The first chapter introduces two motifs that will come up over and over in this book: the narrator’s grandfather’s particular theory of race relations, and the briefcase that he is given after his big speech. They come together nicely at the end of the chapter in the dream that the narrator describes. Discuss. In this part of the book we learn about the narrator’s grandfather who we see is dying after having been a slave who was freed 85 years prior.
He was viewed as a meek man but, on his death bed, he speaks up about his ideas of race to the narrator’s father. He instructs his son to “live with [his] head in the lion’s mouth,” the lion in this case being the white men. He tells him to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction” as if to say that he is to never let the whites make him feel unequal or lesser and that he is to interact with them in a way that may annoy them and that they may disagree with but that will show there is no longer the separation between those races that was present during the time of slavery .
The narrator says “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, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted”.
The grandfather’s words would always be remembered by the narrator because “on his deathbed……. he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity”.
We see the similarities in the lives of the narrator and his, now dead, grandfather when we learn that he recalls giving a speech at his high school graduation. He takes into consideration the advice that his grandfather had given about how to act with the white men, to seem vulnerable even though you know you are not. He says “I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this… I only believed it worked.)”. He, like the grandfather, is praised by the white who seem to enjoy and applaud his speech and offer an opportunity for him to read it amongst a larger crowd “at the gathering of the town’s leading white citizens.
After giving his speech – which started off with a very strange party type thingy where people were practically forced to beat the crap out of each other and go diving for money on an electrocuted rug (which I am guessing was put in this part of the book to show what white people were trying to do to black people; hurt them) – he mistakenly says “racial equality” in place of “racial responsibility”. This was a very big deal to all of the listeners who start yelling at him and shouting “hostile phrases”. The M.C. told him “We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at times”. Of course the narrator agrees and is submissive about the mistake he had made. He was following his grandfather’s instruction.
When granted the calfskin briefcase and seeing in it that there was an acceptance letter to a college for black people, the narrator is beyond happy which was unusual for him because he “even felt safe from grandfather, whose deathbed curse usually spoiled [his] triumphs”. I feel like he should not have been so happy to receive such a thing, though, because it is almost going against his idea of race and being separated no longer from the white people. By them giving him this scholarship to a black college is like saying “Good for you for being smart but don’t get too ahead of yourself.Remember, you’re still black.” It related right back to what the M.C. said earlier. However, his father seems to make him change feelings when the narrator dreams of him that night. Just like how he found a letter in the briefcase in real life, in his dream he found a letter but only after opening several envelopes to get to it – almost like a matryoshka doll. Yet, it was almost as if the letter were not meant for him. It was addressed ““To Whom It May Concern”” and contained a harsh message, ““Keep This Nigger-Boy Running””. I think the narrator is kind of realizing the actual meaning behind the college letter when he has this dream because he’s starting to think about the possibility that those white men were not granting him that as a way of helping him advance in life. Rather they still view him as nothing more than a “Nigger” that they want to maintain a separate relationship from.