Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 - One Long Ago Autumn Birthday
Kelley, in the five short pages that comprise the flashback chapter, focuses on several key points concerning race relations in the United States. Dewey Willson, on the morning of his tenth birthday, discovers that he has received a new bicycle for his birthday and begins to search for Tucker so that Tucker can teach him how to ride it. Tucker is a servant of the Willsons, so Dewey automatically thinks that Tucker will do as he's asked. Dewey's dependence on Tucker is also a comment on the absence of a close father-son relationship between Dewey and his father. Not once does Dewey think of asking his father to teach him how to ride the new bicycle. Even though Tucker is busy with chores and cannot help Dewey until later, there is still no thought in Dewey's mind of asking his father or his mother because it is taken for granted that this is the job of the "colored boy." And later, when Dewey and Tucker return late for dinner, Tucker is punished — for doing his job, a job that really should have been done by the boy's father. Dewey, of course, is not reprimanded for being late. He is white and cannot be punished like a black boy even though it was at his insistence that they continue the lesson. It is important to note that Tucker's punishment is dictated by a white man and rendered by the black mother for the white man's satisfaction.
Also important here is the fact that Tucker is held "responsible" for the white boy's being late. That is, he was supposed to make certain that he and Dewey followed Mr. Willson's rules when they were together. This, of course, is virtually an impossible task because Tucker is the servant and cannot tell Dewey what to do. Dewey may not yet realize this, but Tucker certainly does. It can be seen in the way he looks at people — a look "that made it seem that he was about to lash out and strike at something." Tucker has tried telling Dewey things, such things as not wearing sneakers when riding a bike because he might hurt himself, but Dewey has ignored him. The point here is that the novel’s white people refuse to listen to advice or suggestions given them by blacks. By being black, Tucker can be right in only one way: by letting the whites think for him. Even at the early age of thirteen, however, Tucker was a rebel; he was not a "responsible" Negro. He was aware that he would be beaten for not getting Dewey back to the house on time. Yet he accepted this and continued to teach the white boy to ride the bicycle. The action that Tucker takes as an adult is not that of a "responsible" Negro either. But because he is his own man, Tucker gets more respect from the whites of Sutton than any other black man in town. Above all else, Tucker Caliban is the symbol of the strong-willed, individualistic, self-determining black man.
In addition to showing us this bit of Tucker's background, Kelley also uses this chapter to illustrate the difference in the black and white life styles of the South when Kelley wrote the novel. Dewey is ten years old, but there is no mention of his having chores or responsibilities. Tucker, at thirteen, is working like a full-grown man; it is also highly unlikely that he would receive a bicycle for his birthday. Dewey, on the other hand, has always had a childhood full of material goods. In contrast, Tucker has had no childhood; he has always had to work to insure the comfort of Dewey and his family. And besides this difference in their pasts, there are also hints about their futures. It is possible that were Tucker a passive black man, he would probably become a wrinkled old man like his grandfather, forced to work despite his advanced age. Dewey could probably look forward to becoming, like his father, a manager who does none of the physical labor on the land. Neither child, however, will follow these usual patterns because of one thing: Tucker's rebellion.