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The narrator arrives at the Liberty Paint factory and learns he is one of several young black men brought in to the plant to replace striking union workers. Shortly after arriving, he gets an assignment with Mr. Kimbro, a very loud and angry man. He learns to mix chemicals into paint to make it white. However, Mr. Kimbro does not explain everything properly, and the narrator ends up making batches of useless gray paint. After he finishes correcting his work by adding a darker paint, he is sent back to the main office where he is assigned another position in the plant, as Lucius Brockway's assistant.
Lucius Brockway does not really want an assistant, fearing that personnel is trying to replace him from his job. He accepts this young man, since the narrator does not appear threatening. His first assignment is to read the gauges in the basement. Mr. Brockway talks a little more about himself and the company before the narrator leaves to take his lunch in the break room, where he is stopped by members holding a union meeting. Fearing he is a traitor, they hassle him. Eventually, he has lunch and returns to the basement. Mr. Brockway threatens to kill him when he hears that he encountered a union meeting. They engage in a physical fight, until Mr. Brockway gives in. Then Mr. Brockway leaves the scene laughing when the narrator loses control of a machine. There is an explosion of machine parts, which fall on him, and the narrator loses consciousness.
Ellison points out the absurdity of lightness being associated with goodness when he introduces the white paint company's logo: "Keep America Pure." The black narrator is trying to be a part of a traditional system which will never admit him as a worthy member, because the ideology specifies that only "white" is pure. In addition, the paint being made especially for the government is metaphoric for the connection between this light/dark ideology and the fact that it is supported by real power.
Interestingly, the paint the narrator mixes becomes whiter when drops of black are added to it. The symbolic suggestion in the context of the novel is that a necessary element of blackness in society serves only to highlight and enhance the overwhelming whiteness. Ellison also builds on this ideological system to show how black people fit into the socio-economic picture. It becomes obvious that the worst jobs are given to black men. If the paint factory is a microcosm of society where "white" is pure, then one can see who does the dirty work to maintain that "white" purity. In other words, just like there is a black man in the basement toiling away to make pure white paint possible, there are black men working hard daily in society, doing the dirty work, which supports the upper crust, the economically successful white men.
In the midst of this symbolic commentary, Ellison also provides a background of union activity where people in the lower economic class are organizing to work in solidarity together. Yet, this attempt at solidarity to counter the economic discrimination they encounter is opposed by the severity of their economic insecurity. Lucius does not trust the narrator and ensures that the narrator will lose his job. Moreover, despite these men's efforts at working together in solidarity, they are strikebreakers themselves. Unions at the time were segregated and, therefore, did not work to strengthen all workers, a fact that contributed to their vulnerability.