Summary and Analysis
Mister Leland — that is, Harold — recalls a morning during the previous summer when Tucker bought him a bag of peanuts at Thomason's store. As Tucker gave the boy the bag, he told him that he was aware of how Harry was trying to raise him. Mister Leland did not, at first, understand what Tucker was talking about and was confused by Tucker's brusque manner. Here, Mister Leland reveals an important idea of this novel: People's appearances often belie their actual feelings. Later, Harry Leland explained what Tucker was referring to. Harry has been trying to raise his son to be a "passable human being." Harry Leland has realized that there is something wrong with the people in his community; he wants to raise his son differently.
Because of this episode, Mister Leland considers that he and Tucker became friends. Therefore, as the boy watches Tucker burn his house, he is upset that the men are calling his friend crazy and evil. As Bethrah and Tucker leave, the boy runs after them and tries to get an explanation for their strange behavior. Tucker's answer, however, only confuses the boy more; he simply asks him if he has ever lost anything. Mister Leland does not understand Tucker, but, actually, Tucker's reply to the boy is a most concise explanation of his actions. Tucker and, by implication, all the previous generations of black people have lost many things: dignity, heritage, and selfhood. And they lost these rights to be human by not seizing their freedom long ago.
The next day, when Wallace Bedlow appears with a suitcase in his hand and stands waiting for a bus, he is questioned by Harry. Harry asks Wallace a few casual questions, but the conversation takes on a threatening overtone as Wallace reveals that he is leaving for good. Tense black-white relations crackle in this brief conversation. Harold notices that the older black man calls Harry "Sir." When Bedlow becomes loud and tells the white men that he will not return, that he is going North, he is challenging the southern paternal attitude of "owning" black men.
The white men's failure to challenge Bedlow indicates that they accept their helplessness. More blacks come to the bus stop and silently board when the bus arrives. The black people seem absorbed in deep thought. The author describes them as acting as if the white people do not exist. As a matter of fact, they do not exist — in the minds of the black people. The blacks have ceased relating to the southern whites.
As the day wears on and more blacks leave Sutton, the white residents become increasingly curious. Some whites even have the naiveté to ask why the blacks are leaving, a situation which proves the extent to which the whites believe that the blacks are happy in their situation.
Kelley's ability as a writer is evident in the way he handles abstract ideas that are important for Mister Leland to understand. The use of analogies by both Mister Leland and Harry Leland makes many points clear. Mister Leland is a successful character because he understands difficult concepts not through the adult eyes of his father but by applying information gotten from Harry to situations which he himself has actually experienced.
When Reverend Bradshaw comes to Sutton, several new ideas are introduced. Bradshaw comes as a representative of the Resurrected Church of the Black Jesus Christ of America, Inc. and, on his watch chain, dangles a golden cross with a figure of Christ on it. (Later, Bradshaw will see himself as a symbolic sacrificed lamb and will submit to being "crucified.") The cross, in black literature, besides being a symbol of Christianity, is also a symbol of persecution, vandalism, and violence inflicted on black people in America. The cross is the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing racist groups. This cross spreads fear and death, so we are forewarned that Bradshaw will be associated with an act of violence. In fact, his death later in the novel will be at the hands of a mob of lawless whites.
Even though Bradshaw thinks of himself as a man of the people, we should be quick to discern that he is a part of the same system that produced the Willson family. Unlike the other black characters, Bradshaw acts without regard to the protocol established for blacks in the South. He does not use "Sir" when addressing white men. He has the affluence seen only in such white families as the Willsons. There is shiny chrome all over his car, and the big cross he wears is golden and is attached to a gold chain. His wallet is fat. He has a chauffeur, and his sun glasses have gold rims. Like the auctioneer's Negro, this man has a vested interest in the capitalistic system and the status quo. The irony of it is that he is characterized as a black "leader." Someone with such a well-established interest in the system is not going to attempt to change it radically, if at all. This character, although less well developed, should be compared with David Willson. Willson (white) and Bradshaw (black) were both students at Harvard (an Establishment symbol), and they, in college, pledged to make their society a better place in which to live. Yet their idealism is destroyed by the desire to gain and hold the rewards of the system for themselves. As reformers, they are both ineffectual.
As Bradshaw begins to address Mister Leland, this young boy — a symbol of change and newness — makes a significant point — that is, all blacks seem to live much better in the North @ a myth.
When Bradshaw addresses Mister Leland and gives him five dollars, he recognizes that this boy is the representative of a new generation of people who will be more humane. He senses that this boy will not be a representative of the kind of society in which blacks are treated with little or no respect and dignity. Ample evidence of this is presented whenever Mister Leland talks about black people. He almost always starts to say "niggers," then changes to "Negroes." And perhaps it should be pointed out now that Harry Leland's concern about raising Mister Leland to be a "passable human being" is not entirely based on feeling a need for greater humanity among whites, but because he foresees changes in the South when one will have to be more tolerant.
Bradshaw's disdain for the Old South is shown by his ignoring the older men on the porch. By doing this, he invites trouble — as is revealed by the threatening remarks of Billy-Joe. The men on the porch are envious and resentful of the black man's obvious success. His ignoring them incenses them further.
When Bradshaw attempts to reconstruct the events of the previous day — with the help of Mister Leland -we discover two things: the contempt that he has for the black masses and the fact that he is aware of the "ways of white folks." His contempt is seen when he is told about the destruction of the grandfather clock. Bradshaw's statement indicates that he has been assimilated into white culture, including their prejudices and their jargon when talking about black people. Kelley's article "The Ivy League Negro" deals with these attitudes which characterize the brainwashed "educated" Negro. Bradshaw, like the Ivy League Negro whom Kelley cited in his article, is Harvard educated. Kelley, of course, has knowledge about this subject because he attended Harvard for a while.
Concerning the destruction of the grandfather clock, Bradshaw remarks, "Isn't that gloriously primitive!" Later in the chapter, Mister Harper agrees with that statement. Bradshaw uses white language in a patronizing way in his reaction to Tucker's action; Tucker, however, is indeed acting in a "primitive" manner since primitive man often dealt with abstract ideas by creating tangible symbols for them. Thus, through the destruction of the clock, Tucker destroys the ties of his family to the Willsons and, on another level, the ties of black people to European culture. His act is akin to the primitivism of his ancestor, the African. It is significant that Tucker receives a primitive symbol from David Willson, the white stone used by the African before he was killed.
Bradshaw has forgotten that humanity deals with abstract ideas through symbols. The only reason that he takes Tucker's act seriously is because the blacks of the area are following Tucker's example. Like the whites whom he is trying to imitate, Bradshaw has come to believe that even the first step toward freedom should be taken through a complicated and slow process. Tucker's act attacks the psychological dependence of the blacks on the whites with an emotional, rather than a purely logical, act. The white stone which passed from the African, the last free Caliban, to Tucker is a tangible, ritualistic African symbol which has emotional significance to Tucker. Tucker, in receiving the stone, receives a symbol of his true heritage.
When Mister Leland hedges as he is telling Bradshaw about his conversation with Tucker, Bradshaw demonstrates his competence in handling white people. He is aware of the fact that an "uppity nigger" — as he is called — cannot get the information he wants, so he uses the language that Mister Leland is accustomed to hearing from blacks. It is not surprising, then, that young Leland readily repeats his conversation with Tucker.
After Bradshaw's attempt at explaining Tucker's statement about losing something, Mister Leland tries to make sense of Bradshaw's comment. Although Mister Leland does not discover what Tucker has lost (his manhood), he does figure out how one can lose something he has never had and decides that maybe that's what happened to Tucker. Bradshaw tells the boy that when he is older, he will understand Tucker's statement and his action. As Bradshaw drops off the boy in town, he shakes hands with him. Harold notices that the minister's hands are soft, like a woman's. Bradshaw's physical softness is more proof that he is not a product of the working class, which he claims to lead.
In the meeting between Dewey Willson and Harold and his younger brother, Walter, Harold again tells the story of Tucker's destruction of his farm. But he feels that Dewey does not believe him and that Dewey may be a little off-balance. However, when his little brother jumps to the conclusion that Dewey is crazy, Harold resists the idea and remembers that people are not always what they appear to be. He remembers too that Tucker seemed crazy but that he had a good reason for his actions. Harold is beginning to show some signs of growing up. He realizes that he is too young to understand some things, but he is also aware that some facts which he understands, his younger brother is still too young to comprehend.