Soon the narrator can hear abundant gunfire. Suddenly, the narrator is pushed aside by four men dragging a safe through the street. The narrator jumps away as he hears gunfire, but is hit by a bullet. The bullet has grazed his head, and blood runs down his face. Another man has been killed, and the discarded safe has hit the trolley’s third rail, showering the street with blue sparks. The narrator gets up, and a man hands him his brief case.
Harlem has become a complete warzone. Ironically, the narrator’s head injury is quite similar to the head injury sustained by the Founder in Reverend Barbee’s speech. Here too the narrator has a near death experience. He finds that he is alive, but he has lost all sense of what it is that he should do.
All of Harlem seems to be consumed by chaos. The narrator joins up with a group of men, the two most prominent of which are named Dupre and Scofield. The men are moving through Harlem, looting any store they can find. Dupre is wearing several hats and several pairs of suspenders. The men look at the narrator’s brief case and assume that he has filled it with his own loot. The brief case is heavy, and the narrator remembers that he still has Mary’s coin bank inside of it. He puts all of his papers, including Clifton’s Sambo doll, into the brief case.
The looting men are similar to the situation the narrator described in the Prologue: they do not feel that they are responsible, as the white power structure has never given them anything to be responsible for. As a result they loot with abandon. The narrator’s brief case is not filled with loot, but rather with the relics that form his accumulated history.
As the men move through the riot zone, the narrator asks the men how the riot started. None of the men know for sure, but one implies that the riot started because of Tod Clifton’s shooting. The narrator is amazed that Clifton’s death has caused so much destruction. Another man tells them that Ras the Destroyer caused the riot.
The looting men are sure that the riot is somehow motivated by racial tensions, though they are unsure of the specifics. The men are taking the opportunity of something in the air to express the general grievances of their continued mistreatment.
Dupre tells the narrator that the men are “fixing to do something what needs to be done.” The men break into a hardware store. Every man is given a flashlight and batteries, and the narrator feels happy to follow along instead of being in charge. Next, the men fill buckets with oil and carry them out from the store. Dupre tells them that their destination is just around the corner.
By collecting the buckets of oil, the looting men escalate their destruction from random looting to a regimen of systematic destruction. The narrator is not sure where they are going, but with no sense of direction, he is happy to simply follow the orders he is given, just as he followed the orders of Bledsoe and of the Brotherhood for so long.
As the men walk, they run into a crowd of men pulling a milk wagon. On top of the wagon is an obese woman in a pinafore who is drinking beer from a barrel. The woman sings loudly as the men slowly haul her down the street. The narrator feels saddened by the spectacle, and Scofield remarks that things are being taken too far.
The narrator begins to see the true byproducts of the riot: instead of liberating itself, the black community is taking the time to destroy itself with debauchery. The spectacle is an example of the way in which the community’s anger has failed to focus itself into something productive.
The men arrive with their buckets at a huge tenement building where most of the men live. Dupre instructs the men to take their buckets to the top of the building to dump their kerosene, making sure that all the rooms are clear of people. The narrator asks where the men will live after they burn down their home, to which Scofield replies that the only way to get rid of such terrible conditions is to burn them down. A pregnant woman tries to stop Dupre from burning the building, but he shrugs her off, telling her that no more men will be born in such an inhumane building. The narrator wonders what Brother Jack would think of a man like Dupre.
Dupre’s decision to burn down his own tenement building—his own home—is one of the most radical moments of the entire novel. By Dupre’s logic, the tenement must be burned down, as otherwise generations of black people will continue to be born into its squalid conditions. By burning the tenement down, Dupre forces change, though it is not necessarily clear that change will be for the better. However, the men are willing to try their luck, and to strike at the power structure that has put them in this position.
The narrator goes up the tenement with Scofield and the two men splash their kerosene as planned. After the building has been evacuated, Dupre gives the signal to light matches. The men light the fire and rush down the stairs. The narrator realizes that he’s left his brief case up with the fire and runs back upstairs, telling himself he’s had it too long to give it up now. The narrator retrieves his brief case and stokes the fire further before running back down.
With the decision to help burn down the tenement, the narrator’s identity is once again being transformed. Not long ago, the narrator of the Brotherhood would have attempted to calm the men down. Now the narrator sympathizes with their sense that none of them have anything to lose.
After the narrator exits the tenement, a voice in the crowd recognizes him by his Brotherhood name. Another voice calls out to catch the narrator, indicating that Ras the Destroyer is looking for him. The narrator disappears into the crowd. He wonders why the Brotherhood called him if it was too late to do anything about the situation. He resolves to head toward the district offices.
Although the narrator no longer believes in the Brotherhood, he cannot easily escape his history in the community, including enemies like Ras. As the narrator wonders about the phone call, it becomes clear that the Brotherhood’s relationship to the riots is quite strange.
The narrator runs into Scofield again in the street. They encounter a man who is bleeding profusely, and the narrator helps tighten the man’s tourniquet to stem the blood. A boy asks if the narrator is a doctor, to which the narrator says no.
While this moment is one description of the chaos on the street, it also fleetingly compares the narrator to the ex-doctor, indicating that they are now in a similar position of knowledge.
Scofield tells the narrator that he seems familiar, but doesn’t recognize the narrator as a member of the Brotherhood. The two men come across a squad of white-helmeted policemen who are being attacked with bricks from the tops of the neighborhood buildings. The policemen run for cover and begin shooting back at the buildings. Scofield and the narrator run for cover, and the narrator thinks Scofield has been hit. He discovers that Scofield is all right, and Scofield pulls out a pistol to start shooting back at the cops.
Scofield and the narrator watch the riot escalate into all-out war against the police. Scofield chooses to begin firing at the police, a sign that the night has become about more than simply looting stores. The riot is instead becoming a symbol of resistance against continued white oppression. For one night, men like Scofield are united in showing their anger to those in power.
The narrator overhears a conversation in which a man says he wants to do some “fighting back” if there’s going to be a race riot. The term “race riot” puts the night in context for the narrator as he begins to realize the Brotherhood’s true intentions. The committee had been hoping for a riot all along, knowing that the black rioters could never triumph over armed police. The narrator understands that by “yessing” the committee, he actually enabled them to carry out their plans unhindered. Disgusted, the narrator runs from the shooting, cursing the Brotherhood.
When the narrator hears the term “race riot,” the reasons for everything that has gone before become clear. Brother Hambro had indicated that the Harlem community would be “sacrificed,” but the narrator did not realize that the sacrifice would occur in such a horrible way. The idea that the Brotherhood guessed or knew that the riot would happen, or even tried to create the conditions so that the riot would happen, is an example of the cruel realities created by abstract theories.
As the narrator runs through the streets he sees pandemonium and looting everywhere. Suddenly he sees a white body hanging from a lamppost. The narrator becomes terrified, noticing seven hanging bodies. He is shocked and relieved to discover that the bodies are actually mannequins. Though individually harmless, they are a dark premonition of what could happen. The narrator thinks of Sybil and keeps running.
The mannequins that the narrator sees are a vision of the future possibility of a race riot. A situation in which black and white people are actively killing one another does not seem so far away to the narrator, who is afraid of the tremendous violence that would be sparked by such an event.
Ras the Destroyer is riding through the streets of Harlem at the head of his gang. Ras is dressed as an Abyssinian chieftain, complete with spear, shield, and a big black horse. He calls to the men on the street to stop looting, asking them to join him on a raid of Harlem’s armory. Seeing Ras, the narrator searches his brief case for his dark-lensed glasses, only to find that they’ve been crushed. Suddenly, the narrator finds himself trapped in the crossfire between the police and the forces of Ras.
Ras has completed his transformation, taking on African garb in order to emphasize his full rejection of white principles and the white world. Increasing racial tension only makes Ras stronger, as increased conflict makes it easier to believe Ras’ screeds and charges against all white men. In the middle of a war zone, the disguise of Rinehart proves to be useless, as there is no hopefulness to exploit.
Ras’ men spot the narrator, and Ras throws his spear at him, which misses and lodges itself in one of the dummies. The narrator tells Ras that he is no longer is a member of the Brotherhood, as the narrator is against a race riot. Before the narrator can fully explain himself, Ras orders his men to hang the narrator. Three men grab the narrator, but the narrator grabs Ras’ spear and uses it to defend himself. The narrator tries to explain to Ras that a race riot plays into the hands of the whites, but Ras won’t listen.
The narrator seems to have discovered a sense of self beyond the Brotherhood, insofar as he is dead set against the violence entailed in a race riot. However, it is far too late to explain the manipulations of the Brotherhood to Ras: in his eyes, their deviousness only proves his point about the evil nature of white men. To Ras, the narrator reminds a traitor to his race.
Ras shouts again to hang the narrator, and the narrator realizes that if he is hanged the tragedy might bring the community closer to liberation. However, he soon reconsiders, thinking that it would be too absurd to die at the hands of Ras after everything he’s been through. The narrator throws the spear back at Ras, piercing Ras’ mouth and locking his jaws shut. The narrator runs from Ras’ men.
The narrator considers sacrificing himself, but quickly decides against it. From his perspective (and against Brother Jack), there has already been too much sacrifice that has come to nothing. By running, the narrator chooses to prolong his resistance.
Ras’ men chase after the narrator and struggle with him, but the narrator breaks free and keeps running. The narrator feels himself struck with a burst of water from a broken water main, and is almost run down by a mounted police officer. The narrator tells himself that he has to make it to Mary’s house.
In the chaos of a city that is coming apart at the seams, the memory of Mary’s house is the most comforting thing the narrator can think of. Despite the narrator’s other misgivings, the community spirit of Mary is sorely needed.
Having escaped the commotion somewhat, the narrator overhears a group of men talking about the wild evening. One describes the eventual encounter between Ras and the police force, with Ras charging the police on his horse. The man recounts that Ras used his spear and shield in close combat before fleeing from the police. The other men barely believe his story, but the storyteller insists that it’s true.
By depicting the narrator as overhearing the later events of Ras’ uprising, Ellison chooses to make Ras into a dreamlike, nearly mythical figure. Already dressed as a chieftain, Ras engages in an old-fashioned charge against the police, cementing the idea that despite his power, Ras is a kind of anachronism who cannot hope to truly succeed.
The narrator begins to look for Brother Jack, convinced that finding him is the only way to destroy the Brotherhood. As he searches, he runs into a trio of white men in civilian clothes. The men are armed with bats. The men ask the narrator what he has in his brief case, and the narrator instinctively runs from them. Running from the men, the narrator falls down an open manhole into absolute darkness.
The narrator’s desire to find Brother Jack is never given a satisfying resolution, as there is no way the narrator can win against Jack’s accumulated power. When the narrator flees the white men—because as a black man he still has to flee from white men—he finds his ultimate invisibility by falling down a hole, a sign of the loss of his ability to act.
The narrator realizes that he has landed upon a load of coal. The men tell the narrator to come out of the hole, but the narrator tells them to come and get him. The narrator continues to taunt the men, who place the cover back over the manhole in retaliation. The narrator is trapped in total darkness. He feels tired, and thinks to himself that he should have gone to Mary’s. The narrator falls asleep.
Although the narrator cannot escape the hole, he is able to taunt the white men until they cover up his manhole. By the end of the riot, the narrator has been completely silenced in darkness, a metaphor for the deep-seated and seemingly hopeless situation of race relations and the position he has been in his whole life.
When he awakens the next day, the narrator realizes he is still trapped in the hole. Realizing that he needs to make light, the narrator searches through the coal until he finds a dropped book of matches. The narrator is forced to open his brief case to use the paper inside for a torch. He begins by burning his high school diploma, which lights the room. The narrator sees that he is in a deep basement, big enough that he cannot see the whole space. He sets out looking for an exit.
However, the narrator cannot give up and die in darkness. The narrator manages to make a light by burning the contents of his briefcase, which represent all the history that the narrator has accumulated over his journey. While this history is important, it is more important as something to be consumed than a burden to be carried through life.
As the narrator searches through the basement, he burns Clifton’s Sambo doll for light. Next, he takes out the anonymous note and begins to burn it. As it burns the narrator realizes that the note’s script is the same as the slip that gave him his Brotherhood name. He realizes that Brother Jack was the author of the anonymous note. The narrator begins to scream and accidentally extinguishes his light.
As the narrator finally realizes that Brother Jack was his chief adversary in the Brotherhood, the depth of his own past deception becomes apparent. The organization that seemed to provide the best chance to improve the world turned out to be more sinister than any other, more willing to use and discard people.
Now immersed in darkness again, the narrator stumbles down a long passage. He does not know how much time passed. The narrator feels himself trapped in a state between dreaming and wakefulness. He has a vision of himself as a prisoner of all his past enemies, including Ras, Brother Jack, Mr. Norton, and Dr. Bledsoe. The narrator tells his captors that he is done running. The captors castrate the narrator with a knife, and the narrator’s parts fly up and float over a bridge. Brother Jack asks the narrator what it feels like to be free of one’s illusions. The narrator tells his captors that his seed is wasting along with their sun and their moon. At the end of the vision, the bridge strides off like a machine.
The narrator’s dream of his opponents provides a small current of hope. Despite the fact that the opponents castrate him, they are unable to destroy the narrator’s vision of the world. The narrator tells his opponents that the continuation of his people is inevitable as the moon and the sun, and he believes that they will continue on despite any oppression. However, it is a bittersweet dream, indicating that there may be only pain and destruction for the narrator and his future descendants.
The narrator awakes again in blackness. Realizing that he cannot return to his old life, he decides to take the opportunity to think about his life in peace and quiet. He resolves to “take up residence underground.”
The world as he knows it has failed the narrator. The only remaining option is to spend time underground until either he or the conditions above ground begin to change.