Why is the grandfather's speech important?

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The speech is also important in relation to W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "double-consciousness"—that is, having one's own sense of identity but also being obligated to behave according to the expectations of white supremacy. The narrator's grandfather encourages him to placate white people, to behave according to their expectations. Both the narrator and the grandfather know that this obsequious behavior is a ruse.

What is ironic about the speech is that the narrator's grandfather believes that the maintenance of this ruse is a part of "the good fight." The "fight," in other words, is the will to survive in a system that is bent on killing black men. Thus, the narrator's grandfather is telling him to satisfy white expectations, however demeaning, so that he can live.

The grandfather implies that he has been complicit in a system that has attempted to diminish his manhood. When he states that he has been "a spy in the enemy's country" ever since he put down his gun during Reconstruction, he offers a statement not only on losing the fight for full enfranchisement but also on losing out on the possibility to be regarded as an equal man. A gun is a symbol of masculine power and is sometimes regarded as a phallic symbol. Black men who asserted their masculinity, or any individual pride, were often lynched in the South.

The grandfather feels like "a spy" because he must observe white people constantly, knowing them better than they know themselves. In this way, he can anticipate their moods and actions for his own benefit. He feels that he's "in the enemy's country" because he must exist in a land that is bent on his destruction. Thus, he is at war, but it isn't a conflict in which he can assert his power directly.

The speech is important because it reveals the complex nature of being black in American society—even today. Black people who wish to acquire status or economic power within American society must make certain compromises, which may include being demeaned or insulted on account of one's race. They must then pretend not to be impacted by this, or perhaps not even to mind. This complicity with one's own oppression is reflected in the grandfather's direction to "overcome 'em with yeses" and "undermine 'em with grins." The narrator's grandfather presents the existential problem that has been central to black people's lives in the United States: should one compromise one's dignity and selfhood in order to live?

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The narrator's grandfather tells him the following information in the section called "Battle Royal."

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 first reason that the speech is important is because it explicitly tells the narrator that he is a soldier in a war. There is a fight that exists, and it is centered around a deeply racist culture. The grandfather wants his grandson to keep fighting, because it is a good fight and worth fighting for. The second reason this quote is important is because the grandfather gives the narrator a strategy by which to fight. The grandfather doesn't believe that his grandson should fight via a head-on attack. Instead, the grandfather recommends being a spy in the enemy's camp, undermining the power from within. The narrator should essentially become an invisible man. That sounds like sage advice, but the narrator will definitely question its wisdom in the years to come.

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The advice of the narrator's grandfather crops up at various points throughout the text. The most notable instance takes place during the grandfather's last few hours on earth. As he lies on his deathbed, he gives his grandson the benefit of his wisdom on the best way to deal with white people:

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.

Essentially, what the grandfather wants the narrator to do is hunker down and try not to make himself too conspicuous in this deeply racist and prejudiced society. The best thing for him to do is just play along with the prevailing expectations of how a black man should behave. That means being as accommodating and as subservient as it's possible to be.

But as the years go by, the narrator starts to question the wisdom of his grandfather's well-meaning but inappropriate advice. Numerous experiences of racism have shown him that simply hunkering down and keeping a low profile doesn't make white people treat you any better; quite the opposite, in fact. The importance of the grandfather's speech is that the advice it contains, if followed, leads to African Americans becoming effectively invisible in white society, hence the narrator's describing himself as an invisible man.

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