Through the grandfather's haunting words of advice, the story reaches to presumably the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, issued in the midst of the Civil War. Eighty-five years later, in approximately 1949, the narrator must come to terms with his family's history. The story interweaves various levels of obvious and subtle racism in the projection of a nightmarish racial hatred. The offensive epithets speak for themselves. The economic structure of the spectacles implicitly criticize ways in which money and economic power sustain the expression of racial hatred. As the schoolmates fight each other for coins, trying not to get shocked, it seems that Ellison is proposing a parody of what it is like to try to succeed in a segregated society. And, in this segregated world, economic success makes the African-American individual a target to both other African Americans and to whites who are threatened by such success.
More subtle commentary on racism emerges in questioning why the white men are so entranced by the spectacles of violence they stage. While everyone in the audience seems to enjoy commanding economic security, it might seem curious that they still are thrilled to see the narrator and his schoolmates demeaned and abused. What is the logic of the white men's fascination here?
Alienation and Loneliness of Growing into Adulthood
The narrator's experience at the smoker demonstrates that instead of feeling himself in mutual struggle with his schoolmates, he instead holds himself up as superior to them. Ellison also presents the narrator as naive, trusting in the institutions of education and in a conventional belief that one works hard to succeed in a land of...
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