The narrator speaks of his grandparents, freed slaves who, after the Civil War, believed that they were separate but equal—that they had achieved equality with whites despite segregation. The narrator’s grandfather lived a meek and quiet life after being freed. On his deathbed, however, he spoke bitterly to the narrator’s father, comparing the lives of black Americans to warfare and noting that he himself felt like a traitor. He counseled the narrator’s father to undermine the whites with “yeses” and “grins” and advised his family to “agree ’em to death and destruction.” Now the narrator too lives meekly; he too receives praise from the white members of his town. His grandfather’s words haunt him, for the old man deemed such meekness to be treachery.
The narrator recalls delivering the class speech at his high school graduation. The speech urges humility and submission as key to the advancement of black Americans. It proves such a success that the town arranges to have him deliver it at a gathering of the community’s leading white citizens. The narrator arrives and receives instructions to take part in the “battle royal” that figures as part of the evening’s entertainment. The narrator and some of his classmates (who are black) don boxing gloves and enter the ring. A naked, blonde, white woman with an American flag painted on her stomach parades about; some of the white men demand that the black boys look at her and others threaten them if they don’t.
The white men then blindfold the youths and order them to pummel one another viciously. The narrator suffers defeat in the last round. After the men have removed the blindfolds, they lead the contestants to a rug covered with coins and a few crumpled bills. The boys lunge for the money, only to discover that an electric current runs through the rug. During the mad scramble, the white men attempt to force the boys to fall face forward onto the rug.
When it comes time for the narrator to give his speech, the white men all laugh and ignore him as he quotes, verbatim, large sections of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address. Amid the amused, drunken requests that he repeat the phrase “social responsibility,” the narrator accidentally says “social equality.” The white men angrily demand that he explain himself. He responds that he made a mistake, and finishes his speech to uproarious applause. The men award him a calfskin briefcase and instruct him to cherish it, telling him that one day its contents will help determine the fate of his people. Inside, to his utter joy, the narrator finds a scholarship to the state college for black youth. His happiness doesn’t diminish when he later discovers that the gold coins from the electrified rug are actually worthless brass tokens.
That night, the narrator has a dream of going to a circus with his grandfather, who refuses to laugh at the clowns. His grandfather instructs him to open the briefcase. Inside the narrator finds an official envelope with a state seal. He opens it only to find another envelope, itself containing another envelope. The last one contains an engraved document reading: “To Whom It May Concern . . . Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator wakes with his grandfather’s laughter ringing in his ears.
The narrator’s grandfather introduces a further element of moral and emotional ambiguity to the novel, contributing to the mode of questioning that dominates it. While the grandfather confesses that he deems himself a traitor for his policy of meekness in the face of the South’s enduring racist structure, the reader never learns whom the grandfather feels he has betrayed: himself, his family, his ancestors, future generations, or perhaps his race as a whole. While this moral ambiguity arises from the grandfather’s refusal to elaborate, another ambiguity arises out of his direct instructions. For in the interest of his family’s self-protection, he advises them to maintain two identities: on the outside they should embody the stereotypical good slaves, behaving just as their former masters wish; on the inside, however, they should retain their bitterness and resentment against this imposed false identity. By following this model, the grandfather’s descendants can refuse internally to accept second-class status, protect their own self-respect, and avoid betraying themselves or each other.
The use of masks or role-playing as a method of subterfuge becomes increasingly important later in the novel. As others aggressively attack the individual’s sense of self, the mask becomes a form of defense. Moreover, role-playing can become a kind of pointed performance art: the grandfather instructs his family members to play the role of the good slave to the extent that the role becomes almost a parody. In this way, excessive obedience to Southern whites’ expectations becomes insidious disobedience: the family can “overcome [the white people] with yeses, undermine [them] with grins.” The family can play upon the rift between how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves, exploiting it to their advantage.
Despite his grandfather’s warnings, the narrator believes that genuine obedience will win him respect and praise. To some extent he is right, as the white men reward his obedience with a scholarship. Yet they also take advantage of his passivity, forcing him to take part in the degrading and barbaric battle royal. In addition to accentuating this tension between obedience and rebellion under the guise of obedience, the battle royal episode extends the novel’s motifs of blindness and masks. The boys’ literal blindfolding in the ring parallels the men’s metaphorical blindness as they watch the fight: the men view the boys not as individuals, but as inferior beings, as animals. The blindfolds also represent the boys’ own metaphorical blindness—their inability to see through the false masks of goodwill that barely conceal the men’s racist motives as they force the boys to conform to the racial stereotype of the black man as a violent, savage, oversexed beast. The narrator, blind in so many ways, has not yet learned to see behind the masks, behind the surfaces of things, behind the veils put up by white society. Only too late does he discover the falsity of the supposedly gold coins and of white generosity—the painful electric current running through the innocuous-looking rug.
Ellison does not limit himself to symbolic language and allegorical references, however. In his presentation of the narrator’s speech, Ellison directly enters into another tradition, that of black social debate. By placing this speech within the context of the events in this chapter, he critiques and questions its stated beliefs. Specifically, he disparages the optimistic social program of the nineteenth-century black educator and writer Booker T. Washington. Although the narrator never actually names Washington directly, his speech contains long quotations from the great reformer’s Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895. Washington’s program for the advancement of black Americans emphasized industrial education. He believed that blacks should avoid clamoring for political and civil rights and put their energy instead toward achieving economic success. He believed that if blacks worked hard and proved themselves, whites would grant them equality.
Ellison faulted this philosophy for its vastly optimistic assessment of white society. The successful black businessman, after all, proved as vulnerable to racial prejudice as the poor, uneducated sharecropper. Ellison makes his argument by showing what happens to blacks who follow Washington’s ideology, such as the narrator’s grandfather, who came to believe late in his life that such an ideology contained major limitations. Ellison’s point is made more dramatic when the white audience taunts and humiliates the hardworking, polite narrator while he voices sections of Washington’s speech. Ellison forcefully implies that racist whites are not prepared to accept either Washington’s ideas or industrious, upstanding black citizens.
The white men’s reaction to the narrator’s slip in substituting “social equality” for “social responsibility” in his speech underlines Ellison’s point. Whereas the men act with some benevolence toward the narrator when he embodies their idea of the model black citizen, they show their true faces when he threatens white supremacy. This sudden hostility reveals the limitations of Washington’s philosophy: the narrator’s blind obedience to the good slave role doesn’t free him from racism; rather, the moment he exhibits an individual opinion, the men demand that he reassume the good slave role. By rewarding him with the briefcase and scholarship only when he does so, the men restrict his social advancement to their terms.
The men’s instruction to the narrator to consider the briefcase a “badge of office” is ironic, in that such a badge normally constitutes an insignia or emblem denoting a person’s job, position, or membership in a group (“office” here means an assigned function or duty). The text suggests, however, that the only “office” that the narrator has assumed is that of the good slave, an “office” that the white men have forced upon him. The briefcase appears several times throughout the novel as a reminder of this bitter irony of advancement through self-effacement. Although the narrator’s dream hints at his vague awareness of the gift’s real meaning, he is not yet conscious of its insidious nature.
As the narrator matures, however, he will develop new conceptions of race relations and come to new understandings of how to assert his own identity within and against these relations. In portraying this evolution, Invisible Man enters into the tradition of the bildungsroman (a German word meaning “novel of formation”), a genre of fiction that portrays a young person’s education and early experience and shows the moral and intellectual growth that transforms him or her into an adult. The bildungsroman enjoyed particular popularity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European fiction, most notably in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther), Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, David Copperfield), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre). In American fiction, great examples of the bildungsroman include Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Ellison’s novel, in also addressing questions about race, individuality, and the meaning of existence, differentiates itself somewhat from the traditional “novel of formation.” One might best consider it a kind of existential bildungsroman, combining the story of a young man’s progress in the world with an anguished and far-reaching exploration of race, society, and identity.