On his deathbed and in the hearing of his grandchildren, the grandfather says to his son, the narrator's father,
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.
The family is surprised by these final words of defiance against white people, as their grandfather has always presented himself as the "meekest of men." In fact, the narrator says, his parents were more upset over this utterance than the grandfather's death itself, and they told the children to forget all about them. Naturally, although he keeps the family secret about this deathbed declaration, the narrator remembers and thinks often about these words.
In this passage, the grandfather is advising his children to play a game with white people by never showing them what they are really thinking and feeling. White people are the enemy and can't be trusted. Black people, the grandfather says, are at war with white people but can win only by pretending to be servile and to know that white people are out to destroy them. They must be traitors to whites people.
The narrator states that he is not sure exactly what these words mean. However, this theme is repeated in a variety of ways throughout the novel. The idea that Black people should always, for the sake of survival, lie to white people and tell them what they want to hear is a concept the narrator will continue to struggle with.