Summary and Analysis
The next day, while walking in the streets of Harlem, the narrator buys a hot buttered yam from a street vendor and eats it greedily. No longer feeling compelled to hide his identity as a Southern black by denying his love for certain foods, the narrator experiences a profound sense of freedom. Pondering the link between food and identity, he imagines exposing Dr. Bledsoe as "a shameless chitterling eater," then runs back to the vendor and buys two more yams, but discovers that the last one is frostbitten.
Continuing on, the narrator comes upon the scene of an eviction. Two white men bring a chest of drawers out of a nearby apartment while a group of black men and women stand silently by and an old black woman tearfully calls the narrator's attention to her helplessness and humiliation. Feeling uncomfortable, the narrator tries to blend into the crowd of bystanders. Oblivious to the pleas of her husband, who has appeared on the scene to comfort her, the woman loudly denounces the men who are literally tearing her home apart.
The narrator surveys their meager belongings, which represent a whole lifetime of struggle. Suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, he realizes that an old, yellowed piece of paper that has been trampled into the snow is the old man's "freedom papers." The narrator picks up the precious document and places it in the chest of drawers.
As the woman tries to go back into her house to pray, one of the white men tries to stop her and a scuffle ensues, during which the old woman falls and angry bystanders surge forward. Determined to stop the tension from erupting into violence, the narrator intercedes and pleads for the men to remain calm and to consider the consequences of their actions. Launching an emotional speech on dispossession, the narrator encourages them to return all the furnishings to the apartment and leads them into the old couple's house to pray.
Meanwhile, the police arrive and accuse the narrator of interfering with the eviction, but a white girl helps him escape by suggesting that he run across the apartment rooftops. After narrowly escaping the police, the narrator encounters a man who introduces himself as Brother Jack. After telling the narrator how much he admired his speech at the eviction, Brother Jack invites the narrator to accompany him to a nearby diner. There, Brother Jack invites the narrator to join the Brotherhood. Skeptical, the narrator refuses and heads back to Mary's, but he accepts a slip of paper containing Brother Jack's name and address.
The narrator's determination to continue on the yam level by embracing rather than rejecting his black culture is one of the highlights of this chapter. His quip, "I yam what I yam," which initially appears to be simply another example of Ellison's wordplay, is, on closer analysis, much more complex. The phrase is from Popeye, the cartoon character who is part of our American pop culture, just as yams are part of the narrator's Southern culture. Considering his comment from this perspective, eating yams in public indicates his having overcome his shame at being identified as a Southern Negro, which marks an important turning point in his quest for identity. (Recall, for example, his refusal to order the special of pork chops, grits, eggs, hot biscuits, and coffee in Chapter 9.)
The phrase also alludes to French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes' famous statement, "I think; therefore, I am," which highlights rational thought as the definitive attribute of the individual. Ironically, it also foreshadows the 1960s Civil Rights movement during which black men marched in silent protest, carrying signs and wearing sandwich boards proclaiming, "I am a man!"
The fact that the narrator arrives at this defining moment shortly after he revels in his vision of exposing Dr. Bledsoe as a "chitterling eater" is significant because he suddenly realizes that his black Southern culture (symbolized by traditional Southern foods such as yams and chitterlings) is part of his identity. However, although he has gone from one extreme to the other — first denying, then embracing his cultural heritage — he has not come any closer to establishing his personal identity.
The conversation between the narrator and Brother Jack concerning the eviction of Brother and Sister Provo is another important aspect of this chapter. Seeing that the narrator has been emotionally touched by the scene, Brother Jack pretends to empathize with him by comparing the eviction to "a death" and then telling him about Death on the City Pavements, which he describes as "a detective story or something I read somewhere. . . ." In fact, "Death on the City Pavements" is not a detective story, but an allusion to Part 3 of Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices, a pictorial history of black America. Published in 1941, the book combines Wright's text with photographs compiled during the Great Depression, which illustrate the crushing poverty of rural blacks living in squalid shacks in the South and urban blacks living in northern ghettos. "Death on the City Pavements" focuses on the hopelessness and despair of Harlem residents living in crowded, substandard, and overpriced apartments. In light of Wright's graphic essay, the evictions of blacks in Harlem, such as that witnessed by the narrator, were common, everyday events. But Brother Jack's lack of knowledge concerning "Death on the City Pavements" reveals his lack of knowledge concerning African American culture and literature and, by extension, his lack of knowledge about the plight of Harlem's black citizens, whom his organization purports to support and represent.
The women in the eviction scene are also significant. The men are spurred into action by an unidentified West Indian woman, and Sister Provo defies the white men attempting to evict her and her husband. Their actions illustrate the powerful although largely unacknowledged role of black women in the struggle for freedom and equality.
It seems that witnessing the eviction profoundly alters the narrator's perception of Harlem and raises his awareness of his social responsibility to the black community. On his arrival, he saw Harlem as a city of dreams, where black girls work at a five-and-dime store and black policemen direct traffic. After the eviction, he sees Harlem as just another dismal, impoverished black neighborhood.
Nubian a native or inhabitant of Nubia, an ancient kingdom in Northeast Africa.
honey wagon slang for a wagon used to transport human body waste. Honey wagons were used before the advent of indoor toilets.
paddie slang version of paddyroller, a slave catcher who hunted runaways for bounty.
fyce a small, snappish dog.