Mr. Norton asks to be taken to his room and requests a personal visit from Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. Bledsoe becomes furious when the narrator informs him of the afternoon’s events, scolding him that he should have known to show powerful white trustees only what the college wants them to see. When Bledsoe arrives at Norton’s room, he orders the narrator to leave and instructs him to attend the chapel service that evening. In his room later that afternoon, the narrator receives a message that Bledsoe wants to speak with him in Norton’s room. He arrives to find only Mr. Norton, however, who informs him that Bledsoe had to leave suddenly but that the narrator can find him in his office after the evening service. Norton says that he explained to Bledsoe that the narrator was not responsible for what happened and adds that he thinks that Bledsoe understands.
Reverend Homer A. Barbee speaks at the chapel service. He is African American and wears dark glasses. He tells the story of the Founder, who was born into slavery and poverty but possessed a precocious intelligence. The Founder was almost killed as a child when a cousin splashed him with lye, rendering him impotent. After nine days in a coma, he woke, as if resurrected. He taught himself how to read and later escaped slavery. He went north and pursued further education. After many years, he returned to the South and founded the college to which he devoted the rest of his life’s work. The sermon deeply moves the narrator. Barbee stumbles on the way back to his chair, and his glasses fall from his face. The narrator catches a glimpse of Barbee’s sightless eyes and realizes that Barbee is blind.
“I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. . . .”
After the service, the narrator meets with Bledsoe, who is angry that the narrator took Norton to the old slave quarters, Jim Trueblood’s cabin, and the Golden Day. The narrator protests that Norton ordered him to stop at the cabin. Bledsoe replies that white people constantly give foolish orders and that the narrator, having grown up in the South as a black man, should know how to lie his way out of such situations. Bledsoe says that he will have to investigate the veteran who mocked Norton. He picks up a slave’s leg shackle and informs the narrator that he must be disciplined. The narrator threatens to tell everyone that Bledsoe broke his promise to Norton not to punish him. Bledsoe responds angrily that he has worked hard to achieve his position of power and that he doesn’t plan to lose it. Rather than expel the narrator outright, Bledsoe tells him to go to New York for the summer and work to earn his year’s tuition. Bledsoe hints that if he does well he will earn the right to return to school. He offers to send letters of recommendation to some of the trustees to ensure that the narrator gets work. The next day, the narrator retrieves seven sealed letters and assures Bledsoe that he doesn’t resent his punishment. Bledsoe praises his attitude, but the narrator remains haunted by his grandfather’s prophetic dying words.
Dr. Bledsoe proves a master of masks. Imperious and commanding with the narrator, he becomes conciliatory and servile with Mr. Norton. Moreover, when the narrator protests that he drove Norton to the old slave quarters only according to orders, Bledsoe bursts out, “Damn what he wants. We take these white folks where we want them to go, we show them what we want them to see.” The narrator learns, to his shock, that the surface appearance of humble servility in fact constitutes a mere mask under which Bledsoe manipulates and deceives powerful white donors to his advantage.
In this duplicity, the narrator recognizes his grandfather’s sentiment that true treachery lies in believing in the mask of meekness. For, echoing Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, Bledsoe practices humility and preaches the virtue of humble contentment with one’s place; but, in fact, he uses his seeming passivity to mask his true aims. Bledsoe employs this mask of meekness not only as a method of self-preservation or even self-empowerment but also as a method of actively grabbing power. He uses the college and Washington’s ideology to gain a position of power rather than to achieve broad social progress for his people. Bledsoe’s declaration that he has “played the nigger” long and hard to get to his position and won’t have one young, naïve student vanquish his accomplishments reveals his priorities: his concern for the college’s image masks his greater fear that his own image will be defiled and his power stripped.
To remain in power, Bledsoe must prevent the narrator from lifting his mask and exposing his duplicity. By shipping the narrator off to New York, he preserves his cover. Moreover, the proposition to get the narrator hired in New York, it soon becomes clear, constitutes an act of duplicity in itself. Though Bledsoe has no intention of helping the narrator, the narrator continues to trust in Bledsoe, illustrating that he has still not fully learned to look beneath surfaces. He overlooks Bledsoe’s propensity for double-dealing precisely when he should most remember it.
Thus, we see that Bledsoe uses masks not only to dupe the white establishment but to dupe his own students. The narrator’s grandfather advised his family to use masks as a form of self-defense and resistance against racist white power, but Bledsoe uses masks as a weapon against members of his own race. Moreover, he uses deception to achieve an influential position within the white-dominated power structure rather than to dismantle that structure. One can argue that Bledsoe’s character shows the ultimate limitations of the grandfather’s philosophy: African Americans will not win true power for themselves as a people if they continue to lead double lives.
Yet, while Ellison may imply that active duplicity and illusion may not lead to freedom and dignity, he suggests that African Americans should nonetheless remain aware of their power, if only to be on guard against them. This message comes across in the episode of Barbee’s sermon. The sermon reinforces total allegiance to the college’s and Bledsoe’s (outward) philosophy. Barbee regards the Founder as a god of sorts, whose ideology should be trusted completely, like a religion. The sermon declares that the Founder’s ideology and life represent a universal example that should be followed blindly rather than skillfully manipulated, as Bledsoe does. This blind faith and blind allegiance becomes physically embodied in the character of Barbee—a blind man. Ellison implicitly compares Barbee, whose first name is Homer, to the legendary blind Greek poet Homer, who composed the Odyssey and the Iliad. Barbee’s sermon, an appreciative tribute to the Founder, attempts a project similar to that of Homer’s two epic poems, which celebrate the Greek heroes Odysseus and Achilles, respectively.
The story of the Founder’s physical impotence emphasizes the powerlessness that arises from a policy of blind faith. If the Founder himself—this figurehead of the college’s power and glory—is sterile, then the fertility of his vision and legacy comes into question. His legacy’s offspring include a blind preacher, the double-dealing Bledsoe, and a narcissistic Boston philanthropist who refuses to acknowledge what seems to be an incestuous attraction to his deceased daughter. The Founder’s name is lost to history, and he becomes an empty symbol manipulated by men like Bledsoe to preserve the blindness of others. The reverent sermon revives the narrator’s blind love and devotion to the college and to its program; however, this devotion prompts the narrator to trust blindly in the self-interested Bledsoe. While reprimanding the narrator for his carelessness with Norton, Bledsoe toys with an antique slave shackle, noting that it symbolizes African-American progress. By the end of these chapters, however, Bledsoe’s shackle becomes a symbol of continuing enslavement to multiple forms of blindness.