One day, the narrator opens an inconspicuous piece of mail to discover an anonymous note. The letter is a warning: “Do not go too fast.” The letter tells him that although he has been successful so far, it is still a white man’s world. It says that if he proceeds too rapidly he may be “cut down.”
The anonymous note is the first sign that something may be amiss in the narrator’s involvement with the Brotherhood. The message is reminiscent of Brother Jack’s warning during the narrator’s arena speech.
Shaken by the note, the narrator calls Brother Tarp into his office. He sees his grandfather in Tarp’s eyes. The narrator asks Tarp if he knows anything about the letter, but Tarp doesn’t have any useful information. Tarp tells the narrator that he looks like he’s seen a ghost.
The narrator sees his grandfather in Tarp’s eyes because he regards Tarp as a reliable support who won’t simply tell him what he wants to hear.
The narrator sits Brother Tarp down and asks him what the other members of the Brotherhood really think about him. Tarp replies that people only say positive things about the narrator, and that he’s sure to make a good leader. Tarp tells the narrator not to worry, and remarks that even the narrator’s most unusual suggestions have been accepted. Tarp points out a poster that forecasts the multiracial future of America “After the Struggle.” He indicates that some members were originally against the poster, but it turned out to be a success.
The narrator fears that someone is resentful of his quick success in the Brotherhood. Although the narrator is interested in his own power and prestige, he is also legitimately invested in the Brotherhood’s message of helping to better the lives of all people. Tarp’s reassurance is legitimate, suggesting that everyone knows that he is doing his best to work for the Brotherhood.
Brother Tarp asks the narrator if he’s from the south, to which the narrator says yes. Tarp tells the narrator that although he (Tarp) has a limp now, he wasn’t always lame. Tarp tells him that he got the limp dragging a chain in a chain gang for nineteen years. He says that he didn’t do much, but that he “said no to a man who wanted to take something from me.” Tarp tells the narrator that he eventually escaped by pretending that he drowned during a flood, and that he’s been looking for freedom ever since.
Tarp’s story on the chain gang is a reminder to the narrator that there are things that are more important than public recognition or his position in the Brotherhood. Tarp lost everything he had due to a cruel injustice, and joined the Brotherhood because he sincerely believes in its message of social betterment—he wants to find and create freedom for the oppressed.
Brother Tarp shows the narrator the shackle that he wore on the chain gang. Tarp tells the narrator that he can have it, calling it a “luck piece.” The narrator examines the worn and twisted metal and raps it against the desk. The narrator isn’t sure he wants the shackle, but accepts it anyway, comparing it to a family watch passed from father to son. The moment wells up many memories for the narrator, but he suppresses them.
Tarp gives his leg shackle to the narrator as a reminder of the continuous nature of the struggle against injustice. The narrator is unsure he wishes to accept total responsibility for carrying on the fight against such inequalities, but he does so anyway, knowing that inequality and cruelty is part of his own history too.
Tarp’s gift and words of encouragement leave the narrator feeling positive, even after the shock of the anonymous note. The narrator thinks that the note must have been sent by an enemy of the Brotherhood, someone trying to create disunity in the ranks. Still, he cannot figure out who might have sent the note.
The narrator’s talk with Tarp has helped reassure him that he is not surrounded by enemies. However, despite knowing that there are more important things to worry about, the narrator is still plagued by the mystery of the note.
Brother Wrestrum, a large black man, enters the narrator’s office after Brother Tarp leaves. Wrestrum points at the shackle and tells the narrator that he dislikes it. Wrestrum believes that members of the Brotherhood should not “dramatize our differences,” and that they should instead focus on the things that make them all similar.
Brother Wrestrum criticizes the shackle because it makes him feel uncomfortable. Wrestrum believes that things like the shackle will divide the members of the party based on the differences in their history. Wrestrum cares about the Brotherhood, and thinks it is necessary to suppress the individuality of its members in order to preserve the power and cohesiveness of the Brotherhood.
Brother Wrestrum begins to speak about the Brotherhood in a circuitous way, emphasizing that the members must be vigilant. He says that there are some members who don’t truly believe in “Brotherhood.” Wrestrum says that he works every day to root out anything in himself that might go against the Brotherhood.
Wrestrum seems to be a zealous advocate of total orthodoxy for everyone who is a member of the Brotherhood. In reality, Wrestrum uses his sense of righteousness as a weapon to wield against other members of the Brotherhood.
The narrator, filled with dislike for Wrestrum, wonders if he might be the one who wrote the anonymous note. He holds up the note to where Wrestrum can see it, but Wrestrum shows no recognition. The narrator compares Wrestrum’s zeal to the way certain people feel about religion, a remark that Wrestrum finds offensive.
The narrator notes that Wrestrum’s attitude of political purity is almost like a religion, in which people can either be only true believers or heretics. This way of thinking is the opposite of democratic thinking, where different opinions are mustered into a coalition.
Wrestrum gets to his business, suggesting that the black members of the Brotherhood have their own banner in order to be able to identify themselves. Wrestrum recounts an incident in which Tod Clifton accidentally ended up beating a white member of the Brotherhood. The narrator says he’ll bring Wrestrum’s idea to the attention of the committee, remaining noncommittal.
Wrestrum’s suggestion of identifying flags has a sinister, almost military tone. By using banners to identify who the true members of a group are, the Brotherhood would create a division between its inner circle and the people it would hope to attract into its ranks. Wrestrum’s suggestion is designed to create factions.
While Wrestrum is in his office, the narrator receives a phone call from a “picture magazine” asking for an interview. The narrator tells the reporter that he is very busy, but that he should try interviewing Brother Clifton instead. As Wrestrum listens to his conversation, the narrator remarks to the reporter that he himself is simply a cog in the machine of the Brotherhood. Normally the narrator would refuse the interview, but Brother Wrestrum’s presence leads him to accept.
Sensing that Brother Wrestrum is listening to his every word, the narrator suggests that the magazine interview Clifton, hoping to avoid Wrestrum’s meddling. However, the narrator accepts the interview out of a sense of pride, knowing well that he is a far more powerful member of the Brotherhood than Wrestrum.
The narrator forgets about the interview until two weeks later. The narrator is called to the Brotherhood’s downtown headquarters, where the mood is serious. In a meeting moderated by Brother Jack, Brother Wrestrum accuses the narrator of using his prominent position in the Brotherhood for personal gain. Wrestrum calls the narrator “one of the greatest dangers ever confronted by our movement.” The narrator becomes very angry.
It turns out that Wrestrum’s earlier speech about the purity of Brotherhood was the lead up to accusing the narrator of crimes against the Brotherhood. Wrestrum’s accusation is a crude example of the way in which individual, petty interests are able to disguise themselves as general issues of the Brotherhood’s welfare. Wrestrum uses concern about the Brotherhood's purity to attack those within the party that he wants to take down.
When asked for specifics to support his accusations, Brother Wrestrum shows the committee the magazine interview, claiming that the interview is all about the narrator instead of about the Brotherhood. The narrator denies the accusation and tells the committee that Wrestrum was even there when the interviewer called him. Wrestrum ups the ante of his charges, telling the committee that the narrator wants to become a “dictator” who controls everything that the Brotherhood does uptown.
The narrator realizes he has let his guard down by accepting the interview in order to spite Wrestrum. Wrestrum is simply envious of the narrator’s elite position within the Brotherhood. However, it is also clear that the narrator is very proud of the power that he has achieved within the organization. There are hints that Wrestrum’s accusations are part of a power play he is making within the Brotherhood.
The narrator dismisses Wrestrum’s accusations as lies and calls Wrestrum a scoundrel. Brother Jack tells the narrator not to lose his temper, and then instructs him to leave the committee while they examine the magazine interview. The narrator is upset that Wrestrum has dragged him down to his level. The narrator is called back into the room, and Jack informs him that the interview is considered harmless. The narrator calls Wrestrum’s actions “criminal,” but Jack insists that he was simply acting in the interest of the Brotherhood.
Although Wrestrum has apparently slandered the narrator, Brother Jack protects Wrestrum, saying that he only had the best interests of the Brotherhood in mind. Between Wrestrum’s accusation and the anonymous note, it is clear that someone is dissatisfied with the narrator’s newfound power within the Brotherhood.
However, Brother Jack tells the narrator that his name has only been cleared with regard to the interview. The narrator becomes extremely angry, indicating that the proceedings of the meeting are absurd. In response, Brother Jack and other members state repeatedly that “The movement has many enemies.” The narrator is told that the charges must be investigated due to their serious nature.
While the interview itself is seen as harmless, the committee essentially agrees that the narrator has become too powerful within Harlem. When the narrator asks for an explanation of the decision he is not given one, suggesting that the party has turned against him or that the party considers any individual as insignificant and not worthy of receiving an explanation from the larger group.
The committee decrees that until the charges are cleared, the narrator is suspended from his post in Harlem. He is given the choice of either becoming inactive or of accepting a new assignment downtown. The narrator accepts the new assignment and is told he will now be lecturing on the “Women Question.”
The narrator’s relocation downtown is a type of exile, removing the narrator to a region where he exercises much less influence. That the narrator, who has an intimate knowledge of black history and the unfair treatment of black people is asked to speak about the "Woman Question" (i.e. equality for women) shows that the Brotherhood is trying to limit the narrator's power by having him focus on something he knows little about.
The narrator is stunned by the news of his reassignment. He feels as if he was just beginning to understand the power structure of the Brotherhood. However, he feels that he has come too far with the Brotherhood to abandon it now. He tries to accept the new assignment, reassuring himself that he can speak about any subject. Finally, he is sorry to leave Tarp and Clifton. He heads downtown to his new assignment.
There is a distinct sense that the narrator has been put in his place by the members of the committee, especially Brother Jack. At the same time, the narrator has invested himself completely in the Brotherhood, including its ideology. He has forgotten to play the game without believing in it, and has been punished for believing in appearances.