En route to Boston, the narrator quickly noted “a tall, broad-shouldered, almost gigantic, colored man” (the physician) whose majestic air attracted everyone’s attention; a few days later, the narrator found him smoking a cigar and saw an opportunity. The narrator offered the man a new one and mentioned that, a few days before, someone sitting near the man requested to be moved away from him—“the big man” said he did not “object to anyone having prejudices so long as those prejudices don’t interfere with my personal liberty” and they struck up a friendship. The man turned out to be “the broadest minded colored man I have ever talked with on the Negro question,” even occasionally defending white Southerners and firmly placing his faith in blacks’ progress and having the “moral law” on their side. The man, it turned out, was a Howard University-trained physician living in Washington.
The “broad minded” physician, whose cigar-smoking immediately indexes his social status and relates him to the narrator, seems to have internalized the individualism characteristic of American capitalism and the book’s white characters—he is even more extreme than the millionaire, forgetting that privilege does broadly affect African-Americans, and certainly limits his own ability to associate with those outside his community of black elites. While he believes in equality, he seems to feel that he has already achieved it, and that only the destitute need concern themselves with fighting for it.
In Boston, the narrator met “several of my new friend’s acquaintances,” who were educated, cultured, and wealthy, “genuine Yankees” in contrast with the black upper classes of the South. The narrator ended up spending a few weeks in Washington, also mostly with the physician and his friends; Washington seemed to have the most “developed” black society, with its many hundreds of educated professionals.
Whereas Southern blacks were both socially and culturally distinct from Southern whites, Northern blacks seem to share Northern culture even if they live mostly separate from whites. In fact, this Northern black elite reflects the values and self-image with which the narrator was raised, although he lacked a community that shared them until now.
The narrator notes that “among Negroes themselves there is the peculiar inconsistency of a color question,” which is never explicitly raised but clearly exerts itself unconsciously, especially given their “tendency toward lighter complexions”—this is not internalized racism, the narrator insists, but rather a way of seeking better opportunities for their children. And the physician was harsh toward lower-class blacks—or, in his words, “those lazy, loafing, good-for-nothing darkies […] who create impressions of the race for the casual observer.” They visited various black institutions, including Howard University, and the doctor sent for various people to greet him on every stop of his trip all the way down to Macon, Georgia.
The doctor clearly becomes a black version of what the millionaire was in Europe: a cultured, well-connected guide who introduces the narrator to a new social world. Blacks’ apparent internalized racism—or at least the patterns of behavior that produce racist outcomes within the black community—comes from putting self-interest before moral values. In a sense, the physician’s black community ironically trains the narrator in the patterns of thinking that eventually lead him to give up his racial identity. In blaming destitute blacks for the prejudice against them, the doctor not only ignores the historical factors that have entrenched this destitution, but also forgets that stereotypes function by translating judgments about individuals onto a group as a whole, so uplifting even most of black America cannot independently change stereotypes.
In the smoking car during his train ride, the narrator quickly grew friendly with the other men there—and soon they brought up “the Negro question.” Eventually, an “old Union soldier” was defending the North against a man from Texas, who considered the Civil War “a criminal mistake” and Reconstruction humiliating for the South—he insisted that “no country at all is better than having niggers over you.” He asked whether the soldier was so audacious as to believe in racial equality and proclaimed that “the Anglo-Saxon race has always been and always will be the masters of the world”; the soldier pointed out that other “races and nations” actually developed all of civilization’s greatest achievements—they argued about intermarriage and whether blacks deserved fair treatment, but the Texan insisted that he would never accept equality and resolved the argument by pulling out his flask.
Although many characters have told the narrator that he could “pass” at various points in the book, Johnson is careful to make the narrator’s first instance of “passing” implicit in the text. While he never says this explicitly, he is only privy to this conversation because the other passengers assume he is white: the smoking car is clearly an exclusive, segregated space. The Texan’s prejudice appears as irrational and self-serving: he says whatever helps him sustain his core belief in white superiority, regardless of the truth. And yet the white passengers can still set aside their disagreements and have a good time—the Union soldier tolerates the Texan’s racism, and this sort of ultimate indifference even from avowed antiracists allows prejudice to continue.
Returning to his seat, the narrator was discouraged, “sick at heart.” He noted that white and black Southerners alike insistently stuck to their principles, and that blacks are often “their own most merciless critics”—but none of this would ever happen in the polite, tolerant North. In retrospect, the narrator has realized that the Texan’s prejudice could be a source of optimism: it reveals that the greatest barrier to racial progress not black achievement but white attitudes, which are easier to change. Just like people can understand the solar system when they learn that the sun, not the Earth, is its center, white people can learn to live in harmony with others by recognizing their “common humanity” and living in accordance with “the simple rules of justice.”
The crucial piece of the narrator’s argument is that African-Americans need whites to flourish: no matter how much they achieve, whites will continue to deny them the necessary resources and opportunities until white attitudes about race change. By making a case for putting “common humanity” above anyone’s common race, the narrator shows how communities are not inherent or given, but rather are conceived and imagined before they can become the basis for favoritism or prejudice.
Upon reaching Macon, the narrator resolved to “strike out into the interior” and met the “rural colored people” who are so overrepresented in American literature that people can have difficulty grasping their reality outside books. This archetype of the “happy-go-lucky, laughing, shuffling, banjo-picking being” is always treated as absurd and used to discount serious black art and literature. There is so much “new and unknown” in black life to be revealed by writers like W.E.B. Du Bois.
While the narrator criticizes white stereotypes of rural blacks, he also imitates this logic, seeking them out as the most authentic representatives of blackness. The white stereotype not only makes blacks look shallow and foolish, but more importantly it also strategically erases the poverty, suffering across generations, and racism that the narrator soon learns also shape and constrain black rural life.
The narrator continually wished to return to Europe—his lodging was uncomfortable and cramped, and the food was horrible. Occasionally, someone had built a livable house, but most of the people were uneducated, unthinking, and submissive toward whites; the narrator almost admired Southern whites who were honest enough to publicly proclaim their opposition to education for blacks. Whereas “Northern white people love the Negro in a sort of abstract way, as a race” on whose behalf to fight for justice, Southerners hate the race as a whole but love and help certain individuals. Many families were even racially mixed, and the narrator found it amusing that he would so often be respectfully treated as white in a new town, until people saw him visiting with “the colored preacher or school teacher.” He was eager to finish his data collection and return “to some city like Nashville” to start writing music.
The narrator looks down on his rural hosts much as whites and elite blacks do—so used to European comfort, like the physician he comes to blame poorer blacks for their own living conditions even as he seeks to capture their culture. Just as the narrator is already finding trouble reconciling his competing desires to achieve something for himself and to fight for his race, the North and the South seem unable to reconcile their feelings about black individuals and the black community as a whole. His admiration for Southern whites shows how much he values people’s willingness to take an unflinching political stand, which is ironic because he soon undermines his own ability to do so by deciding to “pass.”
At the last town he visited, the narrator stumbled upon a “big meeting,” in which all the churches in an area congregated together for a week to celebrate and worship. This meeting centered on the preacher John Brown and the chorus leader “Singing Johnson,” whose presence reminded the narrator of religion’s foundational role in black community, despite the increasing derision it receives from “the progressive element among the colored people.” John Brown delivered enthralling sermons by modulating his voice to create pauses and climaxes, even leading the whole congregation on an imaginary “heavenly march” up through the stars and the pearly gates to Zion. His descriptions of hell were just as rich.
The “big meeting” is a crucial site of community, a signal of the population’s solidarity and shared struggle—something that would never be possible in the more individualistic social networks of the black elite. The narrator describes John Brown’s sermon in musical terms; like ragtime, this performance is masterful precisely because it is embodied and improvised, irreducible to a written document and inseparable from its effect on its audience.
Singing Johnson was even more fascinating—he was small and dark, with only one eye and a high-pitched but powerful voice. He led the congregation’s call-and-response hymns, singing the leading lines he had memorized before the congregation responded with their same refrain. He traveled all around the country, writing new songs and leading congregations in old ones—he had an uncanny ability to know what hymn to sing when, even at important moments during John Brown’s sermons. Listening to the songs, the narrator contemplated where they came from, who managed to transform biblical sentiments into such enchanting and emotionally rich music. Even the black upper classes “do not fully appreciate these old slave songs,” although hopefully they will one day get recognition for their foundational role as American cultural heritage.
Unlike in traditional musical performances, the congregation’s music is a collective endeavor that unites the community by involving everyone in the call-and-response format. Singing Johnson is not only an exemplar of vernacular music culture—his mastery depends on his ability to respond to the environment and lead the crowd rather than merely create beautiful music in isolation. The narrator thinks that black popular music has universal emotional appeal—this recalls the millionaire’s description of music as a “universal art” and the narrator’s own ability to express emotions through a range of musical styles—but also, crucially, that encountering this music can lead people to understand black historical trauma in a way that might help them overcome racist prejudices.
The narrator left the “big meeting” inspired to begin writing music, but decided to catch a ride with a new friend, a schoolteacher who took him to his own village and revealed that he studied at the Negro college where Shiny was now teaching—the narrator determined to write him. The man, like “the majority of intelligent colored people,” was overeager about the prospect of racial progress.
The “big meeting” does not inspire the narrator to seek or support the community that it is based on; rather, he just strengthens his impulse to decontextualize and control the music he hears. Shiny seems to have achieved the sort of prominent role the narrator wants for himself, but his profession is also about educating and advocating for the black community as a whole—he unites individual and collective uplift.
They pulled into the nondescript town and passed the night in the boarding house where the teacher was staying. Sometime after eleven, the narrator heard men outside—a crowd of them, yelling about “some terrible crime.” Knowing that the townspeople still thought he was white, the narrator went outside and came across an enormous crowd of armed white men, growing by the minute, at the railroad station. At sunrise, smaller groups set off in different directions, but the crowd continued to grow—even some local black residents came to the train station.
For the first time, the narrator conducts himself differently because he explicitly realizes that he can pass as white; the secrecy around the white population’s late-night meeting suggests that something sinister and important is about to happen (and readers familiar with the history of the Jim Crow South likely already know what it is).
Then “they brought him in”—a bound black man was dragged behind two horses as the white men shrieked and slipped a rope around his neck, then tied him to a railroad tie, his eyes “dull and vacant, indicating not a single ray of thought,” clearly “too stunned and stupefied even to tremble.” They doused him in fuel and set him on fire—he let out “cries and groans that I shall always hear.” Some observers cheered, others looked away, and the narrator was unable to look away until he saw the man’s body reduced to “charred fragments” and “the smell of burnt flesh.”
Although much of the narrator’s story is vague and moves quickly, he recounts every excruciating detail of this anonymous man’s lynching, which was obviously a transformative and unforgettable moment—but the narrator experiences it as a white observer, only despairing in private. The man is so terrified that he becomes emptied of all emotion and individuality: he stands at once for the totality of the black community and the utter powerlessness and in distinction to which racism reduces African-Americans.
The narrator walked away and felt “a great wave of humiliation and shame” at realizing the United States, “the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive.” Afterward, whenever anyone said that the South should solve “the Negro question” on its own, he remembered “that scene of brutality and savagery” and wondered how Southerners able to justify and tolerate burning another person alive could “be entrusted with the salvation of a race.” Despite what Southern apologists insist, there is no “great and impassible gulf” between whites and blacks—the existence of multiracial people is enough to prove this, and indeed Southern whites, while romantic when considered at a distance, are in fact living with the morality of the Dark Ages.
The narrator finally understands what his French friend meant in asking how men could be burned alive in the United States—until he experienced it firsthand, the narrator was largely blind to the horrifying depth of American racism, largely because he had proven relatively successful despite his blackness. The most powerful component of his epiphany is his realization that race is at once a constructed illusion and a myth so powerful that it can determine life and death; Southern whites are actively creating, not responding to, a “gulf” between the races.
After about an hour, the narrator barely managed to drag himself back to the boarding house—he did not see the school teacher—and get on the train back to Macon, where he immediately bought a ticket to New York and decided “that to forsake one’s race to better one’s condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one’s country for the same purpose.” He would claim neither blackness nor whiteness but merely “change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would.” He was leaving “the Negro race” out of “shame, unbearable shame.”
Although he has no reason to worry that he might be lynched himself, the narrator insists on running from racism rather than fighting it, if only because he has the rare opportunity to do so. While he is initially ashamed at his country, it seems that by the end of his reflection he becomes ashamed at his race, relinquishing it precisely in order to maintain a place in his country. His refusal to explicitly define his race—the fact that he knows he will be taken by default as white—is a crucial part of his “practical joke” on the world: he is, in his mind, not lying to anyone about his identity but merely exploiting people’s consistently absurd assumptions about race.