The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declaring African’s freedom from slavery and officially making them part of the United States was mandated a century prior to Martin Luther King Jr’s historical speech calling for social justice and abolition of racial discrimination against African Americans. Between the two historical periods, the black communities all over America have suffered subtle and savage forms of discrimination and oppression from the whites. The black community strived to seal their place in society amidst hostility and negative criticisms.
One short story that very well illustrates their struggles is Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal. The story provides a very descriptive narration of a black man’s pilgrimage to overcome oppression from an overly-racist community ruled by the economically-powerful white men and to find his opportunity to shape the destiny of his people. This paper aims to provide a vivid presentation of inhumane and savage oppression that the African Americans encountered in Southern America before gaining their voice and place in American society.
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Battle Royal was narrated in a first-person perspective with a nameless narrator. He suggests that twenty years back, he has been struggling to find his own identity through other people’s acceptance and affirmation. He further explained that his dilemma for self discovery rooted from his grandfather’s last words on his deathbed, “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em, with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction. Let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.
” (Ellison, 2000, p 935) He calls his grandfather’s lines a “curse” haunting him whenever he feels accepted as the narrator describes, “When I was praised for my conduct, I felt a guilt that in some way, I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that they really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did.
”(Ellison, 936) The narrator’s statement represents his mindset of his actions and attitude toward the white folks. His current partially confused mindset is influenced by his grandfather’s words. In layman’s term, his grandfather’s words can be translated to a call to action to fight a good fight by acting according to the opponent’s will until they take you all in with acceptance until they destruct themselves in their own volition.
One such incident where the orator became accepted and triumphant is when he delivered a graduation speech, which he describes by saying, “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, remembering my grandfather? -- I only believed that it worked)" (Ellison 938). His speech received accolades from his professors that he was given the opportunity to deliver it again in a “gathering of the town’s most leading white citizens”.
When he arrived at the venue where he was supposed to deliver his speech, he was informed that before delivering his speech, he needs to join the Battle Royal. The hotel he’s in at that moment was indeed full of economically powerful people all dressed up with their tuxedos, intoxicating themselves with whiskey, and getting themselves a good spot among the chairs neatly lined up along the three corners of the ring. Inside the ring, a pool of black men were lined up blindfolded and were forced to do engage in a violent boxing war against each other.
After torturous moments of fighting like headless chickens on the ring, the narrator was able to see slightly behind his blindfold. His awareness enabled him to keep a good fight without drawing attention to himself so the white men wouldn’t notice that he’s starting to dodge his hits. In the end of the first round, the narrator remained on the ring together with the biggest boy in the group to fight. While they were fighting it out on the ring, the narrator tried to negotiate with his opponent by scripting the fight and he’ll give him a proportion of the winning pot.
His opponent refused and they continued to fight until the narrator was knocked out. Allegorically, the narrator’s unexpected battle before delivering his speech is a symbolic representation of the African American’s years of pains and struggles before they were given the chance to be heard. The battle royal may well represent the fights that black men wage against each other just to gain money, position, and prominence, as is the case of the narrator’s opponent.
The concept of the fighters blindfolded can be allusion to some of the black men’s blindness of allowing the economically powerful white men to use them as a means of entertainment as if they were freaks of nature. After the first round, the fighters were then called out again for another round of activity where they were attracted to scourge over gold coins and bills scattered in a rug. They urged the fighters to gather the coins for themselves saying it’s all good “American cash”. In the process, they soon discovered that the rug was electrified.
This narration emphasized the white men’s racism through barbaric treatment to the black men, as they treat them like animals. When the show ended, all the participants were paid and the narrator was about to leave the nightmare when the MC called him back to deliver his speech in the congregation of intoxicated people who have earlier gained pleasure through his pains. The narrator proceeded to deliver his Booker T. Washington inspired speech while trying to conceal his aching physique while gulping down his blood.
The narrator described that his audience continued with their incessant chatting and laughter as he delivers his speech and though he was tempted to do something else, the presence of the school superintendent who is still closely listening to him kept him going. In the process of his oration and swallowing his own blood, the narrator accidentally yelled “social equality”, a phrase had “often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in public. ” (Ellison, 940)
Upon uttering the word, a deep silenced covered the whole room and the narrator received hostile reactions from his intoxicated audience, until a mustached man asked him upfront what he just said, and he got the chance to correct himself. The interrogator then asked him if he’s not being smart and that social equality was indeed a mistake. The narrator nodded and the man dropped this statement, “We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times. ” (Ellison, 944)
This man’s powerful statement is a general representation of the white men’s attitude towards racism over the negroes. They are aware of such discrimination, but they gain pleasure in treating them as inferior human beings as it constantly feeds them the feeling of superiority and power. The man’s statement may mean well as to change the narrator’s current status but he commands him to keep his head and mouth in its’ proper place. Upon the end of his speech, he was greeted with applauses as if the entire audience listened with so much enthusiasm to his speech.
The school superintendent then came up to the stage to present him with a gift- a scholarship to the State College of Negroes. He then turned to the narrator and addressed him, “Prize it. Keep developing as you are and someday, it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people. ” (Ellison, 947) The scholarship the narrator received is a symbol of an opportunity presented to him to “shape the destiny of his people”. That by going to college, he might become more knowledgeable and able so as to create a better society for his people.
The scholarship becomes the first step to his pilgrimage towards social equality. Battle Royal is a very compelling short story that Ralph Ellison eventually made it the first chapter of his greatly-acclaimed novel, the “Invisible Man”. Every black man in that horrifying period might have been represented by the nameless narrator and all the pain he was inflicted during the Battle Royal is a representation of every black man’s pain and struggle for years.
If the readers at that period view it as an allegory to the harsh conditions of the African American people within the American society, it would have been a wakeup call to those who were oppressed to unite and to those oppressors to change the society. References: Ellison, Ralph. "Battle Royal. " Making Literature Matter. Ed. John Schilb and John Clifford. Boston: Bedford, 2000. Ellison, Ralph Waldo. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
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