The color-coded boxes under "Analysis & Themes" below (which look like this: ) make it easy to track the themes throughout the work. Each color corresponds to one of the themes explained in the Themes section of this LitChart.
Analysis & Themes
Unable to endure his own thoughts and worries, the narrator rushes out into the street for a walk. He begins walking downtown through the ice-covered streets. As he walks he examines all the varied aspects of the Harlem community.
The narrator spots a man on the street with an “odd-looking wagon,” and immediately smells the aroma of baked yams. The odor reminds the narrator of childhood and of the south. The narrator approaches the man and buys a yam. He eats the yam immediately, and is overcome by its deliciousness. The yam man gives the narrator hot butter to eat with the yam. The yam makes the narrator homesick.
The yams are a symbol of the relationship between the narrator’s past and present. Much of the narrator’s past is best left discarded (such as his relationship with Bledsoe), but he still has a history. He still is from the south and still likes yams, which are a reminder that one cannot reinvent oneself entirely overnight. Compare this to earlier in the novel when the narrator chose not to eat the chop because he wanted to avoid looking southern.
The narrator has a moment of realization, deciding that he will no longer act according to what others think of him. He will eat a yam on the street if he wants to. He remarks that many blacks are ashamed of their own culture, even the things that they like. He imagines Dr. Bledsoe’s shame if the narrator were to accuse him of being a “chitterling eater.” He resolves to be ashamed no more, and buys two more yams from the yam man.
For his entire life, the narrator his been trained to think that certain typical objects of black cultural life (such as yams or chitterlings) are shameful or represent a kind of black inferiority. The narrator realizes that there is no reason to dislike yams other than to gain white approval, which is something that no longer interests him.
The narrator keeps walking and takes a side street. He nearly stumbles over a pile of junk set out in the street. Soon he realizes that a crowd is gathered, and that the “junk” is part of an eviction taking place. Two movers and a marshal are dispossessing an elderly couple, the Provos, from their apartment, a fact the crowd regards impassively. The narrator hears scattered words that something ought to be done about the eviction, but no one actually takes action.
The eviction of the Provos is an incident that makes white oppression tangible: instead of a vague system to resent, the Provos are really being thrown out of their house. While the gathered crowd expresses its anger and resentment, no one is bold or organized enough to do anything to prevent their dispossession.
The old woman, Sister Provo, protests her ill-treatment in the street, asking the movers to take their hands off of her Bible. The crowd begins to get angrier, and the narrator too feels outraged when he sees Sister Provo sobbing. The narrator examines the couple’s clutter thrown into the street. He recognizes both knick-knacks and his documents that display their history, including Brother Provo’s “freedom papers” from 1859. The narrator feels as though he too is being dispossessed.
By looking at the couple’s material possessions, the narrator becomes aware of the complicated history through which the couple has lived. Brother Provo was once a slave, and it seems to the narrator that he has come through his entire life to find nothing better than slavery on the other side. The couple becomes emblematic of an entire history of dispossession.
Sister Provo tells the marshal that she wants to go back into the apartment to pray, but the man refuses to let her back into the apartment. The crowd sides vocally with the old woman, asking the marshal to let her back in. Sister Provo suddenly rushes up the steps and is rebuffed by the marshal. She falls backwards, and the crowd begins to turn violent, threatening to rush the marshal.
Before the crowd can attack the marshal, the narrator steps to the front of the scene and begins giving a speech, telling the crowd that they are a “law-abiding people.” With some fits and starts, he tries to convince the crowd to organize around a leader instead of indulging in violence. He asks the crowd to examine the possessions of the Provos, to see the bric-a-brac as the sum of two lives. He also discovers that Brother Provo is 87 years old.
The narrator begins to weave a narrative of the Provos, telling the crowd that Brother Provo’s work for many years as a day laborer has come to nothing. Rhetorically, the narrator asks the crowd what happened. With the crowd on his side, the narrator tries to convince the marshal to let the Provos back into the house for 15 minutes in order to pray. The marshal refuses, telling the narrator that he has his orders.
The narrator’s speech is a history of the black struggle in a post-slavery society. Despite all of Brother Provo’s hard work, he has not been given the opportunity to succeed in a world that is aligned against his skin color. Although it is moving, the narrator’s speech has little effect on the marshal, who seeks to enforce his orders at all costs.
The narrator tries to keep speaking in order to keep the crowd under control, but is soon bypassed by the anger that he himself has sparked. The crowd rushes past him and overtakes the marshal. As the crowd attacks, the narrator yells that they should have a prayer meeting in the apartment. The men begin to take the possessions of the Provos back into the apartment.
While the crowd restores the apartment, the narrator notices a few white men have joined the crowd to help. When he asks, they refer to themselves as “friends of the people.” The white men make the narrator uneasy, despite their seemingly good intentions. One of the white men calls for everyone to stage a march.
The narrator notices the intrusion of the members of the Brotherhood. There is already a sense on the part of the narrator that these white men—even though they identify themselves as friends of the people—are meddling, as the dispossessions seem like an issue that is only the concern of the black community.
Soon, the crowd hears the sirens of police cars. When the police arrive, they question the narrator, who replies that the crowd was simply cleaning up the sidewalk. The police send in a “riot call,” asking for reinforcements.
The narrator, realizing the situation is about to get out of hand, decides that he needs to escape. A white woman, another from the unfamiliar group, points him in the correct direction to escape. She tells him to go over the roofs to the other side of the block. She also compliments the narrator’s speech, telling him that he moved the people to action. The narrator thanks her and rushes up the stairs.
As the narrator makes his escape over the snow-topped roofs, he looks behind him and sees a man following him. The man doesn’t seem to be a police officer, but the narrator still tries to get as far ahead of him as possible. As he runs, the narrator begins to regret his role in causing a riot. He reaches the end of the block and returns to street level, trying to look inconspicuous as he walks aware from the scene.
Just as the narrator thinks he’s escaped detection, the voice of Brother Jack pierces him from behind, complimenting the narrator on his powers of persuasion. Brother Jack calls himself a “friend” and an “admirer,” but the narrator is skeptical. Brother Jack asks the narrator to get coffee with him.
At a cafeteria, the narrator examines Brother Jack, a small white man with a bouncy step. He feels that something about Brother Jack’s demeanor is a little unreal. Jack returns with coffee and cheesecake, and begins to compliment the speaker’s rhetorical abilities. Jack also remarks that people like the Provos are “dead-in-living” and that the narrator shouldn’t worry about individuals. The narrator finds Jack’s “double-talk” way of speaking to be strange.
Brother Jack’s insistence that the narrator shouldn’t worry about individuals is the first sign of Jack’s abstract attitude toward the world, in which the currents of history are more important than individual people. However, it was exactly the narrator’s interest in the individual lives of the Provos that caused him to take up their struggle.
Brother Jack offers the narrator a job with his organization, telling him that they need a good speaker to represent Harlem. The narrator is unconvinced by Jack, and asks if anyone would really listen. Jack reassures him that there are people waiting to hear him. The narrator turns Jack down. Jack gives the narrator a telephone number to call should he change his mind.
The narrator leaves Brother Jack, unsure what to make of him. He is not sure if Jack’s offer is a trick. The narrator remembers his escape over the roofs, and realizes that Jack also was trying to flee the scene undetected. He thinks of the eviction again, imagining what it would be like if it happened to Mary Rambo. Knowing that Mary couldn’t be so helpless, his spirits are lifted as he returns home.