Summary and Analysis
Attending chapel, the narrator hears Rev. Homer A. Barbee, a blind preacher from Chicago, deliver a powerful sermon about the Founder and his vision for the college. Overcome with emotion, the narrator leaves early to prepare for his meeting with Dr. Bledsoe. During the meeting, he is shocked to discover that Bledsoe, entrusted with carrying on the Founder's legacy, is nothing like the man Rev. Barbee built him up to be. That evening, after Bledsoe reveals his greedy, self-serving, and opportunistic character to the narrator, lecturing him on the politics of race and power, Bledsoe expels the narrator. Devastated, the narrator decides to leave immediately, returning to Bledsoe's office only to pick up seven letters that, Bledsoe assures, will help him get a job in New York where he can earn enough money to return to school in the fall. Grateful for his assistance, the narrator accepts the letters and places them in his briefcase along with his high school diploma.
These chapters reveal that, instead of preserving and protecting the Founder's legacy, Dr. Bledsoe perpetuates the myth of white supremacy by educating his students to stay in their place, subservient to whites. Thus, as the narrator suspects as he ponders the statue of the Founder lifting the veil, Bledsoe is, in fact, lowering the veil and ensuring that his students remain "in the dark."
Although they seem very different, Rev. Barbee and Dr. Bledsoe are similar in some ways. (See Character Analyses.) The most striking resemblance between the two men is that both are blind to the truth and therefore "in the dark" about the ways of the world. But while Rev. Barbee is physically blind and cannot see things as they are, Dr. Bledsoe is emotionally blind and simply refuses to see, which is far more debilitating.
Here again, Ellison skillfully merges fact and fiction. Bledsoe and Barbee allude to the two sides of a renowned historical figure: Booker T. Washington, the Founder of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. Praised by some as a powerful leader and educator, Washington was condemned by others — such as the famous black scholar and educator W.E.B. Du Bois — for his conciliatory stance on "social equality." Although his intentions were good, Washington was blind to the impact his conciliatory stance had on blacks who were determined to fight for equal rights at any cost.
Bledsoe reveals, through his sermon, that he once idolized the Founder in the same way the narrator idolizes Bledsoe (until he discovers his true character). While Bledsoe (like the narrator) despises lower-class blacks, he cannot deny the racial and cultural ties that bind him to "these people." Like Trueblood, Bledsoe is a blues singer and storyteller. But unlike Trueblood — who remains true to his blood (people) — Bledsoe betrays his people. Rev. Barbee's sermon infers that Dr. Bledsoe was once an idealistic young man like the narrator who truly believed in the Founder's dream. But — as is revealed through Bledsoe's ensuing conversation with the narrator — Bledsoe's painful experiences as a black man in a racist white society so distorted his vision that he can no longer see the dream.
During his fateful meeting with Bledsoe, the narrator learns some valuable lessons concerning the politics of race and power. Bledsoe's rhetorical question, "What kind of education are you getting around here?" seems to confuse the narrator as he struggles to tell his side of the story concerning Norton's disastrous campus tour. In light of Rev. Barbee's powerful sermon concerning the Founder's dream of bringing black people out of the darkness and ignorance of slavery into the light of knowledge through education, Bledsoe's question seems particularly poignant, as it highlights the contrast between "the way things are and the way they're supposed to be."
Still haunted by the horrors of slavery, which legally denied blacks the right to read and write, blacks saw education as a means of obtaining a measure of pride and dignity and an opportunity for a better life. Along with men such as Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute — which serves as the model for Ellison's nameless Southern college — blacks believed that education would provide a way out of the crushing cycle of poverty experienced by sharecroppers and tenant farmers, in addition to forcing whites to see them as intelligent, articulate human beings instead of brutes ideally suited for working in the fields and performing other types of hard, menial labor. Moreover, teaching people to become independent, critical thinkers and transmitting the culture and history of a people are two of education's primary goals. Neither goal, however, plays a part in Bledsoe's philosophy of education.
Key images in these two chapters include the surreal image of Rev. Barbee's collar cutting off his head, symbolizing the separation of mind and body (because blacks were not allowed to integrate their mind and body and become whole men), and the statue of the Founder soiled by the mockingbird, symbolizing the white stain on black history.
The role of religion, the power of sermonic language with its drama, biblical imagery, and emphatic repetition, and the impact of the black church on the black community, are also significant. Although Ellison focuses on the importance of the church, through Rev. Barbee's blindness he also wants to point out that blind faith without some grounding in reality is of little use to the black community. Returning to the images of the blindfolds and the veil, Ellison is alluding to the fact that religion was often used to keep blacks "in their place," as white preachers often preached sermons centering on the theme, "Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters." He is also trying to point out that surviving in this world necessitates both a spiritual vision as well as a firm grasp on reality.
Bledsoe, playing the role of the college gatekeeper, jealously guards his position. Afraid that someone like the narrator — whom he sees as a potential threat — will undermine his authority and challenge the status quo, Bledsoe gets rid of him immediately.
vespers evening prayer.
verbena any of various plants with spikes or clusters of showy red, white, or purplish flowers, widely grown for ornament.
arpeggios chords played so that the notes of each chord are played in quick succession instead of simultaneously.
nexus a connection, tie, or link between individuals of a group, members of a series, etc.
Horatio Alger American author (1832-99). Alger sold more than 200 million books after the Civil War by writing about characters such as "Ragged Dick" and "Poorhouse Jed," who overcame incredible odds to succeed in life. His name has come to symbolize the journey from rags to riches.
dugs a female animal's nipples, teats, etc.; sometimes used, vulgarly or contemptuously, in reference to a woman's breasts.
Aristotle ancient Greek philosopher, pupil of Plato; noted for works on logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, etc.
Mother Hubbards full, loose gowns for women, patterned after the costume worn by Mother Hubbard, a character in a nursery rhyme.
alpacas a thin cloth woven from the wool of a llama, often mixed with other fibers.
diminuendo a gradual decrease in loudness.
Your arms are too short to box with me, son reference to the black folk saying, "Your arms are too short to box with God."