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.