In his speech at the rally in Chapter 16, the narrator uses an extended metaphor of blindness to illustrate oppression. Blindness has divided oppressed people throughout the novel: the college’s faculty and students disowned Jim Trueblood because of their blind allegiance to an ideology; Bledsoe betrays the narrator for the same reason. Brockway betrays the union due to his fear of losing his job and his naïve faith in the ability of white power structures to help him maintain his position. At the same time, the union refuses to allow the narrator to speak for himself, and does so out of its own utter distrust of the black Brockway. The narrator calls for an end to the blindness that causes such interracial divisions and urges the formation of a united front. His speech, however, becomes ironic when we learn that he cannot even see his audience; he becomes a blind leader of a blind audience. The narrator stumbles blindly as he leaves the microphone, just as Reverend Barbee does after his sermon in Chapter 5, and as the prizefighter must have done after his blinding bout in the ring.
Some members of the Brotherhood become dissatisfied with the speech’s lack of “scientific” content—their term for abstract rhetoric and ideological jargon. The narrator has spoken freely as an individual rather than as the propaganda tool that they would have him be. The narrator agrees to have Brother Hambro “educate” him, but he fails to see the similarities between this education and the one that he received in college: though he believes in each as a means toward advancement—in college, his own advancement; in Harlem, the advancement of his people—each requires his blind adherence to an ideology imposed from the outside, and each squelches his individual identity.
The first rally that the narrator attends as the Brotherhood’s Harlem spokesperson contains additional ominous signs that his involvement with the Brotherhood will not be promising. The narrator’s inability to differentiate between his followers and Ras’s, in the nighttime brawl that breaks out in Chapter 17, seems a sign of the unproductiveness of this confrontation, since both groups are fighting for black advancement. Ellison does not condone Ras’s violence; however, Ras’s gesture of sparing Clifton because of their shared skin color is a concrete demonstration of respect for a black man, whereas the speeches that the narrator makes for the Brotherhood are abstract and help blacks in a much less immediate way. The nightmares that the narrator experiences about his old life seem to evidence a subconscious feeling that the Brotherhood, as Ras predicts, will eventually betray him.
Although the narrator initially believes that his membership in the Brotherhood has made him into a new person, his nightmares about figures from the past suggest that his past cannot be erased and that it will continue to haunt him. By dedicating himself to his work, the narrator has indeed gained a well-known public identity. However, he suffers intense internal conflict between his public and private selves, and consequently feels as if he is “running a foot race” against himself. The narrator’s observation echoes his dream in Chapter 1 in which he opens his briefcase to find the envelope containing a paper that reads “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” Clearly, the Brotherhood’s attempt to refashion the narrator’s identity doesn’t celebrate his individuality but rather keeps him running, searching to define himself against stereotypes.
While Ras correctly intuits an underlying racism among the Brotherhood’s leadership, his own black nationalist philosophy offers a similarly specious liberation. Like the ideologies of the Brotherhood and the narrator’s college, it demands that individuals break completely with their past and submit to someone else’s definition of their identity.