At the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), the narrator relates the story of his grandfather’s death and the lesson that the old man wanted his son to know. He told him, “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swollen you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). I’ve always recalled this statement when thinking about Ellison’s novel because the lion, in this case, represents white society, the overreaching power that keeps the protagonist of the novel in subjugation. The grandfather tells his son, and future generations, that in order to fight that power, you must do so covertly and on the sly.
In essence, the grandfather is telling his son to take on the characteristics of the Signifying Monkey, a character in urban toasts who outwits and embarrasses the king of the jungle and gets away with it to live and fight another day. Rather than using his power, the monkey uses his cunning and intelligence to make the lion look like a fool. He causes the lion to receive a beating from an elephant, and when the lion corners the monkey, the primate uses language to escape.
I provide all of this background information to give a little context to what I want to discuss in today’s post. Reading Arna Bontemps’ The Old South (1973), I became intrigued by a story near the end of the collection entitled “Mr. Kelso’s Lion.” The story originally appeared in 1970, and I think that is very important for the points I want to talk about in regards to the story. Essentially, the narrative follows Percy and his grandpa Amos as they go to a city in Alabama to visit his Aunt Clothilde. Once they arrive, and as they eat dinner, the diners hear a roar from the window. It turns out that one of Clothilde’s neighbors, Bumpus, has a lion caged in his back yard. However, the lion does not belong to the neighbor; it belongs to Mr. Kelso, a white man that we never see. Eventually, Amos confronts Bumpus, the lion gets out, Amos gets hurt, then the lion returns to its cage.
In Bontemps’ story, the idea of the grandfather gets reversed. Upon first seeing the lion, Percy and his grandfather see the lion stretched out in the cage with bones, “some of them with bits of meat left on them,” littering the floor (195). When Amos asks Bumpus if he is scared to have “a monster like that around the house,” Bumpus simply says he feels safe because the lion is tame (195). For Bumpus, the white presence of the lion does not affect him because he has said “yeses” continuously while grinning. Bumpus tells the visitors about how Amos warns Bumpus that the lion may mistake him for a T-bone steak, and Bumpus just laughs loudly, responding, “That lion knows me. I’m his friend. He wouldn’t hurt me. I could go in that cage and pet it” (196).
Problems start to arise when Percy and Amos start to seek ways to get the lion removed from the neighborhood because it creates a nuisance and fear amongst the citizens. They go to the government and get pushed from person to person never getting anywhere. During the course of their actions, they learn that the law does not allow animals like lions in residential areas. That’s why Mr. Kelso has to board the lion somewhere else. It turns out that according to the zoning laws, the African American section of town is not residential, it is commercial, and the lion can stay there. The clerk says, “Where [Kelso is] boarding the lion now is commercial” (207). With this in mind, the lion becomes a means of surveillance on the African American community.
Along with surveillance, the discussion of zoning brings up thoughts about white flight
and the downturn in urban areas during the 1960s and 1970s when whites started to flee to the suburbs. Even though the story takes place in a quintessentially Southern town, I can’t help but think about these ideas in relation to urban spaces like Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Bontemps writes about experiences in the north, and in his autobiographical essay “Why I Returned,”
he writes, “I never felt I could settle permanently with my family in Chicago. I could not accept the ghetto, and ironclad residential restrictions against Negroes situated as we were made escape impossible” (18). Bontemps knew about these aspects of white dominance, and he uses “Mr. Kelso’s Lion” to comment on them.
Eventually, one night Amos gets fed up with the noise and confronts Bumpus. The lion attacks Amos and escapes. Finally, the police arrive to try and capture the lion, but it roams the streets all night. Percy and Clothilde cower in the house as the lion prowls through the backyard. After the lion returns to the cage and as Amos works to recover, Percy must return home to start school. Percy tries to convince his grandfather that missing a day or two would not be a big deal; however, Amos tells the boy, “You can’t afford to miss a single day of school, not ever. You got to go off and study and find out how to get rid of this lion” (219). Rather than telling Percy to placate the lion with kindness from the inside, Amos tells his grandson that he must learn how to confront the white supremacy contained within the symbol of the lion.
As usual, there is a lot here. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Bontemps, Arna. The Old South: “A Summer Tragedy” and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1973.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.