The narrator represents a classic case of the "mis-educated Negro," taught to despise his own people — taught a version of American history so thoroughly whitewashed, he learned nothing about the countless contributions of black Americans and he has no concept of black history. Rendered invisible due to distortion and lack of documentation in U.S. history texts, taught to accept the myth of white supremacy as fact, the narrator is determined to distance himself from uneducated Southern blacks, to whom he feels vastly superior.
The extent to which the narrator internalized this debilitating myth is best illustrated in Chapter 5. Discovering the actual contents of Bledsoe's letters, the narrator is devastated to learn that the man he trusted and idolized betrayed him and ruined his opportunity for obtaining a college education and a better life. The worst insult the narrator can think of to hurl at him is not liar or traitor, but "chitterling eater."
Comparing this to his earlier expulsion from college, the narrator learned his lessons well. The worst insult Bledsoe can think of to convey his outrage and hostility is "nigger." By hurling this racial slur at the narrator, Bledsoe reveals his own self-hatred, which he passes on to the narrator. In this way, he perpetuates the racist stereotypes of whites who see blacks as inferior, subhuman creatures.
The narrator represents the classic naïve young man, unlearned in the ways of the world. Although he thinks of himself as educated, the narrator has simply accepted and internalized the ideas and values taught to him by others, which he accepts without question. Unable to question or to seek his own answers to complex issues and lacking a sense of identity or a definitive value system, the narrator does not have a clear sense of who he is and how he fits into society, nor does he possess the intellectual curiosity required to ask the right questions. Similarly, the narrator has not developed a clear self-image, nor does he have the self-confidence to challenge authority figures such as Bledsoe and Norton, whom he perceives to be in control of his fate.
Throughout the novel, the narrator grows from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness as he begins to listen with an open mind, to question, and to draw connections between the experiences of others and his own life. Relating to Brother Tod Clifton's predicament as Clifton wrestles with his conflicting desires to be a leader in the Brotherhood and to be faithful to his black community, the narrator becomes aware of his own internal conflicts.
The grandfather, the narrator's spiritual guide, represents the ancestral shadow of slavery that still haunts contemporary African Americans. According to those who knew him, the grandfather was "the meekest of men," who believed in Booker T. Washington's conciliatory approach that, for the black man, humility is the way to progress and success. The grandfather epitomized the kind of humble, subservient black man often referred to as an "Uncle Tom." But after spending his whole life masking his feelings of hate for the whites who forced him to live a life of degradation and humiliation, he vows that his children and grandchildren must know the truth. The grandfather, on his deathbed, tries desperately to tell them that by adopting a stance of humility and pretending to "go along to get along," they are complicitors in their own destruction.
Describing his grandfather's death, the narrator notes that, after his shocking revelation that he was a traitor to his race, the old man seemed more alive in death than he had ever been in life. Thus the grandfather's spirit lives on, sporadically manifesting itself through other black men who try to provide guidance to the narrator. The narrator sees his grandfather's face in other men — the vet, Brother Tarp, and even in the portrait of Frederick Douglass. Therefore, the grandfather continues to guide his grandson throughout his painful and perilous journey towards enlightenment.