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  • The Roof, the Steeple and the People*
  • Ralph Ellison (bio)

Bliss, Daddy Hickman said, you keep asking me to take you even though I keep telling you that folks dont like to see preachers hanging around a place they think of as one of the Devil’s hangouts. All right, so now I’m going to take you so you can see for yourself, and you’ll see that its just like the world—full of sinners and with a few believers, a few good folks and a heap of mixed-up and bad ones. Yes, and beyond the fun of sitting there looking at the marvelous happenings in the dark, there’s all the same old snares and delusions we have to side-step everyday right out here in the bright sunlight. Because you see, Bliss, it’s not so much a matter of where you are as what you see. . . .

Yes, sir, I said.

No, dont agree too quick, Bliss; wait until you understand. But like old Luke says, “The light of the body is the eye,” so you want to be careful that the light that your eye lets into you isn’t the light of darkness. I mean you always have to be sure that you see what you’re looking at.

I nodded my head, watching his eyes. I could see him studying the Word as he talked.

That’s right, he said, many times you will have to preach goodness out of badness, little boy. Yes, and hope out of hopelessness. God made the world and gave it a chance, and when it’s bad we have to remember that it’s still his plan for it to be redeemed through the striving of a few good women and men. So come on, we’re going to walk down there and take us a good look. We’re going to do it in style too, with some popcorn and peanuts and some crackerjacks and candy bars. You might as well get some idea of what you will have to fight against, because I dont believe you can really lead folks if you never have to face up to any of the temptations they face. Christ had to put on the flesh, Bliss; you understand?

Yes, sir.

But wait here a second, Bliss—

He looked deep into me and I felt a tremor. Sir? I said.

His eyes became sad as he hesitated, then:

Now dont think this is going to become a habit, Bliss. I know you’re going to like being in there looking in the dark, even though you have to climb up those filthy pissy stairs to get there. Oh yes, you’re going to enjoy looking at the pictures just about like I used to enjoy being up there on the bandstand playing music for folks to enjoy [End Page 263] themselves back there in my olden days. Yes, you’re going to like looking at the pictures, most likely you’re going to be bugeyed with the excitement; but I’m telling you right now that it’s one of those pleasures we preachers have to leave to other folks. And I’ll tell you why, little preacher: too much looking at those pictures is going to have a lot of folks raising a crop of confusion. The show hasn’t been here but a short while but I can see it coming already. Because folks are getting themselves mixed up with those shadows spread out against the wall, with people that are no more than some smoke drifting up from hell or pouring out of a bottle. So they lose touch with who they’re supposed to be, Bliss. They forget to be what the Book tells them they were meant to be—and that’s in God’s own image. The preacher’s job, his main job, Bliss, is to help folks find themselves and to keep reminding them to remember who they are. So you see, those pictures can go against our purpose. If they look at those shows too often they’ll get all mixed up with so many of those shadows that they’ll...

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pp. 263-271
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