Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8 - Dewey Willson III
Dewey's nightmare helps explain his character, as well as helps us to understand the fate of the South for Kelley. In the dream, the southern soldiers are killed and decay in pools of death and sickness. The northern soldiers die and melt, but new soldiers are born from their pools of blood. Although the General throws Dewey his head, a symbol of the tradition-bound South, Dewey is unable to move to save himself. Basically, fear and guilt feelings cause Dewey to have this nightmare; he is terribly frightened and confused because he does not understand Tucker's actions.
Trying to find some reason for Tucker's actions, Dewey recalls the death of Tucker's grandfather. During the funeral service, Tucker became angered when the preacher kept stressing John's "sacrifice." Later, Tucker vowed that John would be the last Caliban to die a servant, with nothing better said of his life than that he "was the kind of man would always sacrifice hisself to help others." Dewey didn't understand Tucker's reaction to his grandfather's death. Tucker's motives are, as it were, "invisible" to the young white boy. Dewey is blind to the frustrations, the pain, and the tragedy of black life.
Kelley makes several observations in this chapter that help explain what he considers the nature of race relations in the South. The prerogatives of manhood, including defending family members from outsiders, are denied to Tucker. White southerners find it far safer and much easier to give a minimal amount of respect to black women, whom they associate with mother figures. Tucker, the oldest surviving male Caliban, is not, to the white bus driver and Dewey, competent enough to claim John's body alone. Dewey usurps the traditional masculine role which should have been Tucker's. Once again, Kelley proposes that the black man is locked into a serving, dependent role by white society.
Bradshaw attempts to use Dewey's insight into Tucker's character. This fails because Dewey has been blind to Tucker; he remembers several incidents, but only after much prodding. As the two men discuss Tucker, the idea of primitivism is brought up again. Tucker, however, was not as passive as Dewey thought, nor was he as fiercely angered as Bradshaw pictures him. Although each character in the novel attempts to interpret Tucker, the whole truth about Tucker remains a mystery.
When Dewey and Bradshaw question one of the black men who are waiting to buy tickets at the depot, they find that Tucker's actions have already been enlarged upon. The story is now becoming a legend. The black man repeats the story he heard, but he says that his decision to leave did not directly come from Tucker's rebellion. Kelley makes it clear that these black people are not sheep; they are not following a Great Black Leader — or even a fast-developing mythical one. True, the blacks saw each other leaving, but, most important, each man realized that he was free to leave. He was free to start a new life. And it is significant that the whites do not attempt to molest the blacks; they recognize that nothing can stop them now.
Dewey, in his attempt to relieve Bradshaw's concern over his irrelevance to black people, does not realize that he, too, will be affected by Tucker's actions. He does not yet understand that blacks are finally beginning to reclaim their selfhood and their dignity, nor does he realize that Tucker has challenged the entire structure of white supremacy.
Bradshaw becomes obsessed with the thought that he has become useless. His entire life, including its material comforts, has revolved around the need for black leaders. Later in the novel, when he submits to the lynch mob, he sees his death as his final contribution to a movement which died with him; he views his death as a sacrifice for his followers. Ironically, however, Bradshaw is the end of a tradition, while Christ established a philosophy with his death. In a sense, Bradshaw's death, which he hoped would establish a final, relevant act for the black struggle, has no meaning for black people. They have already advanced beyond the need for martyrs, as Bradshaw himself notes.