Summary and Analysis
Chapter 2 - The African
The quotation from which the title of this novel is taken has immediate significance because the men on the porch are trying to understand Tucker Caliban's salting his land, killing his livestock, burning his home, and leaving the state. Obviously, Caliban has heard a different drummer; these are not the kinds of things that are in step with the actions of the other black men in the community. Tucker, it seems, believes in ideas quite different from those people who believe that they have sure solutions for the racial problems of the South.
Besides arousing our curiosity about Caliban, Kelley also tells us in this chapter more about Dewey Willson, a Confederate general. Willson is, as it were, the representative of the southern white men of the state, known primarily because of his ability to keep northern forces from penetrating the area. Symbolically, Willson is used to show the effective resistance of the white South to the idea of the brotherhood of all men. Dewey Willson's effectiveness, thus, is not only because of his military exploits but, more important, because of his long resistance to change.
In this imaginary southern state, there are two "giants" pitted against one another. We have already met one of them: General Willson, who died just after a ten-foot statue of himself was dedicated. The General lives in legend as, after Lee, the Confederacy's greatest military leader.
The other giant is black. He is simply called the African, a huge and powerful man; he was brought to American shores but refused to become an American slave. This giant symbolizes the strong, freedom-loving blacks who survived the passage to America. These people never succumbed to the system which attempted to dehumanize them; they resisted it until their deaths. The African fights the system but is finally slain by Dewitt Willson, the father of the General.
The tale of the African begins with the arrival of a slave ship in New Marsails. The sailors bear the scars of several slave rebellions, led by the African, and the captain insists that the African be kept away from the other slaves even after he is taken off the ship. The auction is attended by all the townspeople because the arrival of a slave ship is a major event. The auctioneer has a black assistant who, because he has the same features, mannerisms, and way of dress as the auctioneer, might be the auctioneer's son. The description of the African is exaggerated here, as in all tall tales. His size, strength, and cunning are much beyond that of ordinary men. His bearing is regal, and the captain notes that the African is a chief.
Dewitt Willson, who came to the boat to accept delivery of a grandfather clock, sees the African and immediately decides to buy him — and break him. Dewitt pays a thousand dollars in cash for the African and for the baby he carries under his arm. But the moment that the transaction is completed, the African escapes, with the aid of the auctioneer's black assistant.
Then, as the legend goes, Dewitt chased the African through the country for several weeks, was unsuccessful, and became seriously ill. Before long, the African began to free slaves on the plantations. Dewitt offered a thousand-dollar reward for the capture of the African, and, with several white men, he again set out to capture him.
One evening, the auctioneer's black assistant walked into Dewitt's camp and offered to lead the white men to the African if he were guaranteed the thousand-dollar reward. The legend describes Dewitt's sadness at having to capture the African through betrayal rather than after a fair fight. Most of all, Dewitt wanted to capture the African alive and bring him under his control; in this way, he could strongly affirm his manhood.
At the moment of confrontation, Dewitt and the African stared into each other's eyes, and, finally, the African conceded defeat with a slight bow. Dewitt understood that he could never conquer the African; he would have to shoot and kill him. Just before his death, the African attempted to kill the baby, but Dewitt managed to save the child and took him back to the farm. The child was named Caliban by young Dewey, and the relationship between the two families — the two races — begins.
Like the giant statue of the General, the saga of the African is a symbol of an entire society. The heritage of the African, however, was nearly dormant while the spiritual descendants of the General controlled southern society; yet beneath the surface, the African represented to the blacks the strength of the black man who would rather die than be a slave. (There is a southern spiritual, revived and adapted during the civil rights movement, which includes the line, "And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my God and be free.") No one knows how many hundreds of slaves killed themselves, or were lynched, after unsuccessful attempts to escape from southern plantations. By and large, however, because of this heritage of violent white reprisal, most blacks remained quiet, as did the Calibans until Tucker's act of renunciation.
The African's pride and his uncompromising need for freedom remained in the nature of the Calibans. This is Tucker's African heritage, and its symbol is the small white stone which Dewitt Willson picked up after killing the African. The stone was being used as part of a spiritual or religious ritual, performed by the African when the white men surrounded him; it was given to Tucker by David Willson when Tucker bought the farm.
Perhaps one of the most dominant ideas in this novel is the Emersonian idea of individuality: As expressed by Tucker, it means simply that a man must free himself. But besides individuality, Kelley develops other ideas: (1) blacks and whites are almost inseparably tied to one another; (2) black people have a profound effect on the lives of white people in the South; and (3) it is necessary for blacks, rather than whites, to take the steps needed to change the racist structure of society.
The African, upon whom much of this story is dependent, represents all of those strong-willed black men who were brought to America but who refused to accept themselves as slaves. An important contrast is made with the auctioneer's Negro. This young black man imitates his white master's style to perfection, even his way of dressing. He has no principles; he proudly states that he is an American — that is, he "goes with the winner" (first, with the African; then, with Dewitt). The actions of the auctioneer's Negro are significant for still another reason. He is of African descent and knows that regardless of his ability to imitate white culture, he is basically a black man and a slave; he is unable to resolve the dilemma of being an African and also an American. For centuries, the dilemma has plagued black people in America. This duality is shown when the auctioneer's Negro joins the African's raiding band. He dresses in African garb, symbolizing his allegiance to his homeland, but he retains his green derby, a symbol of the capitalist American system (green here represents money). He later betrays the African for the reward, again valuing money more than the elusive ideal of liberation.
Dewitt Willson becomes involved with the Calibans through the grandfather clock that he was to pick up the day that the African was brought in. This clock becomes a symbol of the ties between the two families. It was imported from Europe by the Willsons and, after some years, is given to the Calibans. This gift cements the ties of the Caliban (black) and the Willson (white) families. It also symbolizes the Western European culture which has been forced on the Calibans by their white masters. Dewitt Willson's enslavement of the African's baby and of the subsequent generations of people who became known as Calibans (primitive man) is symbolic of the ties between the blacks and whites in the novel. The General, at the age of twelve, named the African's baby Caliban after reading Shakespeare's Tempest. (In Shakespeare's play, Caliban is a primitive, enslaved man whose elemental human nature is superior to "civilized" human nature.) Thus in this section, Kelley has established two kinds of bonds: that of the Willsons and the Calibans, and that of Tucker and his heritage from the African. The legend functions as a story within a story and furnishes the reader with a historical basis from which to interpret the rest of the novel. In addition, the legend adds another dimension to the theme that all people innately desire freedom but must achieve it on their own terms.
Although many years have elapsed since the Emancipation, neither the Calibans nor the Willsons have really been emancipated. The Calibans continue to serve the Willsons until Tucker's historic action, and the younger Willsons are still tied to a way of life they don't want. This entangling of the lives of blacks and whites in the South is, thus, not limited to the slave-master relationship, but rather with many of the social, economic, political, and cultural aspects of the affairs of both blacks and whites. This theme has been successfully dealt with by two black playwrights — Douglas Turner Ward in his Day of Absence and by Ossie Davis in his Purlie Victorious. It has been an underlying theme in the work of many American novelists, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner.
Returning to the narrative proper of this section, note that the action begins as the men on the porch are trying to make sense of the past few days. During these days, Tucker Caliban salted his land, destroyed his property, and left the state. After that, all of the other black residents began to leave. The men on the porch, representatives of southern society, are contemplating a state without blacks. The major part of their waking hours is devoted to the political and economic meaning of this exodus. The salting of the land by Tucker is recognized as the most serious thing to happen in thirty years, according to Mister Harper, the elder statesman of the group.
Harper took to his wheelchair some thirty years before and has not had anything important enough to get him out of it until the Thursday he decided to get a firsthand look at Tucker's farm. Mister Harper points out that Tucker has started a revolution. Of course, Mister Harper is assumed to be an authority because revolution was one of the things that he studied at West Point.
Harper tells the story of the strength of the African and his resistance to enslavement, and Tucker's actions are then equated with the violent, physical acts of the African. It is clear that Tucker, the descendant of the African, represents those blacks who have yet to make a place for themselves as free men. His emancipatory act is, in a sense, no less legendary, for he too resists the system which tries to dehumanize him. It is a different type of resistance, however, characterized by less violence towards other men. The large head on his small body seems to emphasize the fact that his actions are those of the mind instead of the body. Tucker knew intuitively that the time had come for him to take his life into his own hands and make a break with the past. In contrast, the African's main effort was to free slaves physically and remove them from the control of their white masters. Caliban's acts free only himself; other blacks are free to follow, but there is no effort made to convince them to do so. This type of action — personal, almost introverted — relates to the situation of blacks in America. For many, the move towards freedom takes place in the mind as blacks begin to see themselves in a more positive light. This, too, is a revolution.
The reader should note the importance of the final dialogue between Bobby-Joe and Thomason. Bobby-Joe refuses to believe that Tucker's acts are tied to his heritage of pride from the African. He hints that Tucker's acts must have been influenced by someone else. His attitude is like that of many whites who believe that the entire civil rights movement, the rebellions in Watts, Detroit, Baltimore, and other cities, and the teachings of revolutionaries like H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis are all inspired by Communists or other outside agitators. The reports of presidential commissions in the 1950s and 1960s (and by other study groups set up throughout the twentieth century after violent acts by large numbers of blacks) confirm, however, that the major cause of racial conflict is that blacks are forced to revolt, to resist actively, the destructive effects of white racism.
Thus, Kelley places at the bottom of society those whites who maintain that blacks cannot act from their own perception of the racism that oppresses them. Note especially that the reader is introduced to Bobby-Joe, the prime advocate of this position, sitting with his feet in the gutter. Symbolically, he is the trash of white society.