The narrator takes us back twenty years from the point of the Prologue. He says, “All my life I had been looking for something…I was naïve.” He says it took him a long time to realize that he was “nobody but myself.”
The narrator recounts that he was once ashamed that his grandparents were slaves. Now he feels ashamed that he used to feel ashamed. Eighty-five years ago his grandparents were told that they were free and equal. The narrator recalls his grandfather’s dying words. His grandfather tells his family to keep fighting, that he has been a traitor his whole life, and to “agree ‘em to death and destruction.” The family is appalled by these words.
The narrator reflects on an earlier period of the 20th century, suggesting that a newly educated black class felt ashamed of a past that was no fault of its own. The narrator’s grandfather appeared to be in this line, wishing to forget the history of slavery, but on his deathbed admits that the struggle against white oppression is still ongoing.
The fiery words of the narrator’s grandfather seem strange, as he was always considered “meek.” The young narrator is warned by his parents to forget his grandfather’s words. However, the words stick with the narrator, partly because he can’t make sense of them. They remain an enigma that haunts him, especially as he is a successful young student, praised by whites. He feels guilty for some treachery that he can’t explain, and feels his grandfather’s words are “like a curse.”
At first, the narrator cannot understand that his grandfather was fighting against oppression: in his work he was subservient to white men. However, as he succeeds as a student the contradictions of the system become more apparent: it is not clear if white men wish for him to succeed or not. The narrator’s simple worldview has become complicated.
At his graduation, the narrator gives a speech praising humility as the secret of success, though he doesn’t actually believe it. The speech is highly praised and the narrator is invited to give the speech at a meeting of his hometown’s white leaders.
The present-day narrator recognizes the ambition of his speech. At the time, the narrator did not actually feel humble, but rather knew that "being humble" was the thing to tell white people.
The narrator arrives at the hotel ballroom where he is to give his speech, and is informed that there will also be a boxing match, a “battle royal” fought between certain black classmates of his. He is invited to take part in the battle royal as well.
Although the narrator’s invitation to speak is seemingly an honor, the prestige is quickly undercut by the fact that his speech is not considered any more important than a grotesque piece of entertainment.
In the ballroom, all the white leaders of the town are smoking and drinking together. The narrator is uneasy about the battle royal, as he knows the other participants are tough guys from his school who don’t like him. All the same, the boys dress and are given boxing gloves. They emerge into the smoke-filled ballroom, where the town leaders, already drunk, are crowded around something the boys can’t see.
The other boys conform to a racist white stereotype of unintelligent but athletic black boys, and it hurts the narrator to know that his talents are not taken even slightly seriously. In the ballroom, the narrator realizes that the white leaders of town are willing to show off their baseness in private.
The boys are taken to the front of the ballroom, where they see a beautiful and naked blond woman who is performing for the town leaders. Entranced, the narrator is overwhelmed with both fear and desire for the woman. The boys are terrified and embarrassed by their desire, but the town leaders force them to watch. The dancer, described as “detached,” is chased through the ballroom by the frenzied men. They begin to toss her in the air, but she barely escapes.
The naked white woman is a symbol of sexual power, something that the black boys have been taught is completely taboo for them. Accordingly, the town leaders, indulging in their own debauchery, use it to torture the black boys. In private, the town leaders lose all sense of public decency, working themselves into a frenzy to chase the naked woman.
Immediately after, the boys are thrust into the ring for the battle royal. As the boys are blindfolded, the narrator tries to remember his speech. The boisterous town leaders yell racist epithets, and the narrator is filled with terror. The bell rings and the match begins. The narrator runs around the ring, trying to avoid the punches and bodies that he can’t see. All of the boys fight against each other in the smoke and chaos.
The battle royal reveals the way in which members of the black community are perceived by whites: at best, they are a source of cruel amusement. At worst, they are non-existent. The battle royal allows the town leaders to express their aggression toward the black boys in a “safe” way.
The narrator tries to pretend he is knocked out, but is yanked back up. He tries to avoid as much of the fighting as possible. Suddenly he notices that the boys have been leaving the ring one by one, intentionally leaving him to fight against the biggest boy, named Tatlock, for the final prize. The blindfold is removed and the narrator tries convince the boy to let him go down easily. He even offers to pay him five and then seven dollars. Tatlock refuses and knocks the narrator out.
As much as the narrator would like to opt out of the battle, the town leaders quickly notice his shirking. He is forced to fight in a senseless battle against his peers, representative of one way that white men try to control blacks—by pitting them against each other. The narrator realizes that it isn’t worth fighting against Tatlock to satisfy the crowd, but Tatlock simply wants his money.
The narrator is picked up and dragged to a chair with the other boys. The boxing ring is taken away and a small rug is brought out. The rug is covered with dollar bills and coins of different denominations. The boys approach around the rug and are told to take their money. When a signal is given, the boys jump on the rug, which they find to be electrocuted. The boys try to collect the money anyway, despite the pain, while the town leaders watch for their amusement.
Every part of the battle royal is transformed into a subjugation of the black boys. The boys cannot be simply paid for entertainment provided. Instead, the town leaders turn even giving payment into something that is for their own cruel enjoyment, removing all dignity from the event. The white leaders enjoy themselves watching a spectacle of torture.
As the narrator tries to collect the money, he reaches out for a chair leg to steady himself. The chair is occupied by a community leader named Mr. Colcord, who tries to push the narrator off from the leg. The narrator is surprised when he finds himself trying to topple the chair and push Colcord onto the rug himself. Although seemingly drunk, Colcord soberly kicks the narrator hard onto the rug, where he writhes in agony. As he rolls off, he sends the rug sliding, ending the spectacle.
Despite the humiliation, the narrator still wishes to be paid. However, the narrator finds himself resisting the cruelty of the town leaders despite himself. However, Mr. Colcord is quite aware of the narrator’s attempt to turn the tables. By kicking the narrator back onto the rug, Mr. Colcord makes the absolute relationship between white and black clear.
The boys are paid five dollars each, except for Tatlock, who gets ten for winning the match. At first the narrator is told to leave with the other boys, but is soon brought back to give his speech. With condescension, the narrator is introduced the town leaders, who clap and laugh. The narrator begins to recite his speech, echoing the words of Booker T. Washington in calling for blacks to make friends with whites and to show humility.
After the cruelty of the battle royal, the narrator’s speech seems like an afterthought. The words of the speech suggest cooperation between the white and black communities, but it is unclear what “cooperation” or “humility” means when black people like the narrator are so obviously mistreated by the men in the room.
The narrator tries to swallow back his blood while he speaks. Whenever the narrator says a large word, the men jokingly yell at him to repeat it louder. When asked to repeat the phrase “social responsibility,” the narrator accidentally says “social equality,” a phrase the leaders had not expected to hear. They become enraged, and ask the narrator what he means by his slip up. He assures the men that the phrase was a mistake.
The decorum of the speech (and by extension, the white community) is shown to be a hoax: no dignified place would heckle the speaker or let him speak while his mouth bleeds. When the narrator mentions “equality,” saying something the town leaders don’t want to hear, it becomes clear that they can quickly take away everything they have given him.
The narrator finishes his speech and the town leaders shower him with applause. The school superintendent presents the narrator with a calfskin brief case. He is told to look inside the brief case and discovers a scholarship to “the state college for Negroes.” The narrator is elated, even after he finds out some of the coins he scrambled for were tokens instead of real money.
The narrator says everything the town leaders want to hear, and the leaders reward the narrator with a scholarship. It is implied that that the scholarship and the school are products of same system that allows for scenes of humiliation like the battle royal.
Everyone in the community congratulates the narrator, and he feels temporarily safe from his grandfather’s words. However, that night he has a dream of his grandfather, who tells him to open the brief case and look inside. He finds an envelope with the state seal: inside the envelope is another envelope, and another inside that one, and so on. In the final envelope, he finds an engraved paper that reads, “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator awakes. Lastly, the present-day narrator admits the dream is recurring, but at that time could not guess its significance.
The narrator feels the happiness of limited success in a white man’s world. However, his grandfather’s words indicate that success in the white-controlled world is fleeting or illusory. In his dream, the narrator’s scholarship is transformed into a command to keep him “running.” The scholarship is a way to fool the narrator into thinking he is making progress while he is actually kept subservient to white interests.