“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”
The narrator arrives at the Liberty Paints plant. A huge electric sign reads “keep america pure with liberty paints.” The narrator’s supervisor, Mr. Kimbro, leads him to a long room filled with buckets of paint. Kimbro demonstrates the job: he opens buckets filled with a foul, milky brown substance and drips ten drops of another black chemical into them; then he stirs the buckets vigorously until the paint becomes glossy white; last, he applies the paint to small, rectangular wooden boards and waits for them to dry. If they dry brilliant white, then the job has been done correctly. Kimbro brags that the Optic White of Liberty Paints is the purest white that can be found anywhere. He says that it can cover up almost anything.
When only a little of the black chemical remains, Kimbro instructs the narrator to go to the tank room to get more. There, however, the narrator finds seven tanks marked by incomprehensible codes, leaving him unable to determine which tank contains the right chemical. He chooses one by scent and continues to mix and paint the tiles, but the tiles turn out sticky and gray, not hard and glossy. Kimbro returns and becomes infuriated, scolding the narrator for putting concentrated remover into the paint and thereby ruining some seventy-five buckets of paint. Kimbro fills the dropper with the correct chemical and leaves the narrator to his job. The paint samples still dry with a vague gray tinge, but Kimbro doesn’t seem to notice.
Later, the narrator is sent to the furnace room to assist the engineer, Lucius Brockway. Brockway, who believes that assistants are always college-educated men who want to usurp his job, declares that he doesn’t need an assistant but sets the narrator to work anyway. He instructs the narrator to watch the pressure gauges on the boiler. Brockway takes pride in his indispensable role in making Optic White paint, Liberty Paint’s trademark color, since he alone can mix the base for the paint correctly. The slogan for the color is, “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.” The slogan reminds the narrator of an old Southern saying: “If you’re white, you’re right.”
Lunchtime arrives, and the narrator returns to the locker room to retrieve his lunch, interrupting a union meeting. Some members accuse him of being a “fink,” or an informer, when they hear that he is Brockway’s assistant. The men resolve to investigate the narrator and then allow him to retrieve his lunch. When Brockway learns about the union meeting, he becomes furious and threatens to kill the narrator if he doesn’t leave the plant. The narrator denies belonging to the union. Brockway and the narrator begin pummeling each other until Brockway loses his dentures while biting the narrator. Brockway blubbers about the union trying to steal his job. The narrator notices the boilers hissing, and Brockway shouts for him to turn the valve in order to lower the pressure. The narrator doesn’t have the strength to do so, however, and the boiler explodes. The narrator falls unconscious under a pile of machinery and “stinking goo.”
The narrator’s experiences at the Liberty Paints plant give Ellison the chance to debunk a social and historical myth prevalent since before the Civil War—that of the North as the land of freedom for black Americans. The North, it turns out, perpetuates its own racist social structure, with which the narrator becomes further acquainted in the second half of the novel. The Liberty Paints plant serves as an extended metaphor for racial inequality in America. The factory’s authorities, with their slogans emphasizing concepts of whiteness and purity, imply the moral superiority of their whiteness. The inclusion of “Liberty” in the factory’s name emphasizes that the factory’s leaders’ notions reflect those held by the leaders of America, a country supposedly founded on “liberty” and equality but in fact, ironically, advocating more freedom for the individuals it deems worthiest.
When Brockway boasts that one would have to crack open a chunk of coal painted with Liberty Paints’ Optic White in order to determine its black essence, he illustrates how blackness becomes invisible beneath whiteness at the plant. Mr. Kimbro brags that the paint’s pure whiteness will cover anything, and indeed it covers the black chemical used to create it. That this specific shade of white is called “Optic” equates whiteness with clarity. This label is ironic, however, because the brilliance of the paint is blinding. Like a mask, the paint covers and conceals.
Ellison injects a great deal of similar irony into the portrayal of the Liberty Paints company. The necessity of mixing the base with the dead black chemical to produce the blinding white paint demonstrates that the brilliance of whiteness needs blackness. Moreover, the very success of the company’s trademark Optic White paint results from the black Brockway’s skill in mixing the base. The metaphor of Brockway’s mixing implies that the dominance and privilege of whiteness derive from the abject status of blackness—whiteness couldn’t occupy its privileged position signifying “purity,” “liberty,” and “rightness” without disempowering blackness.
Ellison also criticizes the racial inequality perpetuated by the social and political structures that operate within American companies and thus within American capitalism. While Brockway may have a certain position of influence in the company, his is not a position of power. He remains in constant fear of losing his job and scorns labor activists for their ingratitude. He advocates that the young, black college graduates who come to the plant be grateful to powerful white men for providing them with jobs and espouses an ideology resembling that of Booker T. Washington: be content with economic success and do not agitate for civil or political rights. Like Dr. Bledsoe, Brockway retains his position of influence by betraying the efforts of others to gain equality. He creates a shallow sense of empowerment by bragging about his indispensability to the company. His bravado is a mask for a deep sense of insecurity about his job and his position in society.
The narrator encounters the frustrating truth that coming to the North hasn’t afforded him the freedom to define his own identity. The union members brand him a “fink,” or informant, and vote to investigate him without allowing him to defend himself, and Brockway brands him a traitor and forces their confrontation to a violent resolution. Like the scene of the battle royal in Chapter 1, the portrayal of the conditions at Liberty Paints strongly contradicts Booker T. Washington’s belief that economic advancement leads to freedom. Ellison insists that no amount of industriousness and hard work on the part of black Americans will grant them social or political equality, because whites will never grant them that equality out of sheer goodwill.