The narrator and protagonist in the novel is nameless. An innocent teenager, he was born and grew up in the South of the United States. He is used to the social patterns of the region. With maturity, the narrator gradually recognizes the chaotic understructure of “orderly” society. The demarcation line between the “two” societies is blurred in his mind for the first time when he hears his grandfather’s deathbed instruction to his father. Although the old man seemed to be “obedient” and “obsequious” all his life, he tells his son and grandchildren that he was “a traitor all his born days, a spy in the enemy’s country” and advises them to overcome their enemies “with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”
Later the narrator witnesses a formal social function that is attended by all “big shots” of the town. The party degenerates into a nightmare of barbarity, vulgarity, and bestial desire. At the battle royal, black students are asked to fight each other for white people’s entertainment. The black students are forced to watch a naked white woman dance; they are also urged by the audience to pick up coins on electrified rugs (the coins later turn out to be advertisement souvenirs). As a reward for his Booker-T.-Washington kind of valedictory speech, the narrator receives a calfskin briefcase. That night, the narrator dreams of meeting his grandfather, who tells him to read a note in the briefcase. The note says: “To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
As part of the prize for his speech, the narrator also receives a scholarship to go to college. What he learns there, however, only further confuses him: A white philanthropist and a black sharecropper share the same kind of incestuous desire for their daughters. A black minister who gives a wonderful speech about the importance of education turns out to be blind. The...
(The entire section is 811 words.)