Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison

”Battle Royal” is a chapter in “Invisible Man”, a novel by Ralph Ellison. In his lifetime, “Invisible Man” is Ellison’s sole novel but it won him the National Book Award in 1953. What makes the novel special is that it addresses the intellectual and social issues during the post-civil war American Black identity. It also includes the relationship among Marxism, Black Nationalism and the racial policies started by Booker T. Washington. ”Invisible Man” was published in 1952 and it showed another angle of the racial tensions that were brewing in America at that time.

It was unapologetic and was aware that racial equality was not emerging. It was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance with the goal of uplifting the black race through art and literature. ”Invisible Man” takes on a pessimistic point on race relations. Ellison’s approach was not entirely alongside the black arts movement literature. It was in between the extreme and the conservative, similar to the literature that was released during the 1960s and 70s black arts movement. “Invisible Man” served as the indicator of the transitioning period (Schor 240). The narrator has no name.

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He introduces himself as the “invisible man. ” According to him, people are unwilling to notice him, primarily because he is black. But he has a positive way of seeing this. Because of his ‘invisibility’, he doubts his existence and is anguished. He feels that he needs others to see him. He tries but he rarely succeeds. Basically, the central struggle of the Narrator is his conflict on how others view him and on how he sees himself. The stereotype of him as a mugger is generated because of his color. The “blindness” of others is rooted from the inability of the Narrator to not allow these cliches be imposed on him.
(Sun Joo Lee) It is also ironic that the Narrator confirms his invisibility to the readers by not mentioning his name. He introduces himself as the Narrator, no more no less, thus only heightening his ‘invisibility’ even to those who he’s letting into his life. The chapter entitled “Battle Royal” begins with the Narrator recalling his grandfather. He was meek and often said yes to the whites. He received great praise from them because of this quality. However the Narrator was not proud of this particular trait of his grandfather and claimed that he was in fact haunted by it in their town.
The important points raised in the first chapter titled “Battle Royal” began when the Narrator recalled the time he delivered a class speech at his graduation. The speech encouraged submission and humility for the advancement of the African Americans. This suggestion was a success that the town arranged him to deliver the peace in the gathering with the white citizens. The Narrator and some of his African American classmates were asked to take part of the even called “battle royal. ” It was the highlight of the evening. They wore boxing gloves and entered a ring.
A naked blonde Caucasian woman with an American flag painted on her belly marched around the ring. The African American students, including the Narrator looked down. The whites insisted that they looked at the woman. The whites placed blindfolds around the African Americans and asked them to pummel each other.
They encouraged them to viciously fight one another. The Narrator was defeated during the last round. The whites removed their blindfolds. The contestants were led to a rug that had coins and some bills. The boys grabbed the money but were electrocuted because there was a current running through the rag.
The white men forced the African Americans to remain on the rug. When the Narrator was giving his speech, the white men scoffed at him and ignored his quotations and verbatim texts from Booker T. Washington. He was asked to repeat the “social responsibility” part of his speech.
He finished delivering this and received a round of applause. The white men handed him a briefcase made of calfskin. He was told that the contents would determine the fate of the African American. Inside the briefcase, the Narrator received a scholarship grant to the state college for African Americans.
He was still excited despite his discovery that the coins on the electrocuted carpet were only brass tokens. ”Battle Royal” is only one chapter in “Invisible Man” but it already holds the main points of Ellison’s novel. To analyze it, we begin with the narrator’s grandfather’s take on the emotional and moral ambiguity of the racial tensions in the United States. It is no question that the grandfather was submissive and allowed to be dominated. The grandfather confessed that he is a traitor to the policy because of his meekness.
The Narrator felt that his grandfather betrayed not only himself, but his family, his ancestors as well as his future generations (Wolfe). It is crucial, according to the grandfather, that the Narrator, as an African American maintain two identities. Outside, he should embody a good slave, behaving the exact way the master wanted him to. Inside, he should keep the resentment and the bitterness that was imposed by the false exterior. This is ambiguous because why would one encourage an action when it would only lead to something negative in the end.
Here, role-playing is introduced. It becomes a method that is important in the rest of the novel. While the Narrator is attacked by outside forces, he can bring out his mask as his form of defense. The Narrator was encouraged early on to pull off a performance as the good slave.
This attacked his sense of self. The text mentioned that the excessive obedience to the expectation of the white Southerners became the disobedience for the African Americans. According to the grandfather, the family could “overcome the white people with yeses, undermine them with grins.
” It suggested that an African American family could play the rift between the perceptions of others in contrast to how they perceived themselves (Valiunas 3) The Narrator believed that by obeying his grandfather’s command, he too would receive praise and respect from the white Southerners in their village.
He was right, in a way. The Caucasians granted him a scholarship. However, it was ironic that on the night he received this opportunity, he was also asked to take part on the barbaric and degrading battle royal. This showed the tension between rebellion and obedience and on how the white men continue to manipulate the African Americans.
The battle royal showed Ellison’s metaphor of blindness. It was also a way of masking the African Americans their objectives from what was asked of them. The white men viewed the African Americans as not only inferior beings but as animals as well.
The blindfolds the African Americans wore pertain to their own blindness. They were unable to understand that the goodwill that was being showered to them (the coins and the bills) was all false. To add salt to the wound, there was the electric current running on the rug. Ellison, as a writer, did not limit his work to allegories and symbolisms.
He presented his thoughts through the narrator’s speech. He entered the tradition of the Black Movement. He discouraged the optimistic social program headed by Booker T. Washington. The speech, in particular, had long quotations from the great reformer’s Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895 (Bloom 28).
Ellison didn’t believe in the optimistic assessment of the Caucasians. During his time, the successful African American businessmen were still vulnerable tot eh racial prejudices of poor and uneducated African Americans. Ellison argued this pointing out Washington’s belief through the Narrator’s grandfather ideology.
Then there was the white audience who taunted and humiliated the hardworking yet polite Narrator. Finally, the briefcase was coined as “badge of office. ” This was another irony because when one pertains to a badge, they usually refer to an emblem or an insignia that is associated to the job and position of the person. The text however only elaborated that the Narrator was in “office” because he was a good slave. The briefcase appeared throughout the novel, which served as the reminder for the Narrator of his self-effacement.
If the reader would continue reading “Invisible Man”, he would discover that the Narrator matured and developed a new understanding on race relations. He began to assert his identity with his relations. Similar to other works such as Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield”, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” discussed the individual’s existence alongside people who deemed him different because of his non-traditional ways.
The “novel of formation” is considered to be the kind of existentialism that combines the story of the lead with the world where he discovered what he was trying to find out in terms of his race, his society and his identity (Butler 588). ”I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked. ” (Ellison 939).
This was from the original short story “Battle Royal” which eventually became the first chapter of the “Invisible Man. ” This conveyed the desired of the African American spirit during the age of oppression that was overshadowed by fear and ignorance. Ellison used perception in order to give the readers the thought provoking and shocking dissertation on what the African American culture had to go through, despite the notions that equality was brewing. “Battle Royal” is an allegory that illustrates the African American community’s journey to overcome the oppressive attitudes of Caucasians.
The novel is a record of the African American’s search for success over the adversities he faced. Like any other fiction, Ellison devotes his work to an experience. The Narrator shifts from naivety and enchantment into a structured realization of his pretentiousness.
Ellison’s work continues to be updated, despite it being published in 1952. The Narrator wondered “Could politics ever be an expression of love? ” This might be a meaningless question for most but for the Narrator, it is appropriate that he presented his thoughts as the passive victim of every experience.
He was dissuaded by the white to discover his real self and was limited when it came to the possibilities. His “invisibility” was manipulated by the social group that was deemed to be superior than his. He wasn’t able to fully assert his individuality.
The fact remained that the Narrator had to stumble over various social fences before he could recognize those “infinite possibilities” in front of him. Regardless, “Battle Royal” is abundant of the primary talent that was rooted from Ellison.
With his intelligence on the subject matter, the novelist was wildly inventive in coming up with the scenes that were dipped in tension. It was probably painful for him to see his people bleeding so he wrote in a language that stung the reader.
No other writer was able to capture the agony, gloom and confusion of the African American life as well as Ellison. Most reviewers commend “Battle Royal” as a good reading, not only for African American studies but for English Literature as a whole.
This short story is a cry from the African Americans that they should be heard and by reading this, they would be.
Works Cited
Schor, Edith Visible Ellison Greenwood Press, 1993 Sun Joo-Lee, Julia, “Knuckle Bones and Knocking Bones” Vol 36, 2002 Wolfe, Jesse “Ambivalent Man: Ellison’s Rejection of Communism” Vol 34, 2000 Valiunas, Albert “The Great Black Hope” Vol 119 March 2005 Bloom, Harold, African Americans In Literature Chelsea House, 1986 Butler, Robert J. , The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison, Greenwood Press, 2000. Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man. Chelsea House, 1986.

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