On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this – how could I, remember my grandfather? – I only believed that it worked.) It was a great success…It was a triumph for our whole community. (1.3)
Early in the novel, the narrator is willing to sacrifice truth for ambition.
"To Whom It May Concern," I intoned. "Keep This N*****-Boy Running." (1.105)
The narrator dreams that the scholarship to the N**** college is really another way for whites to keep him running in place, that a college education won't actually change his lot in life.
Many of the men had been doctors, lawyers, teachers, Civil Service workers; there were several cooks, a preacher, a politician, and an artist. One very nutty one had been a psychiatrist. Whenever I saw them I felt uncomfortable. They were supposed to be members of the professions toward which at various times I vaguely aspired myself, and even though they never seemed to see me I could never believe that they were really patients. (3.35)
There is heavy symbolism here: the narrator's ambitions are shown to be hopeless as the black people who take up professions of cook, lawyer, doctor, teacher, and artist are nonetheless marginalized members of society.
How had I come to this? I had kept unswervingly to the path placed before me, had tried to be exactly what I was expected to be, had done exactly what I was expected to do – yet, instead of winning the expected reward, here I was stumbling along, holding on desperately to one of my eyes in order to keep from bursting out my brain against some familiar object swerved into my path by my distorted vision. (6.94)
The narrator expects that sticking to a formula will lead to his ambitions being fulfilled. But that's not how this world works.
Perhaps everyone loved someone; I didn't know, I couldn't give much thought to love; in order to travel far you had to be detached, and I had a long road back to the campus before me. (9.51)
Love is not part of the narrator's life because he believes it would interfere with his ambition.
"Damn if I know – everything. Cities, towns, country clubs. Some just buildings and houses. I got damn near enough to build me a house if I could live in a paper house like they do in Japan. I guess somebody done changed their plans," he added with a laugh. "I asked the man why they getting rid of all this stuff and he said they get in the way so every once in a while they have to throw 'em out to make place of the new plans. Plenty of these ain't never been used, you know."
"You have quite a lot," I said.
"Yeah, this ain't all neither. I got a coupla loads. There's a day's work right here in this stuff. Folks is always making plans and changing 'em."
"Yes, that's right," I said, thinking of my letters, "but that's a mistake. You have to stick to the plan." (9.32 – 9.35)
We think we smell a metaphor. This whole exchange reflects the narrator's naiveté in believing that sticking to a plan and following it is the route to achieving his ambition.
Perhaps the part of me that observed listlessly but saw all, missing nothing, was still the malicious, arguing part; the dissenting voice, my grandfather part; the cynical, disbelieving part – the traitor self that always threatened internal discord. Whatever it was, I knew I'd have to keep it pressed down. I had to. For if I were successful tonight, I'd be on the road to something big. (16.7)
The narrator is willing to suppress central parts of his identity in order to fulfill his ambition.
Still, I liked my work during those days of certainty. I kept my eyes wide and ears alert. The Brotherhood was a world within a world and I was determined to discover all the secrets and to advance as far as I could. I saw no limits, it was the one organization in the whole country in which I could reach the very top and I meant to get there. (17.199)
The narrator's ambitions have been transferred from wanting to be Bledsoe's assistant to reaching the top echelons of the Brotherhood. A large part of why the narrator overlooks the more fishy and disturbing aspects of the Brotherhood is that the organization provides an outlet for his ambition.