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Free Study Guide-Invisible Man by Ralph Waldo Ellison-Free Book Notes
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CHAPTER 17

Summary

After four months of study, Jack takes him to Harlem. However, instead of delivering speeches, he is taken out for drinks. The lack of activity bothers the narrator, who longs for another chance at glory. He studies more than ever, preparing for the next speech. Jack informs the narrator that he has been voted spokesperson for the Harlem district. He is advised to keep the people stirred up and active. He will be provided with guidance and orders. Jack explains that he has freedom to operate within the guidelines of the organization. He tells him that he will have an appointment with the executive committee of the Harlem section the next day at nine. Jack then takes him to the location of his new office. They are met at the door by Brother Tarp.

The next morning, the narrator arrives on time. He is announced as the new spokesperson just as Brother Clifton arrives late. At first, the narrator is threatened by the handsome young man, thinking he is a rival for his position. Clifton explains his tardiness by saying he was seeing a doctor to treat his wounds from an encounter with Ras the Exhorter and his nationalists. In the meeting the narrator suggests that they focus on the eviction issue in the community by getting the support of local officials. Brother Clifton supports his idea. Then, he suggests taking the speeches to the streets like Ras does. The committee agrees but reminds Clifton of the non- violence rule of the group. Jack leaves, and Clifton and the narrator go over plans for street speeches. The narrator looks around the room to observe everyone and try to figure them out. He cannot, deciding they are too different, too fluid. He decides that he too is different and changes all the time. He decides he should not make anyone angry, since he is to be the new leader.

Outside, the narrator is surrounded by a crowd of people anxious to hear him speak. Clifton's youth division of the Brotherhood surrounds him. Ras the Exhorter and his violent gang of activists show up and begin to fight. The narrator is hit in the head and falls. He sees Ras pull a knife on Clifton but stop in mid-air. Ras lets Clifton go because he is black. Ras tries to convince Clifton and the narrator that they are traitors to the black people by helping ex- slave holders and calling them brothers, for there are white men in the Brotherhood. Ras goes on to explain that white men will only call them brothers long enough to achieve their goals. He pleads with them to believe him, even moved to tears. The narrator responds carefully, telling Ras they will not go away, and they want no more trouble with him or his nationalists.


Clifton and the narrator leave, talking as they go about how Jack will respond to the violence, which is strictly against Brotherhood policy. Clifton halfway admits to believing some of Ras' philosophy, revealing that he sometimes feels he has turned his back on the black people in some manner. He tells the narrator he does not know any other way of fighting for his cause, revealing that if he allowed himself to get as angry as Ras, he might lose control and kill someone. The narrator is mostly silent, finally saying he is glad the Brotherhood can help them fight for their cause.

Notes

The most significant aspect of this chapter is the gradual revelation of the narrator's emotional state. He has been swept up into a world of crowds, speeches, political rallies, causes, and ideologies. He finds himself beginning to feel important, identified because he has been given a name and a purpose, even if the name is not familiar to him and the purpose is not exactly clear. Crowds of strangers applaud him, follow him, ask him to speak. He is important enough to spark dissension, argument, even riots. He finds himself appealing to politicians to support the cause of the Brotherhood and is often successful. But he is not entirely confident, and the arrival of Tod Clifton arouses insecurity in him, some fear that he might lose his new position of importance and popularity. Clifton, however, becomes a companion, not an enemy.

The two of them encounter the first real threat to their so-called identities. They are challenged by Ras the Exhorter, a sometimes violent African Nationalist who believes the black man must separate himself entirely from the white man in order to be seen and respected. Ras does not agree with the Brotherhood and thinks the white men in the organization are using young black men to get what they want. He warns Clifton and the narrator that they will be used and then forgotten. Ras is passionate and sincere in his warnings, even moved to tears. He ignites the flames of doubt in Tod and the narrator, confusing them about their motivations and their causes. Tod even gives voice to his doubts, saying he sometimes feels he has betrayed his people.

The narrator begins to question the absurdity of being given a new name; these new doubts and questions are at the heart of yet another disillusionment for the young narrator.

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