Summary and Analysis
After learning the art of scientific rhetoric for four months, the narrator receives an invitation over the phone to go for a ride from Brother Jack. Expecting to go to the Chthonian, the narrator is disappointed when Brother Jack takes him to the El Toro Bar instead. But the narrator is excited to hear Brother Jack tell him that he has been appointed chief spokesman of the Brotherhood's Harlem District. Brother Jack takes the narrator to visit his new office, and introduces him to Brother Tarp, an elderly black man who seems genuinely glad to meet the narrator.
The next morning at a Brotherhood meeting, the narrator is introduced to the other members of the Brotherhood as the new spokesman. Meeting Brother Tod Clifton, Harlem's youth director, the narrator senses that he might be a competitor for his new leadership position. Later, realizing that Brother Clifton is not interested in power or politics, he begins to relax and the two young men discuss their strategies for working with the Harlem community.
Leaving the Brotherhood meeting, Brother Clifton and the narrator are attacked by a group of black men led by Ras the Exhorter. The narrator sees Ras strike Brother Clifton and raise his knife threateningly, then lower it and walk away. As the narrator and Brother Clifton start to leave, Ras accuses Brother Clifton of being a traitor. Furious at this accusation, Brother Clifton turns on Ras and knocks him out. Brother Clifton and the narrator walk away, determined to ignore Ras and rededicate themselves to the Brotherhood.
The events in this chapter create a growing sense of danger and foreboding, prompting the reader to feel that things are out of place and contrary to expectations.
To begin with, Brother Jack calls the narrator at midnight (the witching hour) and takes him not to the Chthonian, but to the El Toro (Spanish for "The Bull"), a Harlem bar that caters not to blacks, but to a Spanish-speaking clientele. At the El Toro, as the narrator studies the scenes of a bullfight on the wall panels behind the bar, he notices a calendar with a picture of a white girl in a beer ad, indicating the date as April 1 (April Fool's Day). At this point, the narrator is indeed being taken for a ride or, to put it another way, he is being played for a fool and fed a lot of bull.
Another example of things being unexpected and out of place are the wall panels behind the bar. Expected to hold a mirror, they display bullfight scenes and a gored matador. Instead of seeing his own reflection, the narrator sees the matador's image — foreshadowing his own fate.
The scene also raises several issues that the narrator might question, especially after spending four months studying logic and scientific rhetoric. Why doesn't Brother Jack congratulate him on his new position, or announce his new position to the other Brotherhood members? What kind of a spokesman will he be if he will be told what he can and cannot say? Why, if he is to speak for the people of Harlem, did Brother Jack move him to an apartment outside his district? Most of all, he might consider the irony of having a white man assign him to be a spokesman for black people. But once again, the narrator fails to ask questions that might help him make sense of this situation.
The encounter that the narrator and Brother Clifton have with Ras and his men places their position in a new perspective, for while both men see themselves as leaders of the black community, Ras and his men see them as sellouts and Uncle Toms. Although Ras' ravings seem illogical and even racist, he does raise some significant issues, especially concerning the concept of selling out. In the black community, a sellout is a black person who accepts money or other personal gain by working for the system (the white power structure). This chapter raises the question: Is the narrator a sellout, or is he simply accepting a job that will enable him to earn a living by using his public speaking skills? A convincing case could probably be made for either side.
Although Ras's argument appears to be purely emotional, he makes several valid points concerning the tactics whites use to manipulate blacks. However, by focusing purely on race, his speech loses power. His remark that "all brothers are the same color" doesn't ring true. So far, the narrator suffered his most bitter betrayals at the hands of his black brothers such as Lucius Brockway and Dr. Bledsoe.
Representing socialism and Black Nationalism, respectively, Brother Jack and Ras characterize the contrast between the Brotherhood and Ras's followers. The Brotherhood supposedly advocates nonviolence and focuses on integration and cooperation as the only means by which people — both black and white — will be able to work together for the good of society as a whole, especially the poor and oppressed. In contrast, Ras's followers advocate freedom and equality even if it means fighting for these rights. The Brotherhood focuses on issues of both race and class, whereas Ras's followers emphasize race as the deciding factor.
Although Ellison insisted in a later essay that the Brotherhood does not represent Communism, the striking resemblance between the communist philosophy and the Brotherhood can't be ignored. Both emphasize group vs. individual rights. By contrast, Ras's Black Nationalist philosophy, although rooted in racism and separatism, stresses independence, self-reliance, and individual rights.
The Brotherhood may also represent the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it has been fraught with the same kinds of internal conflicts. Ellison undoubtedly knew that W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP's founders, eventually left the group because he felt it no longer fulfilled its mission as an active civil rights organization dedicated to fighting for equality and equal opportunity.
Another important development in Chapter 17 concerns the relationship between the narrator and Brother Clifton. Although Tod Clifton is the darker brother, he has distinctly European features. He also has already attained a leadership role within the Brotherhood. Conversely, the narrator, whom Emma describes as "not black enough" to represent the black community, is less steeped in Brotherhood philosophy and even admits that he has some doubts and misgivings about the organization. But like Brother Clifton, he sees the Brotherhood as a supportive organization that will help him hone his leadership skills and achieve his goal of becoming a renowned and respected speaker. On a more practical level, he also sees his work with the Brotherhood as a means of economic survival and an opportunity for a new life, as symbolized by his new clothes, new job, and new apartment, all of which he owes to the Brotherhood.
However, because both men are keenly aware that they have had to sacrifice many of their personal and cultural values to work for the Brotherhood, their encounter with Ras — who reminds them of their identity and responsibility to their African ancestors and the black community — is unsettling, especially for Brother Clifton.
Another key character introduced in this chapter is Brother Tarp, who gives the narrator a portrait of Frederick Douglass, indicating his faith in the narrator, whom he sees as having the potential to become another Douglass. A former slave, Douglass (1817-95) went on to become one of the most famous nineteenth-century orators and statesmen. By giving the narrator a portrait of Douglass for his office, Brother Tarp demonstrates his faith in him as a potential leader of the black community. His act also indicates that he views the narrator not as another Booker T. Washington, who many blacks felt compromised his values to gain the financial and political support of influential whites, but as another Douglass, a man who freed himself from the mental and physical bonds of slavery to become a renowned and respected spokesman for freedom and equality.
The narrator's initiation/indoctrination into the Brotherhood illustrates the process educated blacks (like Dr. Bledsoe) go through to be accepted into the system. Those who resist and refuse to play the game are often forced to the margins of society — such as Jim Trueblood, Mary, and the cart-man — or they are perceived as insane — such as the vet, the narrator's grandfather, and Ras the Exhorter. The narrator is, in fact, becoming Dr. Bledsoe, because the Brotherhood wants to make him the new Booker T. Washington.
sectarianism narrow-minded, limited, parochial thinking.
Uncle Tom a term of contempt for a black whose behavior toward whites is regarded as fawning or servile.
perfidity betrayal of trust; treachery.