Summary and Analysis
Chapter 6 - The Willsons
This chapter examines the relationship between the Willsons and the Calibans. The primary focus is on the white family, but much of their lives depends upon their black servants. The two families throughout their history symbolize the slave-master relationship. In fact, the current generation of Willsons is unable to understand Tucker's new role as a self-determining man.
It is significant that Dewey, now returning home from his first year of college, is more concerned with a letter from Tucker than with his reunion with his parents. Kelley points out, again and again, that many white southerners have had no life — or very little life — apart from their slaves. This letter that Dewey cannot understand is important to him; he has spent many hours trying to understand it and wishes he could remember more clearly the day that Tucker writes about. He cannot understand the letter because he feels that it is written in a code that "he could not remember or had never known." Indeed, Dewey has never known the kind of humiliation that Tucker suffered that day. The humiliation came from being punished on instructions from someone outside the family, someone for whom he had done a service, someone unconcerned with his son's joys and aspirations.
Tucker's "code," however, is not difficult; it is a simple one. Tucker would like to buy the bike from Dewey and destroy it, just as he has destroyed all of the other symbols of his lifelong humiliation. The bike is the only tie that remains between Tucker the slave and Tucker Caliban the free man. But the fact that Tucker does not get this bike illustrates, in effect, that the blacks are still tied to their slave heritage in this country — even though the bonds are not as tight as they once were.
In this chapter, the invisibility theme, touched on briefly in the last chapter, is expanded. When Dewey thinks of how the station looked when he arrived, he cannot remember the abnormally large number of blacks waiting to leave Sutton. He can see only black porters and can remember only the gray suits and the red caps of these blacks. He cannot remember the large number of blacks who were dressed in their best attire. The contrast here is significant because it helps to show how the whites fail to see individuals who are black, unless they are in service positions. And equally significant is the fact that Dewey can recall small details about his parents after finding them on a platform filled with blacks, but he cannot remember that any blacks were there — other than the porters.
It is only after he has left the station that Dewey begins to notice that something strange is happening. There are more blacks than usual downtown, the good-byes of children seem final, and men talk together attentively and solemnly. It is at this point that the subject of Tucker is brought up. The matter, of course, leads to Dewey's verbally attacking his father.
It is ironic that Dewey is slow to grasp that the changes he notices in the blacks were caused by Tucker. As the circumstances of Tucker's departure are told to Dewey, he finds them unbelievable and resolves to find out for himself. This suggests that he did not really know Tucker; he refuses to believe that Tucker could take such action because of their close relationship as children and, too, because Dewey encouraged Tucker to write to him. Despite the fact that there were white and black witnesses to Tucker's acts of destruction, the white community does not really believe the account. Dewey tells his family that he will go find out what actually happened. His quest, taken on the bicycle, will be one in which he will be confronted by the realities of southern life — including its violence. Dewey will learn truths which Tucker has always known. As a result, Dewey will lose his long-protected innocence.
Dewey is also forced to adjust his relationship with his father. Throughout his life, he felt rejected by his father and blamed him for his mother's unhappiness. On his return, Dewey notices that his mother is close to his father and seems very happy. She has forgiven her husband and is willing to build a new life. Dewey, at first, cannot accept this state of affairs; he does not fully understand that adult life and love are based on forgiveness and compromise.