Summary and Analysis
In this third chapter, the reader is introduced to Harry Leland and is given the first hint that this particular day is going to be different from most. Harry, we learn, is a principled man but, like everyone, has his weaknesses. One such weakness is quickly apparent. Marge Leland, his wife, has told him to visit the ailing Miss Rickett, but Harry does not go; he sends his son instead. His shirking of responsibility continues throughout the chapter. He sees his mistakes but is unable to correct them. His son, who sees things as either right or wrong, understands his father and decides that the responsibilities of a man are larger and worse than those of a boy.
When Mister Leland (Harold) refers to Tucker as a "good nigger," Harry, who is trying to "raise the boy right," does not reprimand his son immediately because Harry is in the company of Thomason. Harry is very much aware of group pressure, although he may not agree with their attitudes, and he is not willing to oppose his friends on matters of race. At lunch, when Harry and his son are alone, he lectures him about using the word "nigger." Harry realizes that things in the South will not remain the same, and it is this that he tries to explain to his son. He points out to Harold that someday he will have to get along with all kinds of people — something which older people are not able to do at present.
It is important that the reader recognize that some of the most significant events of the novel take place in this chapter. Kelley selected Harry Leland to say some of the most important things because he is most aware of the changes that will come to the South. The events could have been related by Mister Harper, who seems to be the most important white character in the novel thus far — according to most of the white people of the town. But Harper is an old man and is used as a mouthpiece for the old ideas of the white South. Mr. Harper functions as a transmitter of southern culture. His mind is a repository of the history, legends, and other memories which sustain this culture. Since the South was, and is, a society which identifies very strongly with its past, it is Mr. Harper who relates the legend of the African. The other men on the porch were hoping to find in the story an acceptable explanation of an unreasonable event. They, like Bobby-Joe, find it hard to believe or even understand how black people have found the initiative to leave the state. The whites are dumbfounded; "their" blacks have no right leaving the place they "belong in." Again, the paternalistic and proprietary air of the white southerner is exposed. The idea of slavery is a century old, but, to the whites, blacks are not yet men who are able to think independent of the white man.
The old ideas, however, are dying — through the efforts, here, of Harry, educating his son so that he can adjust to the changing society. It is also apparent that the old ideas are dying when Mister Leland rejects any association with Mister Harper because of the old man's age. Both young Harold Leland and old Mister Harper are addressed as "Mister." This is a title of respect which signifies that Harper's position in the culture will not be taken by any of the men on the porch, but that it will be taken, eventually, by Mr. Leland.
One of the most interesting symbols in this novel is Mr. Harper and his wheelchair. Mister Harper, like the South, is crippled; he has retired to a wheelchair, and, in this position, neither he nor the South can move very far or progress very rapidly. This wheelchair situation has existed for some time. After the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, racial conditions in the South have been static; nothing much changed — until 1957. And even then, it was only momentarily. That change was caused by blacks. The Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in 1954, and by 1957, the date of the migration from this imaginary state, the South had begun to move. But that slight movement had already ceased, for enforcement of the law did not follow.
Returning to Harry Leland and his son, note that Kelley describes the usual routine of the men on the porch as they gather each morning to talk the day away. During the morning, the driver of a truck loaded with rock salt stops and asks the men for directions to Tucker Caliban's farm. The men speculate about why Tucker ordered the rock salt, and Thomason asserts that Tucker is "evil," meaning difficult to get along with. Too often, whites, especially those from the South, tend to dislike and mistrust those blacks who show any independence or who do not seem perfectly content with the status quo. This is the earliest hint we have that Tucker may have inherited some of the proud nature of the African.
Harry, in his struggle to be decent and fair-minded, realizes that the status of racial relations is somehow askew. He is a strong contrast to David Willson, an articulate but ineffectual liberal. Harry represents the grass roots of southern society, and he and his fellow southerners must change within themselves. David, who is considered somewhat of an outsider by these whites, cannot impose a reformed way of thinking. The situation of the whites is analagous to that of Tucker and the other black people in the area who found their own way without the help of Bradshaw and other black "leaders."
Mister Harper arrives as the men finish their drinks and the group gathers on the porch. The day passes in ideal conversation, with no excitement, until Stewart drives his wagon into town at breakneck speed. Here, Kelley uses an interesting image to describe the man's frantic pace. Stewart looks as if he were being chased by "ghosts or a thousand angry Negroes." The use of the word "ghosts" is a clever play on the word "spook," a black slang term.
Stewart's frantic arrival is scoffed at by Harry and the men, but Mister Harper is poised, tensely awaiting Stewart's news. Stewart tells of seeing Tucker salting his land, and Mister Harper immediately tells the men to put him on the wagon and take him to the farm. This is Mister Harper's first time out of his chair, and Harry tells his son that perhaps Mister Harper has finally found something important enough to cause him to move. Many of the townspeople follow the wagon out of town, mesmerized by the sight of Mister Harper out of his chair. As the whites pass the black section, many of the town's black residents form their own group and follow the whites out of town. Now we see Tucker Caliban for the first time in the novel.
Stewart announces that Caliban has gone crazy, but it is Harry Leland who makes the reader understand that Tucker acts as if he were doing something as ordinary as planting seed; he is not acting out of anger at the land's poverty. Obviously, Tucker Caliban is no ordinary man. He, like Mister Harper, is accorded much respect. Evidence of this is provided by Mister Harper. The old man calls to Tucker very softly, using a far different tone than he would call to any of the men who sit on Thomason's porch or, for that matter, any of the blacks in the town. When Tucker does not answer, Harper respects his silence and just watches him. He makes the point to Stewart that once Tucker Caliban has started something, no one can stop him.
Mister Harper walks to the edge of the field with the help of Harry and Thomason. The group silently watches Tucker salt his land. Mister Harper eventually speaks to him, but Tucker ignores all the men. And after he has salted his fields, Tucker kills all of his livestock and then destroys the grandfather clock which came on the same ship as the African.
Wallace Bedlow, a black man, offers to help move the clock, but Bethrah refuses his help. She insists that she and her husband must do it themselves. It is significant that the only person who is allowed to help Tucker is his wife, who is several months pregnant. The bond between this man and woman is the truest and deepest of ties; even the offer of help from another black person is rejected. This cohesive family unit echoes the concern of the African for his child. Bethrah also introduces the idea of individualism, which motivates Tucker and which is developed later.
Tucker's destruction of the land, his livestock, his home, and the grandfather clock severs all of the ties he has had with the Willsons and the South. One should observe that the instrument he uses for the destruction of his land is white: his land is whitened, signifying the destructiveness of white.
Tucker also cuts down the tree which marked the boundary of the Willson Plantation. It is a tree that has witnessed the days of slavery and the South in its glory, and Tucker now destroys it. As it falls, it sounds another fall, the eventual fall of the old racist ideas of the South.
Stewart continues to insist that Tucker is crazy, but Harry makes the reader understand that the land belongs to Tucker and that he can do with it whatever he wishes. The idea of Tucker's being "crazy" is important here because throughout the history of black people in America, whites have very often asserted that those blacks who did not acquiesce to the oppressive system of slavery were crazy.
The grandfather clock, which was given to First Caliban because of his service to the Willson family, has remained in that family until Tucker destroys it. This clock is another symbol of the bond between the two families, and, like the other ties, Tucker destroys this one also. The clock is also a symbol of the Europeanization of the Calibans. The clock and the African arrived on the same ship, yet little trace of the African's culture remains. His children have helped build the South, yet their dignity, their freedom, and their culture have been taken from them. As Tucker smashes the clock, he smashes much more than the bond between two families. He also shatters the cultural dependence of blacks on whites.
In this chapter, besides Tucker, we also see Bethrah Caliban. She, together with her baby, represents the future generations of black people who will not be tied to whites and the South. The present generation has now begun to break those chains — in ways undreamed of by their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Wallace Bedlow is also introduced in this chapter. Bedlow, the leader of the local black community, is unable to understand the action that Tucker is taking. As a result, he pokes fun at Caliban, and his followers laugh. For the present, Bedlow leads the laughter, but shortly afterwards he will be following the path began by Caliban.
It is at the close of the chapter that Harry Leland sees Tucker talking with Mr. Leland. The significance in this lies in the fact that Caliban would not talk to any of the adults — black or white — but he does talk to young Mister Leland. This suggests the possibility that there is hope for the new generation. His children will be a part of that generation, and he is taking steps to help secure their future.