“Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”
These words are spoken by the narrator’s grandfather on his death bed and continue to haunt the invisible man throughout the entire novel. This passage is crucial to understanding the purpose of the text, which is why Ellison has included these important words near the very beginning of the narrative. Not only is his grandfather preparing the narrator for a racially charged society, but also offers potential strategies for overcoming and fighting racial inequality. The narrator compares his conduct to his grandfather’s as “desirable,” but is made uncomfortable by the fact that his grandfather had termed their conduct “treachery.” Yet, the narrator was still “more afraid to act any other way because they didn’t like that at all” (17). This passage significantly reveals the racial strife present at the time in America, but also alludes to the idea of conformity at the expense of individualism.
This early in the novel, the narrator is unaware of the “tyranny” Emerson refers to as society. But, with a first-person narration, readers do not fully grasp the tyranny either, and are left to determine with the narrator the importance of his grandfather’s dying words. Though it seems that the narrator has been successful thus far, he is not yet entirely aware that he is analogous to a puppet being moved by strings. As much as Invisible Man is about race, it is also largely about individual identity. Ellison’s narrative is unique because he explores the difficulty faced in not only creating an identity, but forming an American identity as a person of color. Throughout the novel, those around the narrator attempt to thrust their ideals on him without allowing him to choose for himself. The narrator is under the illusion that he is “successful” if he acts the way white society expects him to. However, and it isn’t until later that the narrator cares, white society expects the narrator, representative of all African Americans, to assimilate to their culture at the expense of his own. This is further supported as the narrator gains self-awareness as emphasized by the yam scene. Eating the yams is associated with the narrator’s culture by stating that the taste brought him a surge of homesickness. It is at this pivotal moment that the narrator decides to be unashamed of his culture, or at least one aspect of it as he continues to transform as a character. The narrator confidently exclaims, “…to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am!” (266).