Battle Royal Ralph Ellison begins the short story, “Battle Royal”, in some what of a state of confusion. The nameless narrator informs the reader that he has been essentially lost in the early twenty years of his life. The narrator’s grandfather adds to his confusion and the overall purpose of the story. While on his death bed, the grandfather claims to be a traitor and a spy. He charges his family to “overcome ‘em with yeses“(258, paragraph 2) and “undermine ‘em with grins”(258, paragraph 2) as he lays preparing for death.
A point that the narrator subconsciously internalized, the reader sees through the series of actions and point of view of the narrator the use of role playing among blacks. For if this method is followed, blacks are able to refuse internally to accept second class status, protect their own self respect, and avoid betraying themselves or each other. The grandfather’s words had a tremendous effect on the psyche of the narrator. Almost like a puzzle that couldn’t be solved that lay in the back of his mind. At points he found his self resenting his grandfather’s words regardless of the success he obtained.
In spite of this, he still could see his self through his actions carrying out his grandfather’s advice of meekness and humility towards the white man. On the narrator’s graduation day he delivered a speech which showed that “humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. ”(248, paragraph 3). For this speech, he gained praise from the white men of the town, because he exhibited the attitude that the white man thought to be “desirable conduct”(248, paragraph 3). He was then invited to give the speech on behalf of the town’s leading officials.
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Ellison uses the example of the narrator’s speech of humility to show that the white man in that time period can be manipulated. The narrator conveys humbleness in his speech to the white man, without showing any idea of equality to him. In return, the narrator is rewarded and invited to give his speech among more “white men”. This being an achievement that the socially conscious black man pushing for equality would have never accomplished during this time period. Upon arrival at the town meeting to give his speech he quickly realizes that it is not exactly what he had been expecting.
He was then convinced or almost forced to participate in a Battle Royal amongst other black males who were not there to give any type of speech. The Battle Royal included several acts of self degradation towards the narrator and other black males. Through these actions we can see that the white men saw blacks as animals, and that the narrator was no different. Regardless of whether he was there for a speech or not, he was still forced to participate. In this way the white men showed their superior attitude towards the black males, the attitude that his grandfather taught him how to overcome with humility.
As Ellison points out by saying, “They were tough guys who seemed to have no grandfather’s curse worrying their minds…….. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington”(248- 249, paragraph 4). The narrator not only shows humility in his speech but also through the scenes that take place in Battle Royal. He keeps the thought of his grandfather’s words at the fore front of his mind, as he goes through the harsh acts forced upon him by the white men during the battle royal, in hopes of giving his speech.
In fact, the narrator was abused brutally both mentally and physically to the point where he could barely stand. Yet he still was persistent in wanting to give his speech. Ellison in this scene shows how blacks must be strong minded and willing to become completely humble in the eyes of the white man in order for the method to work. After the battle royal, the narrator was finally able to give his speech among the white men. Notably, after he was already dismissed with the other black males and then told to come back. The narrator relishes at the thought of giving his speech and begins to speak amongst the white men.
It was not until his mouth began to dry and fill up with blood from his wounds, that he realized the white men were still laughing and talking. With thoughts of giving up and leaving in his head, he decided to continue with his speech. As he proceeded, the white men yelled for him to repeat words that were of three or more syllables, mocking him. He made a mistake and yelled social equality as the white men taunted him. The white men quickly put him in his place. Once the narrator was finished, he was presented with a briefcase and scholarship to a negro college. The scene of the final speech demonstrated how even though the white men did not respect him they still granted him with a briefcase and a scholarship. They did this because he exhibited once again humility towards them, making them feel superior. The second he mentioned the word “equality” he was quickly corrected, for they did not believe blacks and whites could be equal. By showing humbleness, the nameless narrator gained exactly what he wanted from the white man without pushing for equality externally but internally.
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