Why do his grandfather's last words cause so much anxiety in the family?
The narrator's grandparents were slaves who had been emancipated eighty-five years before the narrator recalls their lives.
They believed in Booker T. Washington's notion that they were "united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand" (15). Here, Ellison paraphrases from Washington's address at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895.
He continues: "They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same" (16). As a couple, the narrator's grandparents were what many whites of the time would have considered exemplary black people: hardworking and accepting of their subordinate citizenship.
His grandfather's speech causes "anxiety" because it contradicts his apparent meekness and the existence of an otherwise calm life. He tells his own son the following:
Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war. . . . 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 [sic] you till they vomit or bust wide open.
The old man had defined "desirable conduct" as a form of "treachery." For the narrator, this presents a particular problem given the similarities between his own character and that of his grandfather. If his grandfather was merely offering a facade to appease whites, was his identity rooted in anything real? Alternatively, was his character a carefully designed armor, built for survival in a world in which he could be killed with impunity?
The narrator then feels "a guilt" when he is praised for his own character; now it seems that he is "doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks," and "that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean. . . even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did" (17).
This all seems very confusing; however, it is this very confusion, bordering on madness, that Ellison wanted to convey in order to help us better understand the extent to which black identity was determined by racism. One must be polite, but one should not be dignified. The politeness must instead be the grovelling kind ("overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins") in order to avoid accusations of being uppity. However, in grovelling there is subversion; this is not really who one is. In order to live comfortably and safely, black people had to placate white supremacy. Yet, the narrator realizes that, if whites knew this—that it was all a ruse to acquire the means to live—they would want "just the opposite."
It is for this reason that the narrator is "an invisible man." He cannot be seen for who he truly is because white society is so blinded by its racism that they "refuse to see [him]" and see, instead, "[his] surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except [him]" (3).
The grandfather tells the narrator that he has felt like a traitor and a spy his entire life and should have never given up his gun after Reconstruction. He advises the narrator to keep up a "good fight'' by living with "your head in the lion's mouth.'' The grandfather continues, ‘‘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 grandfather's final fierce words are ‘‘Learn it to the younguns.’’ This dying speech alarms the narrator's folks and haunts the narrator through the rest of the story, especially since the narrator feels so well liked and is even praised ‘‘by the most lily-white men of the town.’’
This causes problems because the narrator begins to doubt his role in life. Should he live a life of duality--Yeses and grins--all the while planning to cut the whites down at their knees? He is confused by the advice, but as the story continues, he becomes angrier and angrier at being used. He is used for others' entertainment, for others' dirty work, and by the very group who are supposed to be helping initiate equality in New York for blacks. It is only at the end of the story when the narrator is living in a hole lit up with thousands of light bulbs powered by the whites (free to him) that he seems calm and sure of his identity and purpose in life.