The narrator recalls walking with other students to chapel at dusk. He describes the scene as a dense mixture of sounds and people “moving not in the mood of worship but of judgment.” The narrator’s mind is racing as he enters the chapel.
Walking toward the chapel, the narrator notices the college’s beauty, but he also reflects on the way in which the chapel allows the community of the college to gather as a tribe that accepts some and rejects others.
In the chapel, the narrator gazes at the rows of silent people, and remembers other evenings spent listening to sermons with pleasure. He thinks of the attending people as masked, and the millionaires playing themselves as they give out their millions. The narrator remarks that the sessions at chapel helped create an entire worldview with the college at the center.
The present-day narrator realizes how powerful the rhetoric of the college was. The speakers at the college were able to create the idea that for the black men and women gathered, the college is the center of their entire lives, and that everything they can experience is contained there. At the same time, they are presenting a picture to the white donors to keep those donations flowing.
The narrator recalls that he used to debate on the chapel stage. He imagines himself giving a speech full of a barker’s “Ha!” He imagines trying to use his array of empty noises to reach the elderly matron who sits in the back of the chapel, envisioning her as a link to the past and to the Founder.
The narrator’s recollection of his recent past is already nostalgic: he knows that he will no longer climb the stage and that he will never reach the elderly matron. His link with the Founder is being severed.
Up on stage, Dr. Bledsoe is attending to the gathered millionaire donors. The narrator notices that Bledsoe is able to touch white men, and recalls his own close encounter with Mr. Norton. Bledsoe’s ease looks like an act of magic. To the students, Bledsoe is even more imposing than the white millionaires, and the narrator recounts Bledsoe’s rise from humble beginnings to become a black leader and statesman.
Within the context of the college, Dr. Bledsoe is the model of everything the narrator wishes to become. For the narrator at this time, to be able to touch and talk to white men (as Bledsoe does) is the highest possible achievement, and Bledsoe is seen as a figure with his own mythology.
The service begins with a single girl singing a cappella in the rafters. The black man on stage other than Dr. Bledsoe, later named as the Reverend Barbee, a fat and ugly man with black-lensed glasses, gets up to speak. He begins speaking about the early days of the college, when the Founder was still alive. He launches into a long speech describing those “Days filled with great portent.”
Barbee’s speech can be seen from two perspectives of the narrator’s life: to the narrator of the Prologue, the mythos of the Founder is ridiculous. To the narrator of the moment in chapel, the speech is deeply moving. It is also a painful reminder of the world the narrator will soon be leaving.
Barbee begins from the days right after emancipation, a time of fear and suspicion between blacks and whites. Barbee says that the Founder’s contributions are well known, and that for the black community he “showed them the way.” He compares the Founder to Moses leading his people out of Egypt.
Barbee elevates the Founder into a nearly religious figure, a man who singlehandedly saved the black community and brought them out of hardship.
Barbee recounts a story of an attempt on the Founder’s life. While the Founder was traveling in the country, a strange man appeared to him and warned him to hide in a nearby cabin. The Founder ignores him, and soon after is shot by a group of men. The shot grazed the Founder and he fell unconscious. Upon waking, he hid out in the cabin mentioned by the unknown man, where an old slave nursed him back to health.
Barbee’s anecdote of the Founder takes many cues from religious imagery, including the conversion of Saul into Paul. With the story of escaping death, Barbee converts the Founder into a figure destined to help the black community out of its bondage.
The founder escaped hidden in a wagon of cotton. Barbee compares the Founder’s escape to escape of all black men and women into freedom, insisting that the Founder’s journey to freedom is their journey too. The narrator asks a student sitting next to him what the preacher’s name is, and is told that he is Reverend Homer A. Barbee, from Chicago.
Barbee continues his enlargement of the Founder’s legacy, indicating that the Founder has laid the groundwork for the escape of all black people into freedom. This statement makes the Founder seem more like the owner of an ideology.
Barbee now recounts the Founder’s death, holding the audience in rapture. He recalls a tour of several states, during which Dr. Bledsoe was present as well. The Founder was still spreading his message of freedom and cooperation. The Founder was speaking eloquently to a packed auditorium when a man in the crowd asked him “What is to be done?” The Founder was silent and began to collapse. At first, he shrugs off the incident as a case of exhaustion.
The fact that the Founder collapses after the question “What is to be done?” seems to be a sly reference to the ineffective nature of the Founder’s (or Booker T. Washington’s) proposals and ideas. Ultimately, the Founder’s hard work alone is not enough to fight against systematic white oppression Nothing is to be done.
Bringing the speech to its sad climax, Barbee tells the crowd he knew the Founder’s days were numbered. Though at first they tried to forget the Founder’s fatigue, the Founder soon fell ill in his train car. Barbee recounts visiting him on his deathbed on the train, and that with his last words the Founder told Dr. Bledsoe that he must “Lead them the rest of the way.”
As the speech begins to wrap up, Barbee deliberately recognizes the continuity of authority between the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe. It is clear that the college is a place that has a single ruler, and Dr. Bledsoe is designated to be the man who wields the power.
Barbee tells of the funeral and aftermath of the Founder’s passing. Dr. Bledsoe presided over the events, taking up the Founder’s mantle. The “sorrowful train” toured the Founder’s body and was met with respect wherever it stopped. Barbee describes the anguish that accompanied the train.
Barbee’s description of the mourning for the Founder finishes his elevation to an almost godlike position. It is noted that even white men paid their respects the Founder, an ambiguous token of respect.
Barbee describes the Founder’s death as also a birth, and remarks that the college has grown considerably since his passing. Finishing his speech, he tells the crowd that “Great deeds are yet to be performed.”
While Barbee intends for the crowd to feel a “birth” in their inclusion into the college, this increases the pain of the narrator’s feeling of separation.
The narrator is immensely moved by Barbee’s speech. As he wipes his eyes, he hears a commotion. Barbee has tripped over Dr. Bledsoe’s legs, and two white trustees give him his cane. The narrator realizes for the first time that Barbee is blind.
Barbee’s blindness is an ambiguous symbol. On one hand, it suggests that he is unaware of his surroundings, or blind to the real world truths that his mythologizing of the Founder obscure. On the other, his eloquence compares him to another blind poet, Homer, with whom he shares his name.
The narrator remarks that Barbee “made me both feel my guilt and accept it.” The service continues, but the narrator isn’t listening anymore. When he hears his mother’s favorite spiritual, the narrator bursts into tears and runs out of the chapel. However, the service ends soon after, and the narrator realizes it is time to go see Dr. Bledsoe. He is sure Bledsoe will be unsympathetic after Barbee’s rousing sermon.
Barbee’s speech helps convince the narrator of his own unworthiness. The narrator is still in the mindset that the college is everything to him, and as a result is terrified to see Bledsoe, who he assumes will punish him severely in proportion with the Founder’s goodness.