Summary and Analysis
Running through the streets of Harlem, the narrator is accidentally shot after stumbling into the path of two armed policemen in pursuit of four men stealing a safe. A man later identified as Scofield, stops to help the narrator and discovers that the bullet only "knicked" his head. The narrator's briefcase, apparently misplaced in the melee, is returned to him.
Seeing that one of the men carrying the safe has been killed, the startled narrator realizes his wound could have been fatal. Carrying a large cloth bag, Scofield urges the narrator to go with him. The narrator and Scofield meet up with Scofield's friend Dupre, also carrying a sack. Scofield suggests that the narrator has "loot" in his briefcase, but the narrator replies, "Not much," correcting his misperception.
Continuing to follow Scofield and Dupre, the narrator is caught up in Dupre's plan to burn down a tenement building — despite the protests of Dupre's wife. Running from the burning building, the narrator loses his briefcase again and runs back into the flames to retrieve it. He continues running and suddenly finds himself surrounded by seven hanging dummies, which he at first mistakes for human bodies.
The narrator tries desperately to return to Mary's, but while running from two men with baseball bats, he falls into a manhole and lands in a coal cellar, his refuge and sanctuary. Desperate for light, he burns each of the items in his briefcase, discovering that Brother Jack wrote the letter warning him not to "go too fast." Finally, exhausted, having lost all track of time, he falls asleep and dreams of being castrated by Brother Jack while several of the antagonists he has encountered during his life stand by and watch. Awakening from his nightmare, the narrator realizes he can never return to Mary's or to any other part of his past. Resolving to remain in his cellar, stripped of his illusions, the narrator sees his life with renewed vision and clarity.
In his Introduction, Ellison remarks that "war could, with art, be transformed into something deeper and more meaningful than its surface violence," and that one way to accomplish such a transformation is through the "comic antidote" of laughter. In this chapter, merging images of violence and destruction with absurd, comic images — the four men running with the safe; the "thrice hatted" Dupre, who conjures up images of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland; the woman carrying a whole side of a cow on her back; Scofield pulling a quart bottle of Scotch out of his hip pocket, and the grotesquely fat, beer-drinking woman on the Borden's milk wagon — Ellison transforms the Harlem riot into something deeper and more meaningful. Connecting the image of the beer-drinking woman with that of the honey wagon in Chapter 13, creates a surprisingly powerful new image: that for blacks, America is not the land of milk and honey, but the land of milk wagons and honey wagons.
Despite his comic approach, however, Ellison depicts a very real sense of the mob mentality. Like the boiler at the Liberty Paint factory, the people have been under so much pressure, they are ready to explode. Any spark will ignite the flames.
Their behavior is self-destructive: Instead of channeling their anger and frustration and targeting the real enemy — the white power structure — they burn down their own homes. The Harlem riot recalls the riot at the Golden Day: instead of turning on Mr. Norton, the vets attack Supercargo. Similarly, Lottie (Dupre's pregnant wife) pleading with him not to burn down their tenement, recalls a similar scene in Chapter 13: Sister Provo pleads with the city officials not to evict her and her husband.
The key images in this chapter mirror the battle royal in Chapter 1: People behave like animals and blindfolded boys fight a boxing match. The narrator's story, which begins and ends in chaos, has "boomeranged" and come full-circle, affirming his statement that "The end was in the beginning" and advancing the themes of blindness, confusion, and anarchy in a world with no rules or boundaries.
This last chapter also reverses some of the images introduced in Chapter 1. The rioters are now drunk on whiskey and instead of white men wolfing down food at the buffet table, black men and women are looting stores, foraging for food. Instead of brass tokens advertising brand-name cars, the looters seek out brand-name foods and apparel (Wilson bacon, Dobbs hats, Budweiser beer, etc.), which illustrates their physical hunger as well as their psychological hunger to participate in America's consumer-based society. Finally, instead of a naked blonde with a flag tatoo, this chapter presents the absurd image of black boys in blonde wigs.
Advancing the theme of chaos and confusion, this chapter merges several scenes from preceding chapters into the melee of the riot. The looters filling their buckets with coal oil recalls the "Cast Down Your Bucket" speech in Chapter 1, and evokes images of the buckets of white paint at the Liberty Paint Factory and the narrator's hideout in the coal cellar of the "whites only" apartment building.
The narrator's comment comparing the riot to a Fourth of July celebration is significant. Enslaved Africans had no reason to celebrate the Fourth of July, as Frederick Douglass pointed out in his powerful speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July." From this perspective, the riot is a revolt against victimization and oppression on a day that celebrates freedom for whites.
Also important are Scofield's and Dupre's "cotton picking" sacks, which conjure up images of enslaved black Africans toiling in the cotton fields on countless Southern plantations. During the riot, Dupre uses his sack to carry loot. Dupre's vision — his version of the American Dream — is to fill his sack with $10 bills and return to the South.
Similarly, merging images of the race war and the riding race metaphor with horse racing by alluding to horses and riders, Ellison plays on the word "race." The most detailed of these images is that of Ras on his "great black horse." A secondary image is the juxtaposition of the famous racehorse, Man o' War, and the equally famous (but forgotten) jockey, Earle Sande. By introducing these two figures along with the image of The Lone Ranger and his horse, Silver, Ellison points out a dual irony of America's racist society: Not only do Americans remember the horse (Man o' War) but not the jockey (Earle Sande), they are more likely to remember a fictional white character (The Lone Ranger) than a factual black figure (Sande). Finally, from the moment the narrator becomes involved in the riot to the moment he falls down the manhole into the coal cellar, he tries desperately to get back to Mary's, a place that still represents his only source of safety and refuge. It is only when he finally rids himself of his past by burning the items in his briefcase that he is able to become whole in his hole and envision a life without illusion.
Men who seemed to rise up out of the sidewalks . . . allusion to the story of Jason and the Argonauts' "Quest of the Golden Fleece." To prove himself worthy of the Golden Fleece, Jason — by order of King Aetes — must sow a field with dragon's teeth, which spring up into a "crop" of armed men and attack him. With the help of Medea, the king's daughter, he defeats the men and escapes with the Golden Fleece.
Joe Louis born Joe Louis Barrow (1914-81); U.S. boxer, world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949
t-bees reference to tuberculosis, an infectious lung disease often referred to as TB.
ex post facto done or made afterward.
fusillade a simultaneous or rapid and continuous discharge of many firearms.
Earle Sande (sic) Earl Sande (1898-1968), a black jockey inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame for riding Gallant Fox to horse racing's Triple Crown in 1930.
Man o' War legendary race horse (1917-1947) that set three world records and two American records.
Heigho . . . Silver allusion to The Lone Ranger, a TV western popular during the 1940s and 50s.