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[5 of 5] Invisible Man, Chapter 21 to Epilogue, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

“Chapter 21 to Epilogue.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.


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Chapter 21

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When I got back to the district a small group of youth members stopped their joking to welcome me, but I couldn’t break the news. I went through to the office with only a nod, shutting the door upon their voices and sat staring out through the trees. The once fresh green of the trees was dark and drying now and somewhere down below a clothesline peddler clanged his bell and called. Then, as I fought against it, the scene came back — not of the death, but of the dolls. Why had I lost my head and spat upon the doll, I wondered. What had Clifton felt when he saw me? He must have hated me behind his spiel, yet he’d ignored me. Yes, and been amused by my political stupidity. I had blown up and acted personally instead of denouncing the significance of the dolls, him, the obscene idea, and seizing the opportunity to educate the crowd. We lost no opportunity to educate, and I had failed. All I’d done was to make them laugh all the louder . . . I had aided and abetted social backwardness . . . The scene changed — he lay in the sun and this time I saw a trail of smoke left by a sky-writing plane lingering in the sky, a large woman in a kelly-green dress stood near me saying, “Oh, Oh!” . . .

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I turned and faced the map, removing the doll from my pocket and tossing it upon the desk. My stomach surged. To die for such a thing! I picked it up with an unclean feeling, looked at the frilled paper. The joined cardboard feet hung down, pulling the paper legs in elastic folds, a construction of tissue, cardboard and glue. And yet I felt a hatred as for something alive. What had made it seem to dance? Its cardboard hands were doubled into fists, the fingers outlined in orange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of the disk of cardboard, and both grinning. Clifton’s voice came to me as he spieled his directions for making it dance, and I held it by the feet and stretched its neck, seeing it crumple and slide forward. I tried again, turning its other face around. It gave a tired bounce, shook itself and fell in a heap.

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“Go on, entertain me,” I said, giving it a stretch. “You entertained the crowd.” I turned it around. One face grinned as broadly as the other. It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death. It had still grinned when I played the tool and spat upon it, and it was still grinning when Clifton ignored me. Then I saw a fine black thread and pulled it from the trilled paper. There was a loop tied in the end. I slipped it over my finger and stood stretching it taut. And this time it danced. Clifton had been making it dance all the time and the black thread had been invisible.

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Why didn’t you hit him? I asked myself; try to break his jaw? Why didn’t you hurt him and save him? You might have started a fight and both of you would have been arrested with no shooting . . . But why had he resisted the cop anyway? He’d been arrested before; he knew how far to go with a cop. What had the cop said to make him angry enough to lose his head? And suddenly it occurred to me that he might have been angry before he resisted, before he’d even seen the cop. My breath became short; I felt myself go weak. What if he believed I’d sold out? It was a sickening thought. I sat holding myself as though I might break. For a moment I weighed the idea, but it was too big for me. I could only accept responsibility for the living, not for the dead. My mind backed away from the notion. The incident was political. I looked at the doll, thinking, The political equivalent of such entertainment is death. But that’s too broad a definition. Its economic meaning? That the lite of a man is worth the sale of a two-bit paper doll . . . But that didn’t kill the idea that my anger helped speed him on to death. And still my mind fought against it. For what had I to do with the crisis that had broken his integrity? What had I to do with his selling the dolls in the first place? And finally I had to give that up too. I was no detective, and, politically, individuals were without meaning. The shooting was all that was left of him now, Clifton had chosen to plunge out of history and, except for the picture it made in my mind’s eye, only the plunge was recorded, and that was the only important thing.

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I sat rigid, as though waiting to hear the explosions again, fighting against the weight that seemed to pull me down. I heard the clothesline peddler’s bell . . . What would I tell the committee when the newspaper accounts were out? To hell with them. How would I explain the dolls? But why should I say anything? What could we do to fight back. That was my worry. The bell tolled again in the yard below. I looked at the doll. I could think of no justification for Clifton’s having sold the dolls, but there was justification enough for giving him a public funeral, and I seized upon the idea now as though it would save my life. Even though I wanted to turn away from it as I’d wanted to turn from Clifton’s crumpled body on the walk. But the odds against us were too great for such weakness. We had to use every politically effective weapon against them; Clifton understood that. He had to be buried and I knew of no relatives; someone had to see that he was placed in the ground. Yes, the dolls were obscene and his act a betrayal. But he was only a salesman, not the inventor, and it was necessary that we make it known that the meaning of his death was greater than the incident or the object that caused it. Both as a means of avenging him and of preventing other such deaths . . . yes, and of attracting lost members back into the ranks. It would be ruthless, but a ruthlessness in the interest of Brotherhood, for we had only our minds and bodies, as against the other side’s vast power. We had to make the most of what we had. For they had the power to use a paper doll, first to destroy his integrity and then as an excuse for killing him. All right, so we’ll use his funeral to put his integrity together again . . . For that’s all that he had had or wanted. And now I could see the doll only vaguely and drops of moisture were thudding down upon its absorbent paper . . .

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I was bent over, staring, when the knock came at the door and I jumped as at a shot, sweeping the doll into my pocket, and hastily wiping my eyes.

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“Come in,” I said.

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The door opened slowly. A group of youth members crowded forward, their faces a question. The girls were crying.

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“Is it true?” they said.

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“That he is dead? Yes,” I said, looking among them. “Yes.” “But why . . . ?”

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“It was a case of provocation and murder!” I said, my emotions beginning to turn to anger.

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They stood there, their faces questioning me.

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“He’s dead,” a girl said, her voice without conviction. “Dead.”

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“But what do they mean about his selling dolls?” a tall youth said.

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“I don’t know,” I said. “I only know that he was shot down. Unarmed. I know how you feel, I saw him fall.”

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“Take me home,” a girl screamed. “Take me home!”

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I stepped forward and caught her, a little brown thing in bobby socks, holding her against me. “No, we can’t go home,” I said, “none of us. We’ve got to fight. I’d like to get out into the air and forget it, if I ever could. What we want is not tears but anger. We must remember now that we are fighters, and in such incidents we must see the meaning of our struggle. We must strike back. I want each of you to round up all the members you can. We’ve got to make our reply.”

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One of the girls was still crying piteously when they went out, but they were moving quickly.

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“Come on, Shirley,” they said, taking the girl from my shoulder.

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I tried to get in touch with headquarters, but again I was unable to reach anyone. I called the Chthonian but there was no answer. So I called a committee of the district’s leading members and we moved slowly ahead on our own. I tried to find the youth who was with Clifton, but he had disappeared. Members were set on the streets with cans to solicit funds for his burial. A committee of three old women went to the morgue to claim his body. We distributed black-bordered leaflets, denouncing the police commissioner. Preachers were notified to have their congregations send letters of protest to the mayor. The story spread. A photograph of Clifton was sent

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to the Negro papers and published. People were stirred and angry. Street meetings were organized. And, released (by the action) from my indecision, I threw everything I had into organizing the funeral, though moving in a kind of numb suspension. I didn’t go to bed for two days and nights, but caught catnaps at my desk. I ate very little.

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The funeral was arranged to attract the largest number. Instead of holding it in a church or chapel, we selected Mount Morris Park, and an appeal went out for all former members to join the funeral march.

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It took place on a Saturday, in the heat of the afternoon. There was a thin overcast of clouds, and hundreds of people formed for the procession. I went around giving orders and encouragement in a feverish daze, and yet seeming to observe it all from off to one side. Brothers and sisters turned up whom I hadn’t seen since my return. And members from downtown and outlying districts. I watched them with surprise as they gathered and wondered at the depths of their sorrow as the lines began to form.

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There were half-draped flags and black banners. There were black-bordered signs that read:

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BROTHER TOD CLIFTON OUR HOPE SHOT DOWN

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There was a hired drum corps with crape-draped drums. There was a band of thirty pieces. There were no cars and very few flowers.

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It was a slow procession and the band played sad, romantic, military marches. And when the band was silent the drum corps beat the time on drums with muffled heads. It was hot and explosive, and delivery men avoided the district and the police details were increased in number. And up and down the streets people looked out of their apartment windows and men and boys stood on the roofs in the thin-veiled sun. I marched at the head with the old community leaders. It was a slow march and as I looked back from time to time I could see young zoot-suiters, hep cats, and men in overalls and pool-hall gamblers stepping into the procession. Men came out of barber shops with lathered faces, their neckcloths hanging, to watch and comment in hushed voices. And I wondered, Are they all Clifton’s friends, or is it just for the spectacle, the slow-paced music? A hot wind blew from behind me, bringing the sick sweetish odor, like the smell of some female dogs in season.

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I looked back. The sun shone down on a mass of unbared heads, and above flags and banners and shining horns I could see the cheap gray coffin moving high upon the shoulders of Clifton’s tallest companions, who from time to time shifted it smoothly on to others. They bore him high and they bore him proudly and there was an angry sadness in their eyes. The coffin floated like a heavily loaded ship in a channel, winding its way slowly above the bowed and submerged heads. I could hear the steady rolling of the drums with muffled snares, and all other sounds were suspended in silence. Behind, the tramp of feet; ahead, the crowds lining the curbs for blocks. There were tears and muffled sobs and many hard, red eyes. We moved ahead.

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We wound through the poorest streets at first, a black image of sorrow, then turned into Seventh Avenue and down and over to Lenox. Then I hurried with the leading brothers to the park in a cab. A brother in the Park Department had opened the lookout tower, and a crude platform of planks and ranked saw horses had been erected beneath the black iron bell, and when the procession started into the park we were standing high above, waiting. At our signal he struck the bell, and I could feel my eardrums throbbing with the old, hollow, gut-vibrant Doom-Dong-Doom.

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Looking down, I could see them winding upward in a mass to the muffled sound of the drums. Children stopped their playing on the grass to stare, and nurses at the nearby hospital came out on the roof to watch, their white uniforms glowing in the now unveiled sun like lilies. And crowds approached the park from all directions. The muffled drums now beating, now steadily rolling, spread a dead silence upon the air, a prayer tor the unknown soldier. And looking down I felt a lostness. Why were they here? Why had they found us? Because they knew Clifton? Or for the occasion his death gave them to express their protestations, a time and place to come together, to stand touching and sweating and breathing and looking in a common direction? Was either explanation adequate in itself? Did it signify love or politicalized hate? And could politics ever be an expression of love?

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Over the park the silence spread from the slow muffled rolling of the drums, the crunching of footsteps on the walks. Then somewhere in the procession an old, plaintive, masculine voice arose in a song, wavering, stumbling in the silence at first alone, until in the band a euphonium horn fumbled for the key and took up the air, one catching and rising above the other and the other pursuing, two black pigeons rising above a skull-white barn to tumble and rise through still, blue air. And for a few bars the pure sweet tone of the horn and the old man’s husky baritone sang a duet in the hot heavy silence. “There’s Many a Thousand Gone.” And standing high up over the park something fought in my throat. It was a song from the past, the past of the campus and the still earlier past of home. And now some of the older ones in the mass were joining in. I hadn’t thought of it as a march before, but now they were marching to its slow-paced rhythm, up the hill. I looked for the euphonium player and saw a slender black man with his face turned toward the sun, singing through the upturned bells of the horn. And several yards behind, marching beside the young men floating the coffin upward, I looked into the face of the old man who had aroused the song and felt a twinge of envy. It was a worn, old, yellow face and his eyes were closed and I could see a knife welt around his upturned neck as his throat threw out the song. He sang with his whole body, phrasing each verse as naturally as he walked, his voice rising above all the others, blending with that of the lucid horn. I watched him now, wet-eyed, the sun hot upon my head, and I felt a wonder at the singing mass. It was as though the song had been there all the time and he knew it and aroused it; and I knew that I had known it too and had failed to release it out of a vague, nameless shame or fear. But he had known and aroused it. Even white brothers and sisters were joining in. I looked into that face, trying to plumb its secret, but it told me nothing. I looked at the coffin and the marchers, listening to them, and yet realizing that I was listening to something within myself, and for a second I heard the shattering stroke of my heart. Something deep had shaken the crowd, and the old man and the man with the horn had done it. They had touched upon something deeper than protest, or religion; though now images of all the church meetings of my life welled up within me with much suppressed and forgotten anger. But that was past, and too many of those now reaching the top of the mountain and spreading massed together had never shared it, and some had been born in other lands. And yet all were touched; the song had aroused us all. It was not the words, for they were all the same old slave-borne words; it was as though he’d changed the emotion beneath the words while yet the old longing, resigned, transcendent emotion still sounded above, now deepened by that something for which the theory of Brotherhood had given me no name. I stood there trying to contain it as they brought Tod Clifton’s coffin into the tower and slowly up the spiral stairs. They set it down upon the platform and I looked at the shape of the cheap gray coffin and all I could remember was the sound of his name.

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The song had ended. Now the top of the little mountain bristled with banners, horns and uplifted faces. I could look straight down Fifth Avenue to 125th Street, where policemen were lined behind an array ot hot-dog wagons and Good Humor carts; and among the carts I saw a peanut vendor standing beneath a street lamp upon which pigeons were gathered, and now I saw him stretch out his arms with his palms turned upward, and suddenly he was covered, head, shoulders and outflung arms, with fluttering, feasting birds.

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Someone nudged me and I started. It was time for final words. But I had no words and I’d never been to a Brotherhood funeral and had no idea of a ritual. But they were waiting. I stood there alone; there was no microphone to support me, only the coffin before me upon the backs of its wobbly carpenter’s horses.

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I looked down into their sun-swept faces, digging for the words, and feeling a futility about it all and an anger. For this they gathered by thousands. What were they waiting to hear? Why had they come? For what reason that was different from that which had made the red-cheeked boy thrill at Clifton’s falling to the earth? What did they want and what could they do? Why hadn’t they come when they could have stopped it all?

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“What are you waiting for me to tell you?” I shouted suddenly, my voice strangely crisp on the windless air. “What good will it do? What if I say that this isn’t a funeral, that it’s a holiday celebration, that if you stick around the band will end up playing ‘Damit-the-Hell the Fun’s All Over’? Or do you expect to see some magic, the dead rise up and walk again? Go home, he’s as dead as he’ll ever die. That’s the end in the beginning and there’s no encore. There’ll be no miracles and there’s no one here to preach a sermon. Go home, forget him. He’s inside this box, newly dead. Go home and don’t think about him. He’s dead and you’ve got all you can do to think about you.” I paused. They were whispering and looking upward.

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“I’ve told you to go home,” I shouted, “but you keep standing there. Don’t you know it’s hot out here in the sun? So what if you wait for what little I can tell you? Can I say in twenty minutes what was building twenty-one years and ended in twenty seconds? What are you waiting for, when all I can tell you is his name? And when I tell you, what will you know that you didn’t know already, except perhaps, his name?”

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They were listening intently, and as though looking not at me, but at the pattern of my voice upon the air.

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“All right, you do the listening in the sun and I’ll try to tell you in the sun. Then you go home and forget it. Forget it. His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome. And though he didn’t belilve it, I think he was. His name was Clifton and his face was black and his hair was thick with tight-rolled curls — or call them naps or kinks. He’s dead, uninterested, and, except to a few young girls, it doesn’t matter . . . Have you got it? Can you see him? Think of your brother or your cousin John. His lips were thick with an upward curve at the corners. He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart. He thought about things and he felt deeply. I won’t call him noble because what’s such a word to do with one of us? His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute. His name was Clifton and for a while he lived among us and aroused a few hopes in the young manhood of man, and we who knew him loved him and he died. So why are you waiting? You’ve heard it all. Why wait for more, when all I can do is repeat it?”

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They stood; they listened. They gave no sign.

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“Very well, so I’ll tell you. His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home to sleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

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“Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He tell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror — and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That’s the story and that’s how it ended. It’s an old story and there’s been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it’s only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren’t you tired of such stories? Aren’t you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don’t you go? It’s hot out here. There’s the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there’ll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There’s not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There’s nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

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“All right, all right,” I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, it wasn’t political. Brother Jack probably wouldn’t approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

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“Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!” I shouted. “Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to

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be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

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“Tod Clifton’s one with the ages. But what’s that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis, the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

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“Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton. Now he’s in this box with the bolts tightened down. He’s in the box and we’re in there with him, and when I’ve told you this you can go. It’s dark in this box and it’s crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it’s far, far too expensive a dwelling. The air is bad and it’ll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room. ‘Tell them to get out of the box,’ that’s what he would say if you could hear him. ‘Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.’

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“So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don’t know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only

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know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don’t know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled. So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers; go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that’s dead? So there’s only one thing left to tell and I’ve already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.”

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I couldn’t go on. Below, they were waiting, hands and handkerchiefs shading their eyes. A preacher stepped up and read something out of his Bible, and I stood looking at the crowd with a sense of failure. I had let it get away from me, had been unable to bring in the political issues. And they stood there sun-beaten and sweat-bathed, listening to me repeat what was known. Now the preacher had finished, and someone signaled the bandmaster and there was solemn music as the pallbearers carried the coffin down the spiraling stairs. The crowd stood still as we walked slowly through. I could feel the bigness of it and the unknownness of it and a pent-up tension –whether of tears or anger, I couldn’t tell. But as we walked through and down the hill to the hearse, I could feel it. The crowd sweated and throbbed, and though it was silent, there were many things directed toward me through its eyes. At the curb were the hearse and a few cars, and in a few minutes they were loaded and the crowd was still standing, looking on as we carried Tod Clifton away. And as I took one last look I saw not a crowd but the set faces of individual men and women.

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We drove away and when the cars stopped moving there was a grave and we placed him in it. The gravediggers sweated heavily and knew their business and their brogue was Irish. They filled the grave quickly and we left. Tod Clifton was underground.

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I returned through the streets as tired as though I’d dug the grave myself alone. I felt confused and listless moving through the crowds that seemed to boil along in a kind of mist, as though the thin humid clouds had thickened and settled directly above our heads. I wanted to go somewhere, to some cool place to rest without thinking, but there was still too much to be done; plans had to be made; the crowd’s emotion had to be organized. I

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crept along, walking a southern walk in southern weather, closing my eyes from time to time against the dazzling reds, yellows and greens of cheap sport shirts and summer dresses. The crowd boiled, sweated, heaved; women with shopping bags, men with highly polished shoes. Even down South they’d always shined their shoes. “Shined shoes, shoed shines,” it rang in my head. On Eighth Avenue, the market carts were parked hub to hub along the curb, improvised canopies shading the withering fruits and vegetables. I could smell the stench of decaying cabbage. A watermelon huckster stood in the shade beside his truck, holding up a long slice of orange-mealed melon, crying his wares with hoarse appeals to nostalgia, memories of childhood, green shade and summer coolness. Oranges, cocoanuts and alligator pears lay in neat piles on little tables. I passed, winding my way through the slowly moving crowd. Stale and wilted flowers, rejected downtown, blazed feverishly on a cart, like glamorous rags festering beneath a futile spray from a punctured fruit juice can. The crowd were boiling figures seen through steaming glass from inside a washing machine; and in the streets the mounted police detail stood looking on, their eyes noncommittal beneath the short polished visors of their caps, their bodies slanting forward, reins slackly alert, men and horses of flesh imitating men and horses of stone. Tod Clifton’s Tod, I thought. The hucksters cried above the traffic sounds and I seemed to hear them from a distance, unsure of what they said. In a side street children with warped tricycles were parading along the walk carrying one of the signs, BROTHER TOD CLIFTON, OUR HOPE SHOT DOWN.

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And through the haze I again felt the tension. There was no denying it; it was there and something had to be done before it simmered away in the heat.

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Chapter 22

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When I saw them sitting in their shirtsleeves, leaning forward, gripping their crossed knees with their hands, I wasn’t surprised. I’m glad it’s you, I thought, this will be business without tears. It was as though I had expected to find them there, just as in those dreams in which I encountered my grandfather looking at me from across the dimensionless space of a dream-room. I looked back without surprise or emotion, although I knew even in the dream that surprise was the normal reaction and that the lack of it was to be distrusted, a warning.

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I stood just inside the room, watching them as I slipped off my jacket, seeing them grouped around a small table upon which there rested a pitcher of water, a glass and a couple of smoking ash trays. One half of the room was dark and only one light burned, directly above the table. They regarded me silently, Brother Jack with a smile that went no deeper than his lips, his head cocked to one side, studying me with his penetrating eyes; the others blank-faced, looking out of eyes that were meant to reveal nothing and to stir profound uncertainty. The smoke rose in spirals from their cigarettes as they sat perfectly contained, waiting. So you came, after all, I thought, going over and dropping into one of the chairs. I rested my arm on the table, noticing its coolness.

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“Well, how did it go?” Brother Jack said, extending his clasped hands across the table and looking at me with his head to one side.

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“You saw the crowd,” I said. “We finally got them out.” “No, we did not see the crowd. How was it?”

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“They were moved,” I said, “a great number of them. But beyond that I don’t know. They were with us, but how far I don’t know . . .” And for a moment I could hear my own voice in the quiet of the high-ceilinged hall.

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“Sooo! Is that all the great tactician has to tell us?” Brother Tobitt said. “In what direction were they moved?”

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I looked at him, aware of the numbness of my emotions; they had flowed in one channel too long and too deeply.

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“That’s for the committee to decide. They were aroused, that was all we could do. We tried again and again to reach the committee for guidance but we couldn’t.”

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“So?”

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“So we went ahead on my personal responsibility.”

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Brother Jack’s eyes narrowed. “What was that?” he said. “Your what?”

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“My personal responsibility,” I said.

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“His personal responsibility,” Brother Jack said. “Did you hear that, Brothers? Did I hear him correctly. Where did you get it, Brother?” he said. “This is astounding, where did you get it?”

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“From your ma –” I started and caught myself in time. “From the committee,” I said.

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There was a pause. I looked at him, his face reddening, as I tried to get my bearings. A nerve trembled in the center of my stomach.

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“Everyone came out,” I said, trying to fill it in. “We saw the opportunity and the community agreed with us. It’s too bad you missed it . . .”

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“You see, he’s sorry we missed it,” Brother Jack said. He held up his hand. I could see the deeply etched lines in his palm. “The great tactician of personal responsibility regrets our absence . . .”

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Doesn’t he see how I feel, I thought, can’t he see why I did it? What’s he trying to do? Tobitt’s a fool, but why is he taking it up?

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“You could have taken the next step,” I said, forcing the words. “We went as far as we could . . .”

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“On your personal re-spon-si-bility,” Brother Jack said, bowing his head in time with the words.

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I looked at him steadily now. “I was told to win back our following, so I tried. The only way I knew how. What’s your criticism? What’s wrong?”

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“So now,” he said, rubbing his eye with a delicate circular movement of his fist, “the great tactician asks what’s wrong. Is it possible that something could be wrong? Do you hear him, Brothers?”

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There was a cough. Someone poured a glass of water and I could hear it fill up very fast, then the rapid rill-like trickle of the final drops dripping from the pitcher-lip into the glass. I looked at him, my mind trying to bring things into focus.

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“You mean he admits the possibility of being incorrect?” Tobitt said. “Sheer modesty, Brother. The sheerest modesty. We have here an

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extraordinary tactician, a Napoleon of strategy and personal responsibility. ‘Strike while the iron is hot’ is his motto. ‘Seize the instance by its throat,’ ‘Shoot at the whites of their eyes,’ ‘Give ’em the ax, the ax, the ax,’ and so forth.”

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I stood up. “I don’t know what this is all about, Brother. What are you trying to say?”

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“Now there is a good question, Brothers. Sit down, please, it’s hot. He wants to know what we’re trying to say. We have here not only an extraordinary tactician, but one who has an appreciation for subtleties of expression.”

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“Yes, and for sarcasm, when it’s good,” I said. “And for discipline? Sit down, please, it’s hot . . .”

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“And for discipline. And for orders and consultation when it’s possible to have them,” I said.

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Brother Jack grinned. “Sit down, sit down — And for patience?” “When I’m not sleepy and exhausted,” I said, “and not overheated as

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I am just now.”

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“You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn and you’ll surrender yourself to it even under such conditions. Especially under such conditions; that’s its value. That makes it patience.”

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“Yes, I guess I’m learning now,” I said. “Right now.”

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“Brother,” he said drily, “you have no idea how much you’re learning — Please sit down.”

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“All right,” I said, sitting down again. “But while ignoring my personal education for a second I’d like you to remember that the people have little patience with us these days. We could use this time more profitably.”

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“And I could tell you that politicians are not personal persons,” Brother Jack said, “but I won’t. How could we use it more profitably?”

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“By organizing their anger.”

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“So again our great tactician has relieved himself. Today he’s a busy man. First an oration over the body of Brutus, and now a lecture on the patience of the Negro people.”

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Tobitt was enjoying himself. I could see his cigarette tremble in his lips as he struck a match to light it.

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“I move we issue his remarks in a pamphlet,” he said, running his finger over his chin. “They should create a natural phenomenon . . .”

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This had better stop right here, I thought. My head was getting lighter and my chest felt tight.

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“Look,” I said, “an unarmed man was killed. A brother, a leading member shot down by a policeman. We had lost our prestige in the community. I saw the chance to rally the people, so I acted. If that was incorrect, then I did wrong, so say it straight without this crap. It’ll take more than sarcasm to deal with that crowd out there.”

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Brother Jack reddened; the others exchanged glances. “He hasn’t read the newspapers,” someone said.

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“You forget,” Brother Jack said, “it wasn’t necessary; he was there.” “Yes, I was there,” I said. “If you’re referring to the killing.” “There, you see,” Brother Jack said. “He was on the scene.”

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Brother Tobitt pushed the table edge with his palms. “And still you organized that side show of a funeral!”

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My nose twitched. I turned toward him deliberately, forcing a grin. “How could there be a side show without you as the star attraction,

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who’d draw the two bits admission, Brother Twobits? What was wrong with the funeral?”

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“Now we’re making progress,” Brother Jack said, straddling his chair. “The strategist has raised a very interesting question. What’s wrong, he asks. All right, I’ll answer. Under your leadership, a traitorous merchant of vile instruments of anti-Negro, anti-minority racist bigotry has received the funeral of a hero. Do you still ask what’s wrong?”

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“But nothing was done about a traitor,” I said.

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He half-stood, gripping the back of his chair. “We all heard you admit it.”

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“We dramatized the shooting down of an unarmed black man.”

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He threw up his hands. To hell with you, I thought. To hell with you. He was a man!

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“That black man, as you call him, was a traitor,” Brother Jack said. “A traitor!”

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“What is a traitor, Brother?” I asked, feeling an angry amusement as I counted on my fingers. “He was a man and a Negro; a man and a brother; a man and a traitor, as you say; then he was a dead man, and alive or dead he was jam-full of contradictions. So full that he attracted half of Harlem to come out and stand in the sun in answer to our call. So what is a traitor?”

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“So now he retreats,” Brother Jack said. “Observe him, Brothers.

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After putting the movement in the position of forcing a traitor down the throats of the Negroes he asks what a traitor is.”

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“Yes,” I said. “Yes, and, as you say, it’s a fair question, Brother. Some folks call me traitor because I’ve been working downtown; some would call me a traitor if I was in Civil Service and others if I simply sat in my corner and kept quiet. Sure, I considered what Clifton did –“

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“And you defend him!”

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“Not for that. I was as disgusted as you. But hell, isn’t the shooting of an unarmed man of more importance politically than the fact that he sold obscene dolls?”

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“So you exercised your personal responsibility,” Jack said.

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“That’s all I had to go on. I wasn’t called to the strategy meeting, remember.”

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“Didn’t you see what you were playing with?” Tobitt said. “Have you no respect for your people?”

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“It was a dangerous mistake to give you the opportunity,” one of the others said.

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I looked across at him. “The committee can take it away, if it wishes. But meantime, why is everyone so upset? If even one-tenth of the people looked at the dolls as we do, our work would be a lot easier. The dolls are nothing.”

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“Nothing,” Jack said. “That nothing that might explode in our face.”

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I sighed. “Your faces are safe, Brother,” I said. “Can’t you see that they don’t think in such abstract terms? If they did, perhaps the new program wouldn’t have flopped. The Brotherhood isn’t the Negro people; no organization is. All you see in Clifton’s death is that it might harm the prestige of the Brotherhood. You see him only as a traitor. But Harlem doesn’t react that way.”

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“Now he’s lecturing us on the conditioned reflexes of the Negro people,” Tobitt said.

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I looked at him. I was very tired. “And what is the source of your great contributions to the movement, Brother? A career in burlesque? And of your profound knowledge of Negroes? Are you from an old plantation-owning family? Does your black mammy shuffle nightly through your dreams?”

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He opened his mouth and closed it like a fish. “I’ll have you know

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that I’m married to a fine, intelligent Negro girl,” he said.

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So that’s what makes you so cocky, I thought, seeing now how the light struck him at an angle and made a wedge-shaped shadow beneath his nose. So that’s it . . . and how did I guess there was a woman in it?

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“Brother, I apologize,” I said. “I misjudged you. You have our number. In fact, you must be practically a Negro yourself. Was it by immersion or injection?”

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