Upon the narrator’s return to Harlem, the area seems unfamiliar. He feels as though the rhythms of Harlem have changed in his absence. The narrator goes to a bar named Barrelhouse’s Jolly Dollar, looking to meet one of his regular contacts, a man named Brother Maceo.
While Harlem seems to have gotten angrier in the narrator's absence, the change in Harlem is also likely a function of changes in the narrator, specifically his relationship to the Brotherhood. Without his faith in the Brotherhood ideology, Harlem looks very different.
The narrator discovers that Brother Maceo isn’t in the bar, but decides to have a beer while he waits for him. The narrator encounters two familiar men at the bar. When he calls them “brother,” the men get offended, saying that he’s no brother of theirs. The narrator shifts down the bar away from them, sure that they recognize him, and sure that the mood toward the Brotherhood has shifted.
The two men that the narrator meets at the Jolly Dollar are a signal that the Brotherhood has declined in popularity since the narrator’s new assignment. It seems likely that the Brotherhood is hiding something from the narrator, since otherwise attitudes could not have shifted so rapidly.
Barrelhouse, the bar’s owner, greets the narrator, who is relieved to see him. When Barrelhouse begins to serve one of the two antagonistic men, the man asks Barrelhouse why the narrator is calling everyone “brother.” Barrelhouse sets the men straight, telling them that the narrator is his brother, and that they can leave if they don’t like it. Barrelhouse confesses to the narrator that there are many people who feel like the two men, and that many people who were once employed by the Brotherhood have now lost their jobs, including Brother Maceo.
Barrelhouse’s explanation begins to explain the two men’s antipathy toward the Brotherhood: many men have lost their jobs with the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s program for the community has radically changed in the narrator’s absence, but the narrator cannot figure out why this should be the case.
The narrator is amazed by how quickly the situation in Harlem has changed. He waits a little longer for Maceo, finishes his beer, and leaves the bar. Outside, he can’t see a single sign of Brotherhood activity on the streets of Harlem.
The Brotherhood seems to have virtually disappeared from Harlem. This seems to indicate some kind of ulterior motive, but again the reason is a mystery.
The narrator arrives at the district offices, looking for Brother Tarp. However, Tarp is nowhere to be found. Tarp’s bed and possessions have disappeared, along with the poster of Frederick Douglass. The narrator realizes now that he is all alone. He orders the remaining members the district to form teams and search for Tod Clifton, whose disappearance remains as mysterious as before.
First Clifton, now Tarp has disappeared from the Harlem offices. The narrator’s two strongest allies have disappeared without any explanation, leaving the narrator isolated in the Harlem office. The events have the marks of a political power play.
While looking over the district records, the narrator notices that membership in Harlem has fallen as the Brotherhood began to focus more on national and international issues, as opposed to local politics. The narrator tells himself that he will have to ask the committee for an explanation.
The narrator cannot understand why the Brotherhood would choose to shift its focus at the height of the group’s popularity in Harlem. He feels that the Brotherhood was making progress by showing people a difference in their daily lives.
The narrator waits to be called to the normal strategy meeting, but no word arrives. Aware that something is up, the narrator attempts to call headquarters to get in touch with someone. He is unable to get in touch with any of the Brotherhood leaders. Convinced that he has been excluded from the meeting, the narrator heads downtown to headquarters. When he arrives, he finds that the meeting is indeed in session, and that there are strict orders that the meeting remain undisturbed.
The narrator is being iced out of the Brotherhood’s strategy meeting, implying that action is being taken against him. While the narrator first dreaded being called to a meeting that might expose his indiscretions, being omitted from a meeting seems even more troubling.
Angry at being left out of the decision making progress, the narrator decides that the Brotherhood can contact him when they’re ready. He goes to buy a pair of shoes instead of worrying about it. The narrator takes a walk in his new shoes, and turns off of 42nd Street to avoid the crowds.
Feeling disillusioned with the organization that has ruined his efforts in Harlem, the narrator decides to let the committee do what it will, a decision with potentially dangerous consequences.
On 43rd Street, the narrator sees a group of people gathered around a strange, clipped voice. The narrator recognizes a boy, a friend of Clifton’s, standing just outside the crowd. The boy is watching a policeman on the other side of the block who seems to be approaching the crowd. The narrator addresses the boy, but the boy turns and whistles back toward the crowd. The narrator can’t tell if the whistle concerns him or the policeman. The narrator moves into the crowd to see what’s going on.
Clifton’s friend is the first sign of Clifton that the narrator has seen since his return to Harlem. However, the narrator’s perspective is temporarily limited to the fringe of the crowd. He cannot see who might be at the center of the crowd or who the owner of the clipped voice might be. If it is Clifton, he has become completely hidden.
At the center of the crowd the narrator sees a dancing doll of cardboard and tissue paper. The doll is designed to be a “Sambo,” a kind of black caricature, that dances when its operator pushes it down. The doll writhes with a “sensuous” motion, and the narrator is both disgusted and entranced. As the doll dances, a strange voice barks out an exaggerated sales pitch, promising happiness for twenty-five cents.
The Sambo doll is a grotesque image of a black performer who subserviently entertains for whites. The doll’s exaggerated movements conjure images of black rhythm and sensuality. The narrator is shocked by the racist image.
The narrator looks for the source of the barker’s voice, only to discover that the barker is in fact Tod Clifton. The narrator and Clifton’s eyes meet, and Clifton smiles contemptuously while his sales pitch continues. The narrator feels deeply betrayed, and spits on the Sambo doll.
Far worse than the racist dolls themselves is the fact that it is none other than Clifton who is their barker. For the narrator, Clifton’s decision to drop out of the Brotherhood to sell Sambo dolls feels like a cruel and senseless rejection. Though Clifton's shift seems to suggest that he himself came to the conclusion that he had become a kind of Sambo, dancing for the Brotherhood, and in his despair he has chosen to embrace that fact.
Before anything else can happen, another whistle comes from Clifton’s boy. A policeman is coming to break up the show. Clifton picks up the Sambo dolls and tries to lead the crowd around the corner in order to continue the show. Both Clifton and his audience quickly disappear, leaving the narrator behind, bewildered by his discovery. He sees one of the Sambo dolls lying on the ground and picks it up.
Clifton’s quick getaway seems appropriate to his abandonment of the Brotherhood, choosing to fly by night instead of upholding the Brotherhood’s abstract ideals.
Looking at the doll, the narrator wonders how Clifton fell so far so quickly. He then recalls Clifton’s words about the need to “fall outside of history.” The narrator recognizes that his life is so invested in the Brotherhood that to abandon it would mean abandoning everything. The narrator keeps the Sambo doll in his pocket.
Clifton’s words on history return to the narrator as the ultimate rejection of the Brotherhood’s sterile view of the world. Clifton’s decision to sell Sambo dolls is a denial of the Brotherhood’s vision of progress, suggesting that nothing really changes, and that the Brotherhood is no different than the other elite or powerful.
The narrator rounds the corner into Bryant Park. In the park he sees two men, Clifton and a police officer. The policeman tries to stop Clifton to fine him for the street show, but Clifton resists the officer. When the officer pushes him, Clifton punches the officer, who falls to the ground. In retaliation, the officer pulls out his gun and shoots Clifton. Clifton crumples to the ground. The whole event takes place in a matter of seconds.
As Clifton is shot, his own protest of the Brotherhood’s vision of progress is mirrored in his death. Despite the Brotherhood’s profession of historical inevitability, they are still unable to address massive injustices. The shooting of an unarmed man such as Clifton is just one example.
The narrator tries to approach Clifton, but is waved off by a police officer who tells him to cross the street. The narrator tells the officer that Clifton is his friend. The officer replies that Clifton is dead. Another cop asks the narrator a few questions about Clifton. A white boy who was watching the event tells the narrator that Clifton throws a good punch.
Clifton’s punching skill is the last memory that he leaves to the world, ensuring that he has truly plunged outside of history. Instead of a figure fighting for the righteousness of the Brotherhood, Clifton will be forgotten behind the police tape.
The narrator wanders into the subway, shocked by Clifton’s death. He cannot compose his thoughts, and wonders why Clifton would give up the organization that had meant everything to him. He thinks again of Clifton’s words about falling out of history, and notes that only certain men get to record history. The narrator thinks that Clifton’s history will never be written by the white men who killed him.
Before Clifton’s death, the narrator was skeptical of the actions the Brotherhood was taking, but still remained immersed in its ideology. The death of Clifton reminds the narrator that the ideology itself of the Brotherhood is flawed, and that history is not a perfect machine.
Down on the platform, the narrator takes a good look at the people of Harlem for the first time. He watches three young men in zoot suits, calling them “men outside of historical time.” The three men, like most of the rest of Harlem, aren’t interested in the Brotherhood. The narrator wonders if these strange men aren’t the “true saviors” of their race. For the first time, the narrator begins to have doubts about the Brotherhood and its “scientific” certainty.
With a new awareness of the strangeness of history, the narrator sees the men in zoot suits as potential agents of change. However, the men in zoot suits have a kind of power exactly because they don’t think about history. They have no narrative they need to uphold, allowing them to move freely in possibility.
The narrator follows the three men into the subway, continuing to watch them. He wonders what his relationship is to men like them, as well as to other members of Harlem. The narrator exits the subway, weak with grief. He sees a group of boys running out of a candy shop with stolen goods. The scene makes the narrator realize that little has changed, and that his love for the Brotherhood’s ideas allowed him to ignore the lack of real progress in Harlem.
When the narrator now looks as Harlem, he no longer sees the cogs of the Brotherhood’s inevitable change. Instead, he sees a stream of nearly random lives, each absorbed in his or her daily particulars. The Brotherhood has forgotten the particulars, and along the way has missed that it has not changed much of anything.