, guiding her away from the others to stand near a partly uncoiled firehose hanging beside the entrance, “not at all.”

“But, Brother,” she said, “it’s really so late and you must be tired. My problem could wait until some other time . . .”

“I’m not that tired,” I said. “And if there’s something bothering you, it’s my duty to do what I can to clear it up.”

“But it’s quite late,” she said. “Perhaps some evening when you’re not busy you’ll drop in to see us. Then we could talk at greater length. Unless, of course. . .”


“Unless,” she smiled, “I can induce you to stop by this evening. I might add that I serve a fair cup of coffee.”

“Then I’m at your service,” I said, pushing open the door.

Her apartment was located in one of the better sections of the city, and I must have revealed my surprise upon entering the spacious living room.

“You can see, Brother” — the glow she gave the word was disturbing — “it is really the spiritual values of Brotherhood that interest me. Through no effort of my own, I have economic security and leisure, but what is that, really, when so much is wrong with the world? I mean when there is no spiritual or emotional security, and no justice?”

She was slipping out of her coat now, looking earnestly into my face, and I thought, Is she a Salvationist, a Puritan-with-reverse-English? –remembering Brother Jack’s private description of wealthy members who, he said, sought political salvation by contributing financially to the Brotherhood. She was going a little fast for me and I looked at her gravely.

“I can see that you’ve thought deeply about this thing,” I said.

“I’ve tried,” she said, “and it’s most perplexing — But make yourself comfortable while I put away my things.”

She was a small, delicately plump woman with raven hair in which a thin streak of white had begun almost imperceptibly to show, and when she reappeared in the rich red of a hostess gown she was so striking that I had to avert my somewhat startled eyes.

“What a beautiful room you have here,” I said, looking across the rich cherry glow of furniture to see a life-sized painting of a nude, a pink Renoir. Other canvases were hung here and there, and the spacious walls seemed to flash alive with warm, pure color. What does one say to all this? I thought, looking at an abstract fish of polished brass mounted on a piece of ebony.

“I’m glad you find it pleasant, Brother,” she said. “We like it ourselves, though I must say that Hubert finds so little time to enjoy it. He’s

much too busy.” “Hubert?” I said.

“My husband. Unfortunately he had to leave. He would have loved to’ve met you, but then he’s always dashing off. Business, you know.”

“I suppose it’s unavoidable,” I said with sudden discomfort.

“Yes, it is,” she said. “But we’re going to discuss Brotherhood and ideology, aren’t we?”

And there was something about her voice and her smile that gave me a sense of both comfort and excitement. It was not merely the background of wealth and gracious living, to which I was alien, but simply the being there with her and the sensed possibility of a heightened communication; as though the discordantly invisible and the conspicuously enigmatic were reaching a delicately balanced harmony. She’s rich but human, I thought, watching the smooth play of her relaxed hands.

“There are so many aspects to the movement,” I said. “Just where shall we start? Perhaps it’s something that I’m unable to handle.”

“Oh, it’s nothing that profound,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll straighten out my little ideological twists and turns. But sit here on the sofa, Brother; it’s more comfortable.”

I sat, seeing her go toward a door, the train of her gown trailing sensuously over the oriental carpet. Then she turned and smiled.

“Perhaps you’d prefer wine or milk instead of coffee?”

“Wine, thank you,” I said, finding the idea of milk strangely repulsive. This isn’t at all what I expected, I thought. She returned with a tray holding two glasses and a decanter, placing them before us on a low cocktail table, and I could hear the wine trickle musically into the glasses, one of which she placed in front of me.

“Here’s to the movement,” she said, raising her glass with smiling eyes.

“To the movement,” I said. “And to Brotherhood.” “And to Brotherhood.”

“This is very nice,” I said, seeing her nearly closed eyes, her chin tilting upward, toward me, “but just what phase of our ideology should we discuss?”

“All of it,” she said. “I wish to embrace the whole of it. Life is so terribly empty and disorganized without it. I sincerely believe that only Brotherhood offers any hope of making life worth living again — Oh, I know that it’s too vast a philosophy to grasp immediately, as it were; still, it’s so vital and alive that one gets the feeling that one should at least make the try. Don’t you agree?”

“Well, yes,” I said. “It’s the most meaningful thing that I know.”

“Oh, I’m so pleased to have you agree with me. I suppose that’s why I always thrill to hear you speak, somehow you convey the great throbbing vitality of the movement. It’s really amazing. You give me such a feeling of security — although,” she interrupted herself with a mysterious smile, “I must confess that you also make me afraid.”

“Afraid? You can’t mean that,” I said.

“Really,” she repeated, as I laughed. “It’s so powerful, so — so primitive!”

I felt some of the air escape from the room, leaving it unnaturally quiet. “You don’t mean primitive?” I said.

“Yes, primitive; no one has told you, Brother, that at times you have tom-toms beating in your voice?”

“My God,” I laughed, “I thought that was the beat of profound ideas.”

“Of course, you’re correct,” she said. “I don’t mean really primitive. I suppose I mean forceful, powerful. It takes hold of one’s emotions as well as one’s intellect. Call it what you will, it has so much naked power that it goes straight through one. I tremble just to think of such vitality.”

I looked at her, so close now that I could see a single jet-black strand of out-of-place hair. “Yes,” I said, “the emotion is there; but it’s actually our scientific approach that releases it. As Brother Jack says, we’re nothing if not organizers. And the emotion isn’t merely released, it’s guided, channelized — that is the real source of our effectiveness. After all, this very good wine can please emotion, but I doubt seriously that it can organize anything.”

She leaned gracefully forward, her arm along the back of the sofa, saying, “Yes, and you do both in your speeches. One just has to respond, even when one isn’t too clear as to your meaning. Only I do know what you’re saying and that’s even more inspiring.”

“Actually, you know, I’m as much affected by the audience as it is by me. Its response helps me do my best.”

“And there’s another important aspect,” she said; “one which concerns me greatly. It provides women the full opportunity for self-expression, which is so very important, Brother. It’s as though every day were Leap Year –which is as it should be. Women should be absolutely as free as men.”

And if I were really free, I thought, lifting my glass, I’d get the hell out of here.

“I thought you were exceptionally good tonight — it’s time the woman had a champion in the movement. Until tonight I’d always heard you on minority problems.”

“This is a new assignment,” I said. “But from now on one of our main concerns is to be the Woman Question.”

“That’s wonderful and it’s about time. Something has to give women an opportunity to come to close grips with life. Please go on, tell me your ideas,” she said, pressing forward, her hand light upon my arm.

And I went on talking, relieved to talk, carried away by my own enthusiasm and by the warmth of the wine. And it was only when I turned to ask a question of her that I realized that she was leaning only a nose-tip away, her eyes upon my face.

“Go on, please go on,” I heard. “You make it sound so clear –please.”

I saw the rapid, moth-wing fluttering of her lids become the softness of her lips as we were drawn together. There was not an idea or concept in it but sheer warmth; then the bell was ringing and I shook it off and got to my feet, hearing it ring again as she arose with me, the red robe falling in heavy folds upon the carpet, and she saying, “You make it all so wonderfully alive,” as the bell sounded again. And I was trying to move, to get out of the apartment, looking for my hat and filling with anger, thinking, Is she crazy? Doesn’t she hear? as she stood before me in bewilderment, as though I were acting irrationally. And now taking my arm with sudden energy, saying, “This way, in here,” almost pulling me along as the bell rang again, through a door down a short hall, a satiny bedroom, in which she stood appraising me with a smile, saying, “This is mine,” as I looked at her in outrageous disbelief.

“Yours, yours? But what about that bell?” “Never mind,” she cooed, looking into my eyes.

“But be reasonable,” I said, pushing her aside. “What about that door?”

“Oh, of course, you mean the telephone, don’t you, darling?” “But your old man — your husband?”

“In Chicago –“

“But he might not –“

“No, no, darling, he won’t –” “But he might!”

“But, Brother, darling, I talked with him, I know.” “You what? What kind of game is this?”

“Oh, you poor darling! It isn’t a game, really you have no cause to worry, we’re free. He’s in Chicago, seeking his lost youth, no doubt,” she said, bursting into laughter of self-surprise. “He’s not at all interested in uplifting things — freedom and necessity, woman’s rights and all that. You know, the sickness of our class — Brother, darling.”

I took a step across the room; there was another door to my left through which I saw the gleam of chromium and tile.

“Brotherhood, darling,” she said, gripping my biceps with her little hands. “Teach me, talk to me. Teach me the beautiful ideology of Brotherhood.” And I wanted both to smash her and to stay with her and knew that I should do neither. Was she trying to ruin me, or was this a trap set by some secret enemy of the movement waiting outside the door with cameras and wrecking bars?

“You should answer the phone,” I said with forced calm, trying to release my hands without touching her, for if I touched her —

“And you’ll continue?” she said.

I nodded, seeing her turn without a word and go toward a vanity with a large oval mirror, taking up an ivory telephone. And in the mirrored instant I saw myself standing between her eager form and a huge white bed, myself caught in a guilty stance, my face taut, tie dangling; and behind the bed another mirror which now like a surge of the sea tossed our images back and forth, back and forth, furiously multiplying the time and the place and the circumstance. My vision seemed to pulse alternately clear and vague, driven by a furious bellows, as her lips said soundlessly, I’m sorry, and then impatiently into the telephone, “Yes, this is she,” and then to me again, smiling as she covered the mouthpiece with her hand, “It’s only my sister; it’ll only take a second.” And my mind whirled with forgotten stories of male servants summoned to wash the mistress’s back; chauffeurs sharing the masters’ wives; Pullman porters invited into the drawing room of rich wives headed for Reno — thinking, But this is the movement, the Brotherhood. And now I saw her smile, saying, “Yes, Gwen, dear. Yes,” as one free hand went up as though to smooth her hair and in one swift motion the red robe swept aside like a veil, and I went breathless, at the petite and generously curved nude, framed delicate and firm in the glass. It was like a dream interval and in an instant it swung back and I saw only her mysteriously smiling eyes above the rich red robe.

I was heading for the door, torn between anger and a fierce excitement, hearing the phone click down as I started past and feeling her swirl against me and I was lost, for the conflict between the ideological and the biological, duty and desire, had become too subtly confused. I went to her, thinking, Let them break down the door, whosoever will, let them come.

I didn’t know whether I was awake or dreaming. It was dead quiet, yet I was certain that there had been a noise and that it had come from across the room as she beside me made a soft sighing sound. It was strange. My mind revolved. I was chased out of a chinkapin woods by a bull. I ran up a hill; the whole hill heaved. I heard the sound and looked up to see the man looking straight at me from where he stood in the dim light of the hall, looking in with neither interest nor surprise. His face expressionless, his eyes staring. There was the sound of even breathing. Then I heard her stir beside me.

“Oh, hello, dear,” she said, her voice sounding far away. “Back so soon?”

“Yes,” he said. “Wake me early, I have a lot to do.”

“I’ll remember, dear,” she said sleepily. “Have a good night’s rest . . .”

“Night, and you too,” he said with a short dry laugh.

The door closed. I lay there in the dark for a while, breathing rapidly. It was strange. I reached out and touched her. There was no answer. I leaned over her, feeling her breath breezing warm and pure against my face. I wanted to linger there, experiencing the sensation of something precious perilously attained too late and now to be lost forever — a poignancy. But it was as though she’d never been awake and if she should awaken now, she’d scream, shriek. I slid hurriedly from the bed, keeping my eye on that part of the darkness from where the light had come as I tried to find my clothes. I blundered around, finding a chair, an empty chair. Where were my clothes? What a fool! Why had I gotten myself into such a situation? I felt my way naked through darkness, found the chair with my clothes, dressed hurriedly and slipped out, halting only at the door to look back through the dim light from the hall. She slept without sigh or smile, a beautiful dreamer, one ivory arm flung above her jet-black head. My heart pounded as I closed the door and went down the hall, expecting the man, men, crowds — to halt me. Then I was taking the stairs.

The building was quiet. In the lobby the doorman dozed, his starched bib buckling beneath his chin with his breathing, his white head bare. I reached the street limp with perspiration, still unsure whether I had seen the man or had dreamed him. Could I have seen him without his seeing me? Or again, had he seen me and been silent out of sophistication, decadence, over-civilization? I hurried down the street, my anxiety growing with each step. Why hadn’t he said something, recognized me, cursed me? Attacked me? Or at least been outraged with her? And what if it were a test to discover how I would react to such pressure? It was, after all, a point upon which our enemies would attack us violently. I walked in a sweat of agony. Why did they have to mix their women into everything? Between us and everything we wanted to change in the world they placed a woman: socially, politically, economically. Why, goddamit, why did they insist upon confusing the class struggle with the ass struggle, debasing both us and them — all human motives?

All the next day I was in a state of exhaustion, waiting tensely for the plan to be revealed. Now I was certain that the man had been in the doorway, a man with a brief case who had looked in and given no definite sign that he had seen me. A man who had spoken like an indifferent husband, but who yet seemed to recall to me some important member of the Brotherhood — someone so familiar that my failure to identify him was driving me almost to distraction. My work lay untouched before me. Each ring of the telephone filled me with dread. I toyed with Tarp’s leg chain.

If they don’t call by four o’clock, I’m saved, I told myself. But still no sign, not even a call to a meeting. Finally I rang her number, hearing her voice, delighted, gay and discreet; but no mention of the night or the man. And hearing her so composed and gay I was too embarrassed to bring it up. Perhaps this was the sophisticated and civilized way? Perhaps he was there and they had an understanding, a woman with full rights.

Would I return for further discussion, she wanted to know. “Yes, of course,” I said.

“Oh, Brother,” she said.

I hung up with a mixture of relief and anxiety, unable to shrug off the notion that I had been tested and had failed. I went through the next week puzzling over it, and even more confused because I knew nothing definite of where I stood. I tried to detect any changes in my relations with Brother Jack and the others, but they gave no sign. And even if they had, I wouldn’t have known its definite meaning, for it might have had to do with the charges. I was caught between guilt and innocence, so that now they seemed one and the same. My nerves were in a state of constant tension, my face took on a stiff, non-committal expression, beginning to look like Brother Jack’s and the other leaders’. Then I relaxed a bit; work had to be done and I would play the waiting game. And despite my guilt and uncertainty I learned to forget that I was a lone guilty black Brother and to go striding confidently into a roomful of whites. It was chin up, a not too wide-stretched smile, the out-thrust hand for the firm warm hand shake. And with it just the proper mixture of arrogance and down-to-earth humility to satisfy all. I threw myself into the lectures, defending, asserting the rights of women; and though the girls continued to buzz around, I was careful to keep the biological and ideological carefully apart — which wasn’t always easy, for it was as though many of the sisters were agreed among themselves (and assumed that I accepted it) that the ideological was merely a superfluous veil for the real concerns of life.

I found that most downtown audiences seemed to expect some unnamed something whenever I appeared. I could sense it the moment I stood before them, and it had nothing to do with anything I might say. For I had merely to appear before them, and from the moment they turned their eyes upon me they seemed to undergo a strange unburdening — not of laughter, nor of tears, nor of any stable, unmixed emotion. I didn’t get it. And my guilt was aroused. Once in the middle of a passage I looked into the sea of faces and thought, Do they know? Is that it? — and almost ruined my lecture. But of one thing I was certain, it was not the same attitude they held for certain other black brothers who entertained them with stories so often that they laughed even before these fellows opened their mouths. No, it was something else. A form of expectancy, a mood of waiting, a hoping for something like justification; as though they expected me to be more than just another speaker, or an entertainer. Something seemed to occur that was hidden from my own consciousness. I acted out a pantomime more eloquent than my most expressive words. I was a partner to it but could no more fathom it than I could the mystery of the man in the doorway. Perhaps, I told myself, it’s in your voice, after all. In your voice and in their desire to see in you a living proof of their belief in Brotherhood, and to ease my mind I stopped thinking about it.

Then one night when I had fallen asleep while making notes for a new series of lectures, the phone summoned me to an emergency meeting at headquarters, and I left the house with feelings of dread. This is it, I thought, either the charges or the woman. To be tripped up by a woman! What would I say to them, that she was irresistible and I human? What had that to do with responsibility, with building Brotherhood?

It was all I could do to make myself go, and I arrived late. The room was sweltering; three small fans stirred the heavy air, and the brothers sat in their shirtsleeves around a scarred table upon which a pitcher of iced water glistened with beads of moisture.

“Brothers, I’m sorry I’m late,” I apologized. “There were some important last-minute details concerning tomorrow’s lecture that kept me.”

“Then you might have saved yourself the trouble and the committee this lost time,” Brother Jack said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said, suddenly feverish.

“He means that you are no longer to concern yourself with the

Woman Question. That’s ended,” Brother Tobitt said; and I braced myself for the attack, but before I could respond Brother Jack fired a startling question at me.

“What has become of Brother Tod Clifton?”

“Brother Clifton — why, I haven’t seen him in weeks. I’ve been too busy downtown here. What’s happened?”

“He has disappeared,” Brother Jack said, “disappeared! So don’t waste time with superfluous questions. You weren’t sent for for that.”

“But how long has this been known?”

Brother Jack struck the table. “All we know is that he’s gone. Let’s get on with our business. You, Brother, are to return to Harlem immediately. We’re facing a crisis there, since Brother Tod Clifton has not only disappeared but failed in his assignment. On the other hand, Ras the Exhorter and his gang of racist gangsters are taking advantage of this and are increasing their agitation. You are to get back there and take measures to regain our strength in the community. You’ll be given the forces you need and you’ll report to us for a strategy meeting about which you’ll be notified tomorrow. And please,” he emphasized with his gavel, “be on time!”

I was so relieved that none of my own problems were discussed that I didn’t linger to ask if the police had been consulted about the disappearance. Something was wrong with the whole deal, for Clifton was too responsible and had too much to gain simply to have disappeared. Did it have any connection with Ras the Exhorter? But that seemed unlikely; Harlem was one of our strongest districts, and just a month ago when I was shifted Ras would have been laughed off the street had he tried to attack us. If only I hadn’t been so careful not to offend the committee I would have kept in closer contact with Clifton and the whole Harlem membership. Now it was as though I had been suddenly awakened from a deep sleep.

Chapter 20

I had been away long enough for the streets to seem strange. The uptown rhythms were slower and yet were somehow faster; a different tension was in the hot night air. I made my way through the summer crowds, not to the district but to Barrelhouse’s Jolly Dollar, a dark hole of a bar and grill on upper Eighth Avenue, where one of my best contacts, Brother Maceo, could usually be found about this time, having his evening’s beer.

Looking through the window, I could see men in working clothes and a few rummy women leaning at the bar, and down the aisle between the bar and counter were a couple of men in black and blue checked sport shirts eating barbecue. A cluster of men and women hovered near the juke box at the rear. But when I went in Brother Maceo wasn’t among them and I pushed to the bar, deciding to wait over a beer.

“Good evening, Brothers,” I said, finding myself beside two men whom I had seen around before; only to have them look at me oddly, the eyebrows of the tall one raising at a drunken angle as he looked at the other.

“Shit,” the tall man said.

“You said it, man; he a relative of yourn?” “Shit, he goddam sho ain’t no kin of mine!”

I turned and looked at them, the room suddenly cloudy.

“He must be drunk,” the second man said. “Maybe he thinks he’s kin to you.”

“Then his whiskey’s telling him a damn lie. I wouldn’t be his kin even if I was — Hey, Barrelhouse!”

I moved away, down the bar, looking at them out of a feeling of suspense. They didn’t sound drunk and I had said nothing to offend, and I was certain that they knew who I was. What was it? The Brotherhood greeting was as familiar as “Give me some skin” or “Peace, it’s wonderful.”

I saw Barrelhouse rolling down from the other end of the bar, his white apron indented by the tension of its cord so that he looked like that kind of metal beer barrel which has a groove around its middle; and seeing me now, he began to smile.

“Well, I’ll be damned if it ain’t the good brother,” he said, stretching out his hand. “Brother, where you been keeping yourself?”

“I’ve been working downtown,” I said, feeling a surge of gratitude. “Fine, fine!” Barrelhouse said.

“Business good?”

“I’d rather not discuss it, Brother. Business is bad. Very bad.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. You’d better give me a beer,” I said, “after you’ve served these gentlemen.” I watched them in the mirror.

“Sure thing,” Barrelhouse said, reaching for a glass and drawing a beer. “What you putting down, ole man?” he said to the tall man.

“Look here, Barrel, we wanted to ask you one question,” the tall one said. “We just wanted to know if you could tell us just whose brother this here cat’s supposed to be? He come in here just now calling everybody brother.”

“He’s my brother,” Barrel said, holding the foaming glass between his long fingers. “Anything wrong with that?”

“Look, fellow,” I said down the bar, “that’s our way of speaking. I meant no harm in calling you brother. I’m sorry you misunderstood me.”

“Brother, here’s your beer,” Barrelhouse said. “So he’s your brother, eh, Barrel?”

Barrel’s eyes narrowed as he pressed his huge chest across the bar, looking suddenly sad. “You enjoying yourself, MacAdams?” he said gloomily. “You like your beer?”

“Sho,” MacAdams said. “It cold enough?”

“Sho, but Barrel –“

“You like the groovy music on the juke?” Barrelhouse said. “Hell, yes, but –“

“And you like our good, clean, sociable atmosphere?”

“Sho, but that ain’t what I’m talking about,” the man said.

“Yeah, but that’s what I’m talking about,” Barrelhouse said mournfully. “And if you like it, like it, and don’t start trying to bug my other customers. This here man’s done more for the community than you’ll ever do.”

“What community?” MacAdams said, cutting his eyes around toward me. “I hear he got the white fever and left . . .”

“You liable to hear anything,” Barrelhouse said. “There’s some paper back there in the gents’ room. You ought to wipe out your ears.”

“Never mind my ears.”

“Aw come” on, Mac,” his friend said. “Forgit it. Ain’t the man done apologized?”

“I said never mind my ears,” MacAdams said. “You just tell your brother he ought to be careful ’bout who he claims as kinfolks. Some of us don’t think so much of his kind of politics.”

I looked from one to the other. I considered myself beyond the stage of street-fighting, and one of the worst things I could do upon returning to the community was to engage in a brawl. I looked at MacAdams and was glad when the other man pushed him down the bar.

“That MacAdams thinks he’s right,” Barrelhouse said. “He’s the kind caint nobody please. Be frank though, there’s lots feel like that now.”

I shook my head in bafflement. I’d never met that kind of antagonism before. “What’s happened to Brother Maceo?” I said.

“I don’t know, Brother. He don’t come in so regular these days. Things are kinda changing up here. Ain’t much money floating around.”

“Times are hard everywhere. But what’s been going on up here, Barrel?” I said.

“Oh, you know how it is, Brother; things are tight and lots of folks who got jobs through you people have lost them. You know how it goes.”

“You mean people in our organization?”

“Quite a few of them are. Fellows like Brother Maceo.” “But why? They were doing all right.”

“Sure they was — as long as you people was fighting for ’em. But the minute y’all stopped, they started throwing folks out on the street.”

I looked at him, big and sincere before me. It was unbelievable that the Brotherhood had stopped its work, and yet he wasn’t lying. “Give me another beer,” I said. Then someone called him from the back, and he drew the beer and left.

I drank it slowly, hoping Brother Maceo would appear before I had finished. When he didn’t I waved to Barrelhouse and left for the district. Perhaps Brother Tarp could explain; or at least tell me something about Clifton.

I walked through the dark block over to Seventh and started down; things were beginning to look serious. Along the way I saw not a single sign of Brotherhood activity. In a hot side street I came upon a couple striking matches along the curb, kneeling as though looking for a lost coin, the matches flaring dimly in their faces. Then I found myself in a strangely familiar block and broke out in a sweat: I had walked almost to Mary’s door, and turned now and hurried away.

Barrelhouse had prepared me for the darkened windows of the district, but not, when I let myself in, to call in vain through the dark to Brother Tarp. I went to the room where he slept, but he was not there; then I went through the dark hall to my old office and threw myself into my desk chair, exhausted. Everything seemed to be slipping away from me and I could find no quick absorbing action that would get it under control. I tried to think of whom among the district committee I might call for information concerning Clifton, but here again I was balked. For if I selected one who believed that I had requested to be transferred because I hated my own people it would only complicate matters. No doubt there would be some who’d resent my return, so it was best to confront them all at once without giving any one of them the opportunity to organize any sentiment against me. It was best that I talk with Brother Tarp, whom I trusted. When he came in he could give me an idea of the state of affairs, and perhaps tell me what had actually happened to Clifton.

But Brother Tarp didn’t arrive. I went out and got a container of coffee and returned to spend the night poring over the district’s records. When he hadn’t returned by three A.M. I went to his room and took a look around. It was empty, even the bed was gone. I’m all alone, I thought. A lot has occurred about which I wasn’t told; something that had not only stifled the members’ interest but which, according to the records, had sent them away in droves. Barrelhouse had said that the organization had quit fighting, and that was the only explanation I could find for Brother Tarp’s leaving. Unless, of course, he’d had disagreements with Clifton or some of the other leaders. And now returning to my desk I noticed his gift of Douglass’ portrait was gone. I felt in my pocket for the leg chain, at least I hadn’t forgotten to take that along. I pushed the records aside; they told me nothing of why things were as they were. Picking up the telephone I called Clifton’s number, hearing it ring on and on. Finally I gave it up and went to sleep in my chair. Everything had to wait until the strategy meeting. Returning to the district was like returning to a city of the dead.

Somewhat to my surprise there were a good number of members in the hall when I awoke, and having no directives from the committee on how to proceed I organized them into teams to search for Brother Clifton. Not one could give me any definite information. Brother Clifton had appeared at the district as usual up to the time of his disappearance. There had been no quarrels with committee members, and he was as popular as ever. Nor had there been any clashes with Ras the Exhorter — although in the past week he had been increasingly active. As for the loss of membership and influence, it was a result of a new program which had called for the shelving of our old techniques of agitation. There had been, to my surprise, a switch in emphasis from local issues to those more national and international in scope, and it was felt that for the moment the interests of Harlem were not of first importance. I didn’t know what to make of it, since there had been no such change of program downtown. Clifton was forgotten, everything which I was to do now seemed to depend upon getting an explanation from the committee, and I waited with growing agitation to be called to the strategy meeting.

Such meetings were usually held around one o’clock and we were notified well ahead. But by eleven-thirty I had received no word and I became worried. By twelve an uneasy sense of isolation took hold of me. Something was cooking, but what, how, why? Finally I phoned headquarters, but could reach none of the leaders. What is this, I wondered; then I called the leaders of other districts with the same results. And now I was certain that the meeting was being held. But why without me? Had they investigated Wrestrum’s charges and decided they were true? It seemed that the membership had fallen off after I had gone downtown. Or was it the woman? Whatever it was, now was not the time to leave me out of a meeting; things were too urgent in the district. I hurried down to headquarters.

When I arrived the meeting was in session, just as I expected, and word had been left that it was not to be disturbed by anyone. It was obvious that they hadn’t forgotten to notify me. I left the building in a rage. Very well, I thought, when they do decide to call me they’ll have to find me. I should never have been shifted in the first place, and now that I was sent back to clean up the mess they should aid me as quickly as possible. I would do no more running downtown, nor would I accept any program that they sent up without consulting the Harlem committee. Then I decided, of all things, to shop for a pair of new shoes, and walked over to Fifth Avenue.

It was hot, the walks still filled with noontime crowds moving with reluctance back to their jobs. I moved along close to the curb to avoid the bumping and agitated changes of pace, the chattering women in summer dresses, finally entering the leather-smelling, air-cooled interior of the shoe store with a sense of relief.

My feet felt light in the new summer shoes as I went back into the blazing heat, and I recalled the old boyhood pleasure of discarding winter shoes for sneakers and the neighborhood foot races that always followed, that light-footed, speedy, floating sensation. Well, I thought, you’ve run your last foot race and you’d better get back to the district in case you’re called. I hurried now, my feet feeling trim and light as I moved through the oncoming rush of sunbeaten faces. To avoid the crowd on Forty-second Street I turned off at Forty-third and it was here that things began to boil.

A small fruit wagon with an array of bright peaches and pears stood near the curb, and the vendor, a florid man with bulbous nose and bright black Italian eyes, looked at me knowingly from beneath his huge white-and-orange umbrella then over toward a crowd that had formed alongside the building across the street. What’s wrong with him? I thought. Then I was across the street and passing the group standing with their backs to me. A clipped, insinuating voice spieled words whose meaning I couldn’t catch and I was about to pass on when I saw the boy. He was a slender brown fellow whom I recognized immediately as a close friend of Clifton’s, and who now was looking intently across the tops of cars to where down the block near the post office on the other side a tall policeman was approaching. Perhaps he’ll know something, I thought, as he looked around to see me and stopped in confusion.

“Hello, there,” I began, and when he turned toward the crowd and whistled I didn’t know whether he was telling me to do the same or signalling to someone else. I swung around, seeing him step to where a large carton sat beside the building and sling its canvas straps to his shoulder as once more he looked toward the policeman, ignoring me. Puzzled, I moved into the crowd and pressed to the front where at my feet I saw a square piece of cardboard upon which something was moving with furious action. It was some kind of toy and I glanced at the crowd’s fascinated eyes and down again, seeing it clearly this time. I’d seen nothing like it before. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face. It’s no jumping-jack, but what, I thought, seeing the doll throwing itself about with the fierce defiance of someone performing a degrading act in public, dancing as though it received a perverse pleasure from its motions. And beneath the chuckles of the crowd I could hear the swishing of its ruffled paper, while the same out-of-the-corner-of-the-mouth voice continued to spiel:

Shake it up! Shake it up!

He’s Sambo, the dancing doll, ladies and gentlemen. Shake him, stretch him by the neck and set him down, — He’ll do the rest. Yes!

He’ll make you laugh, he’ll make you sigh, si-igh. He’ll make you want to dance, and dance —

Here you are, ladies and gentlemen, Sambo, The dancing doll.

Buy one for your baby. Take him to your girl friend and she’ll love you, loove you!

He’ll keep you entertained. He’ll make you weep sweet –Tears from laughing.

Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him

For he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll.

And all for twenty-five cents, the quarter part of a dollar . . .

Ladies and gentlemen, he’ll bring you joy, step up and meet him, Sambo the —

I knew I should get back to the district but I was held by the inanimate, boneless bouncing of the grinning doll and struggled between the desire to join in the laughter and to leap upon it with both feet, when it

suddenly collapsed and I saw the tip of the spieler’s toe press upon the circular cardboard that formed the feet and a broad black hand come down, its fingers deftly lifting the doll’s head and stretching it upward, twice its length, then releasing it to dance again. And suddenly the voice didn’t go with the hand. It was as though I had waded out into a shallow pool only to have the bottom drop out and the water close over my head. I looked up.

“Not you . . .” I began. But his eyes looked past me deliberately unseeing. I was paralyzed, looking at him, knowing I wasn’t dreaming, hearing:

What makes him happy, what makes him dance, This Sambo, this jambo, this high-stepping joy boy?

He’s more than a toy, ladies and gentlemen, he’s Sambo, the dancing doll, the twentieth-century miracle.

Look at that rumba, that suzy-q, he’s Sambo-Boogie,

Sambo-Woogie, you don’t have to feed him, he sleeps collapsed, he’ll kill your depression

And your dispossession, he lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile

And only twenty-five cents, the brotherly two bits of a dollar because he wants me to eat.

It gives him pleasure to see me eat.

You simply take him and shake him . . . and he does the rest. Thank you, lady . . .

It was Clifton, riding easily back and forth on his knees, flexing his legs without shifting his feet, his right shoulder raised at an angle and his arm pointing stiffly at the bouncing doll as he spieled from the corner of his mouth.

The whistle came again, and I saw him glance quickly toward his lookout, the boy with the carton.

“Who else wants little Sambo before we take it on the lambo? Speak up, ladies and gentlemen, who wants little . . . ?”

And again the whistle. “Who wants Sambo, the dancing, prancing? Hurry, hurry, ladies and gentlemen. There’s no license for little Sambo, the

joy spreader. You can’t tax joy, so speak up, ladies and gentlemen . . .”

For a second our eyes met and he gave me a contemptuous smile, then he spieled again. I felt betrayed. I looked at the doll and felt my throat constrict. The rage welled behind the phlegm as I rocked back on my heels and crouched forward. There was a flash of whiteness and a splatter like heavy rain striking a newspaper and I saw the doll go over backwards, wilting into a dripping rag of frilled tissue, the hateful head upturned on its outstretched neck still grinning toward the sky. The crowd turned on me indignantly. The whistle came again. I saw a short pot-bellied man look down, then up at me with amazement and explode with laughter, pointing from me to the doll, rocking. People backed away from me. I saw Clifton step close to the building where beside the fellow with the carton I now saw a whole chorus-line of dolls flouncing themselves with a perverse increase of energy and the crowd laughing hysterically.

“You, you!” I began, only to see him pick up two of the dolls and step forward. But now the lookout came close. “He’s coming,” he said, nodding toward the approaching policeman as he swept up the dolls, dropping them into the carton and starting away.

“Follow little Sambo around the corner, ladies and gentlemen,” Clifton called. “There’s a great show coming up . . .”

It happened so fast that in a second only I and an old lady in a blue polka-dot dress were left. She looked at me then back to the walk, smiling. I saw one of the dolls. I looked. She was still smiling and I raised my foot to crush it, hearing her cry, “Oh, no!” The policeman was just opposite and I reached down instead, picking it up and walking off in the same motion. I examined it, strangely weightless in my hand, half expecting to feel it pulse with life. It was a still frill of paper. I dropped it in the pocket where I carried Brother Tarp’s chain link and started after the vanished crowd. But I couldn’t face Clifton again. I didn’t want to see him. I might forget myself and attack him. I went in the other direction, toward Sixth Avenue, past the policeman. What a way to find him, I thought. What had happened to Clifton? It was all so wrong, so unexpected. How on earth could he drop from Brotherhood to this in so short a time? And why if he had to fall back did he try to carry the whole structure with him? What would non-members who knew him say? It was as though he had chosen — how had he put it the night he fought with Ras? — to fall outside of history. I stopped in the middle of the walk with the thought. “To plunge,” he had said. But he knew that only in the Brotherhood could we make ourselves known, could we avoid being empty Sambo dolls. Such an obscene flouncing of everything human! My God! And I had been worrying about being left out of a meeting! I’d overlook it a thousand times; no matter why I wasn’t called. I’d forget it and hold on desperately to Brotherhood with all my strength. For to break away would be to plunge . . . To plunge! And those dolls, where had they found them? Why had he picked that way to earn a quarter? Why not sell apples or song sheets, or shine shoes?

I wandered past the subway and continued around the corner to Forty-second Street, my mind grappling for meaning. And when I came around the corner onto the crowded walk into the sun, they were already lining the curb and shading their faces with their hands. I saw the traffic moving with the lights, and across the street a few pedestrians were looking back toward the center of the block where the trees of Bryant Park rose above two men. I saw a flight of pigeons whirl out of the trees and it all happened in the swift interval of their circling, very abruptly and in the noise of the traffic — yet seeming to unfold in my mind like a slow-motion movie run off with the sound track dead.

At first I thought it was a cop and a shoeshine boy; then there was a break in the traffic and across the sun-glaring bands of trolley rails I recognized Clifton. His partner had disappeared now and Clifton had the box slung to his left shoulder with the cop moving slowly behind and to one side of him. They were coming my way, passing a newsstand, and I saw the rails in the asphalt and a fire plug at the curb and the flying birds, and thought, You’ll have to follow and pay his fine . . . just as the cop pushed him, jolting him forward and Clifton trying to keep the box from swinging against his leg and saying something over his shoulder and going forward as one of the pigeons swung down into the street and up again, leaving a feather floating white in the dazzling backlight of the sun, and I could see the cop push Clifton again, stepping solidly forward in his black shirt, his arm shooting out stiffly, sending him in a head-snapping forward stumble until he caught himself, saying something over his shoulder again, the two moving in a kind of march that I’d seen many times, but never with anyone like Clifton. And I could see the cop bark a command and lunge forward, thrusting out his arm and missing, thrown off balance as suddenly Clifton spun on his toes like a dancer and swung his right arm over and around in a short, jolting arc, his torso carrying forward and to the left in a motion that sent the box strap free as his right foot traveled forward and his left arm followed through in a floating uppercut that sent the cop’s cap sailing into the street and his feet flying, to drop him hard, rocking from left to right on the walk as Clifton kicked the box thudding aside and crouched, his left foot forward, his hands high, waiting. And between the flashing of cars I could see the cop propping himself on his elbows like a drunk trying to get his head up, shaking it and thrusting it forward — And somewhere between the dull roar of traffic and the subway vibrating underground I heard rapid explosions and saw each pigeon diving wildly as though blackjacked by the sound, and the cop sitting up straight now, and rising to his knees looking steadily at Clifton, and the pigeons plummeting swiftly into the trees, and Clifton still facing the cop and suddenly crumpling.

He fell forward on his knees, like a man saying his prayers just as a heavy-set man in a hat with a turned-down brim stepped from around the newsstand and yelled a protest. I couldn’t move. The sun seemed to scream an inch above my head. Someone shouted. A few men were starting into the street. The cop was standing now and looking down at Clifton as though surprised, the gun in his hand. I took a few steps forward, walking blindly now, unthinking, yet my mind registering it all vividly. Across and starting up on the curb, and seeing Clifton up closer now, lying in the same position, on his side, a huge wetness growing on his shirt, and I couldn’t set my foot down. Cars sailed close behind me, but 1 couldn’t take the step that would raise me up to the walk. I stood there, one leg in the street and the other raised above the curb, hearing whistles screeching and looked toward the library to see two cops coming on in a lunging, big-bellied run. I looked back to Clifton, the cop was waving me away with his gun, sounding like a boy with a changing voice.

“Get back on the other side,” he said. He was the cop that I’d passed on Forty-third a few minutes before. My mouth was dry.

“He’s a friend of mine, I want to help . . .” I said, finally stepping upon the curb.

“He don’t need no help, Junior. Get across that street!”

The cop’s hair hung on the sides of his face, his uniform was dirty, and I watched him without emotion, hesitated, hearing the sound of footfalls approaching. Everything seemed slowed down. A pool formed slowly on the walk. My eyes blurred. I raised my head. The cop looked at me curiously. Above in the park I could hear the furious flapping of wings; on my neck, the pressure of eyes. I turned. A round-headed, apple-cheeked boy with a thickly freckled nose and Slavic eyes leaned over the fence of the park above, and now as he saw me turn, he shrilled something to someone behind him, his face lighting up with ecstasy . . . What does it mean, I wondered, turning back to that to which I did not wish to turn.

There were three cops now, one watching the crowd and the others looking at Clifton. The first cop had his cap on again.

“Look, Junior,” he said very clearly, “I had enough trouble for today — you going to get on across that street?”

I opened my mouth but nothing would come. Kneeling, one of the cops was examining Clifton and making notes on a pad.

“I’m his friend,” I said, and the one making notes looked up.

“He’s a cooked pigeon, Mac,” he said. “You ain’t got any friend any more.”

I looked at him.

“Hey, Mickey,” the boy above us called, “the guy’s out cold!”

I looked down. “That’s right,” the kneeling cop said. “What’s your name?”

I told him. I answered his questions about Clifton as best I could until the wagon came. For once it came quickly. I watched numbly as they moved him inside, placing the box of dolls in with him. Across the street the crowd still churned. Then the wagon was gone and I started back toward the subway.

“Say, mister,” the boy’s voice shrilled down. “Your friend sure knows how to use his dukes. Biff, bang! One, two, and the cop’s on his ass!”

I bowed my head to this final tribute, and now walking away in the sun I tried to erase the scene from my mind.

I wandered down the subway stairs seeing nothing, my mind plunging. The subway was cool and I leaned against a pillar, hearing the roar of trains passing across on the other side, feeling the rushing roar of air. Why should a man deliberately plunge outside of history and peddle an obscenity, my mind went on abstractedly. Why should he choose to disarm himself, give up his voice and leave the only organization offering him a chance to “define” himself? The platform vibrated and I looked down. Bits of paper whirled up in the passage of air, settling quickly as a train moved past. Why had he turned away? Why had he chosen to step off the platform and fall beneath the train? Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, lying outside history? I tried to step away and look at it from a distance of words read in books, half-remembered. For history records the patterns of men’s lives, they say: Who slept with whom and with what results; who fought and who won and who lived to lie about it afterwards. All things, it is said, are duly recorded –all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by. But the cop would be Clifton’s historian, his judge, his witness, and his executioner, and I was the only brother in the watching crowd. And I, the only witness for the defense, knew neither the extent of his guilt nor the nature of his crime. Where were the historians today? And how would they put it down?

I stood there with the trains plunging in and out, throwing blue sparks. What did they ever think of us transitory ones? Ones such as I had been before I found Brotherhood — birds of passage who were too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words, and too distant from the centers of historical decision to sign or even to applaud the signers of historical documents? We who write no novels, histories or other books. What about us, I thought, seeing Clifton again in my mind and going to sit upon a bench as a cool gust of air rolled up the tunnel.

A body of people came down the platform, some of them Negroes. Yes, I thought, what about those of us who shoot up from the South into the busy city like wild jacks-in-the-box broken loose from our springs — so

sudden that our gait becomes like that of deep-sea divers suffering from the bends? What about those fellows waiting still and silent there on the platform, so still and silent that they clash with the crowd in their very immobility; standing noisy in their very silence; harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness? What about those three boys, coming now along the platform, tall and slender, walking stiffly with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits, their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their hard conked hair? It was as though I’d never seen their like before: Walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men. These fellows whose bodies seemed — what had one of my teachers said of me? — “You’re like one of these African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design.” Well, what design and whose?

I stared as they seemed to move like dancers in some kind of funeral ceremony, swaying, going forward, their black faces secret, moving slowly down the subway platform, the heavy heel-plated shoes making a rhythmical tapping as they moved. Everyone must have seen them, or heard their muted laughter, or smelled the heavy pomade on their hair — or perhaps failed to see them at all. For they were men outside of historical time, they were untouched, they didn’t believe in Brotherhood, no doubt had never heard of it; or perhaps like Clifton would mysteriously have rejected its mysteries; men of transition whose faces were immobile.

I got up and went behind them. Women shoppers with bundles and impatient men in straw hats and seersucker suits stood along the platform as they passed. And suddenly I found myself thinking, Do they come to bury the others or to be entombed, to give life or to receive it? Do the others see them, think about them, even those standing close enough to speak? And if they spoke back, would the impatient businessmen in conventional suits and tired housewives with their plunder, understand? What would they say? For the boys speak a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour, think transitional thoughts, though perhaps they dream the same old ancient dreams. They were men out of time — unless they found Brotherhood. Men

out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten . . . But who knew (and now I began to tremble so violently I had to lean against a refuse can) –who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something precious? The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because, living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it. What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole? What if history was not a reasonable citizen, but a madman full of paranoid guile and these boys his agents, his big surprise! His own revenge? For they were outside, in the dark with Sambo, the dancing paper doll; taking it on the lambo with my fallen brother, Tod Clifton (Tod, Tod) running and dodging the forces of history instead of making a dominating stand.

A train came. I followed them inside. There were many seats and the three sat together. I stood, holding onto the center pole, looking down the length of the car. On one side I saw a white nun in black telling her beads, and standing before the door across the aisle there was another dressed completely in white, the exact duplicate of the other except that she was black and her black feet bare. Neither of the nuns was looking at the other but at their crucifixes, and suddenly I laughed and a verse I’d heard long ago at the Golden Day paraphrased itself in my mind:

Bread and Wine,
Bread and Wine,
Your cross ain’t nearly so Heavy as mine . . .
And the nuns rode on with lowered heads.

I looked at the boys. They sat as formally as they walked. From time to time one of them would look at his reflection in the window and give his hat brim a snap, the others watching him silently, communicating ironically with their eyes, then looking straight ahead. I staggered with the lunging of the train, feeling the overhead fans driving the hot air down upon me. What was I in relation to the boys, I wondered. Perhaps an accident, like Douglass. Perhaps each hundred years or so men like them, like me, appeared in society, drifting through; and yet by all historical logic we, I, should have disappeared around the first part of the nineteenth century, rationalized out of existence. Perhaps, like them, I was a throwback, a small distant meteorite that died several hundred years ago and now lived only by virtue of the light that speeds through space at too great a pace to realize that its source has become a piece of lead . . . This was silly, such thoughts. I looked at the boys; one tapped another on the knee, and I saw him remove three rolled magazines from an inner pocket, passing two around and keeping one for himself. The others took theirs silently and began to read in complete absorption. One held his magazine high before his face and for an instant I saw a vivid scene: The shining rails, the fire hydrant, the fallen policeman, the diving birds and in the mid-ground, Clifton, crumpling. Then I saw the cover of a comic book and thought, Clifton would have known them better than I. He knew them all the time. I studied them closely until they left the train, their shoulders rocking, their heavy heel plates clicking remote, cryptic messages in the brief silence of the train’s stop.

I came out of the subway, weak, moving through the heat as though I carried a heavy stone, the weight of a mountain on my shoulders. My new shoes hurt my feet. Now, moving through the crowds along 125th Street, I was painfully aware of other men dressed like the boys, and of girls in dark exotic-colored stockings, their costumes surreal variations of downtown styles. They’d been there all along, but somehow I’d missed them. I’d missed them even when my work had been most successful. They were outside the groove of history, and it was my job to get them in, all of them. I looked into the design of their faces, hardly a one that was unlike someone I’d known down South. Forgotten names sang through my head like forgotten scenes in dreams. I moved with the crowd, the sweat pouring off me, listening to the grinding roar of traffic, the growing sound of a record shop loudspeaker blaring a languid blues. I stopped. Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid, inadequate words? My mind flowed. It was as though in this short block I was forced to walk past everyone I’d ever known and no one would smile or call my name. No one fixed me in his eyes. I walked in feverish isolation. Near the corner now a couple of boys darted out of the Five and Ten with handfuls of candy bars, dropping them along the walks as they ran with a man right behind. They came toward me, pumping past, and I killed an impulse to trip the man and was confused all the more when an old woman standing further along threw out her leg and swung a heavy bag. The man went down, sliding across the walk as she shook her head in triumph. A pressure of guilt came over me. I stood on the edge of the walk watching the crowd threatening to attack the man until a policeman appeared and dispersed them. And although I knew no one man could do much about it, I felt responsible. All our work had been very little, no great change had been made. And it was all my fault. I’d been so fascinated by the motion that I’d forgotten to measure what it was bringing forth. I’d been asleep, dreaming.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50