Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory.
This quote appears at the beginning of the story. The unnamed narrator has been looking for “something” for many years. He discovers that what he is looking for (his identity) is far from easy to define. This is because society has decided the parameters of his identity, and he has accepted these parameters without question. The narrator now knows that the “answers” society has given him directly contradict his inherent need for truth and the realization of his own identity.
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About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate from the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same.
Even after the end of the war, freed slaves in the south had to contend with legal and societal opposition that limited their freedoms—despite the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Southerners who objected to the legal equality of freed slaves resorted to Jim Crow laws, a series of local and state statutes aimed at relegating black Americans to second-class citizenship. Many of these laws imposed egregious infringements on individual rights, the kind of rights protected by the new amendments.
Many freed slaves believed that Reconstruction and the new amendments protected them. However, many Southern state governments worked to nullify the influence of both, and black Americans suffered as a result of institutional indifference to lynchings, floggings, and rampant discrimination. When the narrator says that his ancestors “stayed in their place” he is saying that even after being nominally released from slavery, they abided by the limitations created through this legal and societal discrimination.
I was praised by the most lily-white men in town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct—just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks…
The narrator finds himself torn between the words of his deceased grandfather and the expectations of white society. He doesn’t know how he should act: his grandfather was praised for his exemplary conduct while he was alive, but described himself as a traitor on his deathbed. The narrator finds himself similarly respected by white society. After all, he has been invited to give a speech before the town’s leading white citizens. Yet, he feels guilt, confusion, and frustration. His grandfather's words disturb him, and he is unsure what his grandfather meant by “treachery.” Ultimately, only the narrator can decide who he is and how he will act. This work of defining his identity is a substantial challenge, as there are many voices seeking to influence him.
I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and to murder her, to hide from her…
This quote reinforces the idea of the “battle royal” as both a mental and physical conflict. The white men understand the effect a naked woman would most likely have on male teens, and they choose to establish this complicated viewing dynamic. They use that effect to goad the boys mercilessly: some threaten the teens for looking while others intimidate those who refuse to look. On one hand the boys are attracted to the eroticism of a nude woman dancing in front of them; on the other hand, the vulgarity and tension of the situation—the drunken horde of white men, the personal danger to a black man expressing interest in a white woman—traps them in a conflicted and terrifying viewing experience.
As the quote shows, the narrator clearly struggles in this situation. He has contradictory feelings of repulsion and attraction, guilt and lust. He is caught in an ambiguous experience similar to the issues he confronts in his identity, as he both desires the approval of the white community and feels the extreme discomfort of that community’s demands upon him.