The narrator remembers how naïve he was some twenty years earlier. In the present, he feels ashamed for having been ashamed of his grandparents, who were once enslaved but freed after the Civil War. So, just one more time to make sure it's clear: he is ashamed of having felt ashamed.
Back to the part about the grandparents. The narrator's grandfather's last words were an admonishment to fight oppression. Known as a meek man throughout his life, the narrator's grandfather expresses anger at the system (that would be the white-controlled system) and advises using the system against the whites. And then he passes away.
Okay. So while the rest of this plot summary will be told in the present tense, remember that it's all the recollection of a certain invisible man hibernating in a man hole.
As a young boy in a nameless Southern town, the narrator is intelligent and obedient—a model student. He wonders if his grandfather would approve, and if the white people will ever realize that his behavior is actually treachery.
Anyway, the narrator gives a graduation speech praising humility as the key to black men's progress. The speech becomes such a hit that the narrator is invited to deliver it to the white leaders of the town.
When the narrator arrives in the hotel ballroom, all pumped up to give his speech, he finds the town leaders smoking and drinking heavily.
He learns that nine of his schoolmates are there to participate in a "battle royal" as part of the evening's entertainment.
He is asked to join them. The young black men change into boxing shirts and gloves, and were then brought up on stage.
Someone is already there.
A beautiful naked blonde woman is undulating onstage, and the narrator feels compelled to look at her—he feels both obsessed and disgusted. As she dances, one of the young men faints. Another begs to leave and unsuccessfully hides an erection.
The narrator describes her face as blank and impersonal.
As she dances, the drunken men in the audience reach out to grab her flesh. She tries to flee, but the men chase after her, fondling her and throwing her body up into the air.
With the help of men who are clearly more levelheaded, she manages to escape.
The boys try to leave.
The ten of them are blindfolded and ordered into the boxing ring. Each is told to knock the lights out of the other black boys. Under his breath, the narrator continues to practice his speech.
The narrator can hear the school superintendent's voice, among others, shouting at the blindfolded black men.
A bell rings and the narrator feels like he's being punched at from all sides. He can't even see what's going on but he can hear the men shouting from the sidelines. He tastes blood in his mouth and can't distinguish blood from sweat on the rest of his body.
The narrator is punched in the stomach and in the clamor to get up amidst the fighting, he realizes that he can see. Either his blindfold has gotten loose or there's a rip in the fabric.
He can now see the nine other boys randomly beating up whatever they can get their gloves on. Now that he can see, the narrator fights on behalf of different groups.
Eventually, the boys leave the boxing ring. Only he and the biggest of the boys, Tatlock, are left. He realizes that the other boys settled it beforehand without telling him. The last person standing would be awarded extra money.
The narrator gives and takes a couple of punches, and then whispers to Tatlock that he can have the narrator's money if he fakes defeat. The narrator even offers to pay him five and then seven dollars. Tatlock says that his desire to fight the narrator is his own, that it has nothing to do with the white men.
The yells from the audience let the narrator know that the white men have put bets on them. This is the evening's entertainment.
The narrator takes a bad hit and is knocked out. The fight is over… or is it? The men bring out a square rug with coins and bills on it.
The boys fight for the money, realizing too late that the rug is actually circuited and effectively electrocutes anyone who touches the money. Despite this knowledge, the boys still fight over the money. The white men jeer them from the sidelines, drunk and enjoying the spectacle.
The narrator reaches for the leg of a chair, where a man named Mr. Colcord is sitting. Since the narrator's body is still slippery from sweat and blood, Mr. Colcord is unsuccessful in pushing the narrator away.
Although unintentional at first, the narrator eventually tries to push Mr. Colcord onto the rug.
Instead, the narrator is knocked over and rolls onto the electric rug himself. The rug is moved out of place, and the M.C. announces that the fight is over.
The M.C. goes into the back room and pays every boy five dollars, giving Tatlock an extra five for being the winner.
Completely beaten up and exhausted, the narrator moves to leave, disappointed that he didn't deliver his speech.
The narrator is called back into the room and introduced to the white crowd. The men clap and laugh at the boy.
He delivers his speech, which quotes a speech given by Booker T. Washington involving an unfortunate ship in need of water and a more fortunate ship who tells the unfortunate ship to "cast down your bucket" so that they can provide the water. The narrator's speech backs the idea of different races working with one another and helping one another.
As he delivers his carefully prepared speech, the crowd continues to laugh and drink. The men belittle the narrator's use of big words, making him repeat them several times. When he is told to repeat "social responsibility" over and over again, he accidentally says "social equality."
That word is a very big no-no.
The narrator covers up the mistake by saying he was swallowing blood in his mouth.
When he finishes the speech, the men burst into applause. The school superintendent gives him a present: a fine briefcase with a scholarship to the "state college for N****es." The narrator is stunned into tears and hastily leaves.
At home, everyone congratulates him. That night, however, he has a nightmare. He is at the circus with his grandfather, and his grandfather refuses to laugh at the clowns.
In the dream, the narrator opens the briefcase to find envelopes within envelopes, finally ending with a note that reads "Keep This N*****-Boy Running."
The narrator wakes up to his grandfather's laughter. Now suddenly narrating from the present, the narrator admits that this is a frequently recurring dream.