The narrator speaks of his grandparents, freed slaves who, after the Civil War, believed that they were separate but equal—that they had achieved equality with whites despite segregation. The narrator’s grandfather lived a meek and quiet life after being freed. Grandfather episodes provides his interpretations that drives much of the novel, which is a study of a native young man who is wounded by racism but unsure how to respond. The narrator’s grandfather introduces a further element of moral and emotional uncertainty to the novel, contributing to the mode of questioning that dominates it. The grandfather’s des...
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...n. Although the narrator never actually names Washington directly, his speech contains long quotations from the great reformer’s Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895. Washington’s program for the advancement of black Americans emphasized industrial education. He believed that blacks should avoid clamoring for political and civil rights and put their energy instead toward achieving economic success. He believed that if blacks worked hard and proved themselves, whites would grant them equality.
His grandfather instructs him to open the briefcase. Inside the narrator finds an official envelope with a state seal. He opens it only to find another envelope, itself containing another envelope. The last one contains an engraved document reading: “To Whom It May Concern . . . Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator wakes with his grandfather’s laughter ringing in his ears.
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