I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.
The narrator as a man comes to terms with the bloody battle royal and his speech before the crowd of drunken white men. The fight and its setting embody racism because it pits black children against each other purely for the entertainment of the racist audience. The narrator recalls this pivotal incident from his youth and relates its details without shame. The narrator also relates the anecdote about his grandfather’s dying words that admitted he considered himself a traitor, words that caused the narrator immediate alarm and long-standing discomfort.
I didn't understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.
Here, the narrator explains his epiphany that racism has its origins in fear. He and Mr. Norton have just arrived at Trueblood’s cabin, the man who admits to having incest with his daughter. Norton has such an adverse reaction to Trueblood’s truth that he becomes ill and needs to be revived with a drink. Whites, schooled blacks like him, and working-class blacks fear each other and their own true natures.
Picture it, my young friends: The clouds of darkness all over the land, black folk and white folk full of fear and hate, wanting to go forward, but each fearful of the other. A whole region is caught in a terrible tension.
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee of Chicago delivers a rousing speech at the narrator’s college. The speech is fiery and dramatic, more like a sermon than an academic address, and its language not only captures the raging spirit of the Jim Crow Era but also the cyclical rhythms of jazz. The terrible tension is cultural and also personal to the narrator, who will soon be asked to leave the college.
But here in the North I would slough off my southern ways of speech. Indeed, I would have one way of speaking in the North and another in the South. Give them what they wanted down South, that was the way. If Dr. Bledsoe could do it, so could I.
While searching for work in New York City, the narrator admits he will adapt his ways to secure a job. He distributes letters of introduction Dr. Bledsoe wrote for him to important men, but he soon discovers that the content of the letters undermine him and will not bring him a job. During his interactions with secretaries, he realizes his speech betrays his social standing as a black man in Harlem. The narrator pragmatically analyzes the role of stereotypes as he develops his sense of race and self-respect.
“If It's Optic White, It's the Right White,” I repeated and suddenly had to repress a laugh as a childhood jingle rang through my mind: “If you're white, you're right,” I said.
The narrator reacts to an advertising slogan heard while conversing with Lucius Brockway, the man who runs the engines in the cellar of the Liberty Paint plant. He puts the pressure on the oils and resins that are the foundation of all the factory’s product. Brockway proudly developed the metaphorical slogan for their best-selling paint color Optic White, used by the government to paint over buildings. The benign slogan triggers the narrator’s memory of a truism about white supremacy.
I turned away, bending and searching the dirty snow for anything missed by my eyes, and my fingers closed upon something resting in a frozen footstep: a fragile paper, coming apart with age, written in black ink grown yellow. I read: FREE PAPERS. Be it known to all men that my negro, Primus Provo, has been freed by me this sixth day of August, 1859. Signed: John Samuels Macon . . .
The narrator explains finding a paper that represents the history of a freed slave while participating in the eviction demonstration. In the chaos on the street, he finds the paper on the ground and, for a moment, he connects viscerally with that piece of history. He realizes that in that moment, nearly a hundred years collapse. He is that freed slave, and he is empowered by the connection.
I took it in my hand, a thick, dark, oily piece of filed steel that had been twisted open and forced partly back into place, on which I saw marks that might have been made by the blade of a hatchet. It was such a link as I had seen on Bledsoe's desk, only while that one had been smooth, Tarp's bore the marks of haste and violence, looking as though it had been attacked and conquered before it stubbornly yielded.
The narrator describes an object that symbolizes racism that he received from a brother named Tarp. Tarp confides to the narrator that he was incarcerated for nineteen years over a dispute with another man and finally escaped and fled north. The metal link functions both figuratively and literally to shackle each man to his individual and cultural past. Later, another brother advises that the link has no place in their work, although the narrator disagrees.