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.
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...
(The entire section is 768 words.)