Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal: a Look at the Theme of Racism
Post-Slavery America: Racism in “Battle Royal”
Civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois described the beginning of slavery as “’the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into hell’” (qtd in Graff 184). DuBois, born after the legal abolition of slavery, understood the lack of equality free blacks faced in a nation accustomed to slavery. Ralph Ellison, a successful author of the Civil Rights Era, drew inspiration for many of his most famous works from his personal experiences growing up. The grandson of slaves and raised by his widowed mother, Ellison wrote about the struggles African Americans experienced growing up in America (“Ralph Ellison”). In his short story “Battle Royal,” Ralph Ellison uses the fighters’ experiences to illustrate the continued racism African Americans faced post-slavery.
The history of racism after the abolition of slavery is imperative to understanding the experiences of the battle royal fighters. Even after 1865 when the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States, blacks continued to struggle with racist sentiments (“House Joint Resolution”). Racism toward blacks persisted, and this aversion to African American equality eventually led to widespread white fears about inter-racial sexual relations and anxieties regarding economic competition from blacks (Rattansi 44). Although the law regarding slavery changed, society’s demeaning attitude toward blacks did not. As result, several Southern states adopted what came to be known as “Black Codes,” which prohibited blacks from acquiring industrial and skilled work, and confined them to field labor and sharecropping (Rarransi 44). Research related to wealth accumulation suggests wealth improves a person’s social and economic status (O’Connell 715). The unspecialized, low-wage jobs blacks were limited to prevented them from moving up in society or escaping poverty. All of these actions occurred after the abolition of slavery, highlighting the post-slavery racism African Americans faced. In “Battle Royal,” the results of social and economic oppression of blacks is shown through the actions of the fighters.
The battle royal fighters were forced to fight due to social constraints and financial necessity. In “Battle Royal,” the narrator is a perfect example of the “ideal black person” in the eyes of a white citizen. As the narrator words it, “I was praised by the most lily-white men in town” (Ellison). The narrator is so highly praised, that he is invited to give his graduation speech at a gathering of his town’s leading white citizens. Upon his arrival, the racism fueling the battle royal is revealed when the narrator is told the conditions of his speech. In order to deliver his speech, the narrator must first partake in the battle royal, a brutal fight to the end being held by the white audience members in the name of entertainment. A monetary prize would be awarded to the last fighter standing. Due to the economic limitations thrust upon blacks during this time period, the fighters were willing to partake in the battle royal for a chance at the monetary prize.
In the time period in which “Battle Royal” takes place, Blacks were discriminated against in the workplace. Two prominent forms of this discrimination were the convict leasing system and sharecropping. Sharecropping was “a system in which black families would rent small plots of land in return for a portion of their crop to be given to the landowner at the end of each year” (“Sharecropping”). In theory, sharecropping was a considerable idea, but the reality of this system led to further African American turmoil. As newly freed individuals, blacks owned neither money nor land. As result, the landowners from which blacks would rent acreage were all white men, many being former slave masters. Because blacks had no money, all of their farming supplies had to come from the white land owners, who would lend the blacks supplies on a credit. This credit became a vicious cycle blacks were never able to fully pay off, in turn making the black sharecroppers slaves to the white landowners. In “Battle Royal,” chances are that many of the fighters themselves were victims of this sort of debt, participating in the fight as a chance to pay off what they owed.
The second prominent form of workplace discrimination towards blacks was the convict leasing system. The convict leasing system was created to evade the 13th amendment, which states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction” (“House Joint Resolution”). To get around this, whites created the convict leasing system, in which state governments would lease black convicts to work at firms doing penal labor. David Oshinsky, an American historian, said that convict leasing “ensured a generation of black prisoners would suffer and die under conditions far worse than anything they had ever experienced as slaves” (Graff). These workplace constrictions kept African Americans in constant poverty. Again, chances are good that many of the blacks who elected to participate in the battle royal did it out of mere necessity. The battle royal served as a chance for the fighters to help feed their families and temporarily escape the perils of poverty.
Although racist whites successfully constructed a negative financial situation for blacks, they went even further to try and promote conflict within the African American community itself. Creating the battle royal was a way to turn blacks against one another in a time period where black unity was vital. The white cloth used to blindfold the fighters symbolizes the white citizens’ attempts to distract African Americans from the greater evils taking place. The narrator describes his blindfolding experience as all ten of the fighters climbing under the ropes of the ring and “allowing themselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth” (Ellison). While the narrator was being forced to fight in order to give his speech, the other fighters were fighting by their own free will. The fact that the fighters allowed the whites to blindfold them further supports the idea that the blacks were fighting out of necessity. After the blindfolding removes the narrator’s sense of sight, his sense of hearing intensifies, sharpening the phrases yelled from audience members. Right before the battle royal begins, the narrator hears a surge of racist phrases such as “Get going in there, I want to tear that ginger-colored nigger limb from limb,” and “Let me at that big nigger!” (Ellison). With terror setting in and his sense of sight gone, the narrator can no longer see who is yelling the remarks, leaving his mind free to ponder if the remarks are coming from fellow blacks. By blindfolding the blacks and forcing them to turn on each other, the white men hoped to distract the blacks from the bigger issue of continued racism. White men could retain their hierarchical power as long as African Americans were kept divided and distracted from fighting for their societal equality.
Race-fueled torment toward the fighters post-fight further exemplifies the racism prominent in society even after the abolition of slavery. After the battle royal, the M.C. introduced the fighters to a rug strewn with gold pieces, dollar bills, and various coins. They were informed that all they could grab was theirs, and so the white men’s entertainment continued. The fighters soon discovered that the rug was electrified, and as they fought the shocks to collect the money, belittling prompts filled the room. The white men shouted phrases such as “Pick it up, goddammit, pick it up!” and “Get the money, that’s good hard American cash!” knowing the pain involved in gathering the money (Ellison). Some white men even resorted to pushing the fighters onto the rug just to watch their bodies contort in pain. It was not enough for the black fighters to inflict their own pain while scrambling to collect the money, the white males needed the added satisfaction of personally inflicting pain to this group of people the men saw as biologically inferior. This behavior is strikingly similar to that of white plantation owners, who would whip their slaves to establish their control and superiority over the African American race. Chances are many of the white males in the battle royal audience were previously large plantation owners themselves, and saw the fight as a legal way to continue practicing the racism they harbored.
Racism was abundant in post-slavery America. In the years following the abolition of slavery, former slaves and their descendants faced widespread discrimination in both society and the workplace. The discriminatory laws enacted allowed prejudice against blacks to linger in American society years after the legal end of slavery, while the poor selection of jobs blacks were allowed further dragged African Americans into a recurring cycle of discrimination, debt, and poverty. In “Battle Royal,” Ralph Ellison exemplifies the measures many blacks were forced to resort to out of financial necessity. Due to racism left over from the slavery era, no matter what African Americans attempted in order to coexist as equals in white society, nothing could accomplish that goal. This was because in early post-slavery America, white people were at the top of the social hierarchy whereas blacks were at the bottom. Today, racist sentiments have greatly diminished due to the fact that many years have passed since the initial abolition of slavery, and mixed-race marriages have created a racially-diverse population. However, shadows of racism prevail in the black community, even in 21st century America. According to a 2006 study, seventy-five percent of African Americans believe they have fewer opportunities than whites, while almost sixty percent of whites think blacks have the same opportunities that they have (Graff 188-89). This indicates that although the white population may see black prejudice as a thing of the past, African Americans are still struggling with certain forms of racism today. Racism, although greatly diminished in 21st century America, still has a long way to go before society can claim black prejudice as a thing of the past.
Ralph Ellison’s Short Story Battle Royal: a Study of the Confusion of the Protagonists
Confusion in Battle Royal
In the short story “Battle Royal”, by Ralph Ellison, the main character is a young African-American growing up in a society highly influenced by segregation. During his whole life, the narrator has tried to act with humility and submission when dealing with white men who feel they are superior to him, but his character is extremely tested when forced to compete in a Battle Royal at an event for the prominent whites of his town at which he is supposed to give a speech. Through the use of highly contrasting diction, strong metaphors, and gloomy symbolism the author is able to convey a theme of confusion inside the narrator as he comes of age in the midst of extreme racism.
Through the use of highly contrasting diction, Ellison is able to express the confusion that the narrator constantly carries with him as he tries to navigate the murky waters that are segregation. The author states that the young man is “praised” by the white citizens of the community but inside he views it as “treachery”. (Ellison 2) These thoughts are mostly provoked by the last words of the narrator’s grandfather, who left instructions for his grandchildren to be model citizens on the outside but inside to resist the feeling of being inferior. These two diction choices represent how the confused the narrator is internally. One part of him wants to be applauded by the whites but another part of him feels that he is being dishonest with them because deep down he knows that his submission to them is an act of rebellion according to his grandfather’s last request. Later in the story, while being forced to watch the blonde dancer before the fight, the narrator is highly conflicted. All at once he has urges to “caress” her naked body, but also to “destroy” her for causing him to feel guilty; that he “love(s)” her, but also that he must “hide” from her. (Ellison 3) The presence of an attractive naked female adds even more confusion to an already bewildering scene. The large group of prominent white men, some of which encourage the group of black boys to look while others are saying look away, makes the narrator and his peers feel extremely uncomfortable. Another thing factoring into the confusion is the fact that though he is extremely attracted to her, he knows that he has no chance with her because of their difference in race.
Ellison also uses strong metaphors to convey the theme of confusion in the story. When describing the Battle Royal, he states that “The boys groped about like blind, cautious crabs crouching to protect their midsections, their heads pulled in short against their shoulders, their arms stretched nervously before them…”. (Ellison 6) Amid the chaos going on between the ten boys fighting in the boxing ring surrounded by drunken and obnoxious white men, the narrator is still fighting a battle with himself. He doesn’t know whether he should just go down and stay out of harms way, thus risking his chance to speak at the end, or try to win at the expense of his physical well being. Another metaphor used by the author is to describe the pain felt by one of the boys as he writhes around in pain on the electrified rug; which has been covered in money for the young men to grab as the white men look on in amusement. The narrator states that the boy’s “…muscles (were) twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by many flies.” (Ellison 8) This metaphor is not only used to relay the pain that is being experienced by the black boy that is being shocked by the trick mat, but also to describe the pain brought about by the racism being exhibited. The “privileged” white men attending the event are the flies that are stinging the backs of the African-American boys. The men feel that they are superior to the young boys because they are a different race, and therefore that they have the right to trick the boys into shocking themselves while trying to grab as much money as they can. All the pain, physical and mental, brought on by the older white men elevates the confusion within the narrator as he prepares to give his speech.
Through the use of dark symbolism Ralph Ellison is able to communicate the confusion that engulfs the young narrator. When all the boys have gotten in the boxing ring they are each “…blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth.” (Ellison 4) This darkness the blindfolds cause symbolizes the darkness that clouds the mind of the narrator. Not only is he having to fight against nine other boys, he is also having to fight a literal and figurative darkness. The symbol of the blindfold also conveys the way he feels toward racism, his whole life he has tried to act blind to it and put on an air of humility and submission, but now he is realizing that putting this figurative blindfold on has led to more confusion inside of him. Another symbol used by the author is the speech that the narrator gives to the men at the event. During the speech the narrator is talking about social responsibility and all of the men are giving him a hard time; the narrator then says the phrase “social equality” (Ellison 11) and almost gets run off the stage. These two words symbolize how the crowd and the narrator feel. The crowd feels that this is blasphemy and become enraged that this young African-American would even think of uttering such a phrase, showing their ignorance and racism. This also shows how the narrator has developed with regards to his thoughts towards the way his race is treated. He finally starts to understand that what he wants is equality, but after he says it he realizes that it has upset the men and he quickly tries to change the subject. This symbolizes the confusion occurring inside of the narrator; he wants to believe that he deserves equality, but he still feels the need to please those who feel are his superiors.
In conclusion, Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal” tells the tale of a young black man struggling to deal with segregation and how it affects him internally. Through the use of highly contrasting diction, strong metaphors, and gloomy symbolism the author is able to convey a theme of confusion that overwhelms the young narrator as he grows up amid heavy racism.
A Look at Symbolism in Ralph Ellison’s Short Story Battle Royal
Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison is about the passing of the narrator’s grandfather who leaves a piece of advice for the remaining members of the family. The son, then, goes through a battle where he struggles to find the true meaning of the advice given to him. The symbols in “Battle Royal” are the battle, the blind fold, and the speech. These symbols, taken all together, highlight the fact that black men felt invisible.
The narrator, who thought he was simply going to read his speech, was forced into a planned battle. The battle had white drunken men surrounding it. The battle symbolized control the whites had over the blacks. The boys who were forced into the battle felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave but couldn’t if they tried. “But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told” (Ellison 406). This proves that the battle was in place to control the boys and how they chose to move. The battle is also a representation of how white people are superior/in control, by giving the narrator a scholarship to an all-black college, as this will be further explained later.
In the beginning of the battle, the boys were blind folded. The blind folds were in place to make the boys feel weak, and to prevent them from seeing who their opponents were and what moves they made. “Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man” (Ellison 407). Being blindfolded means you can’t see what’s going on around you. In other words, you can’t defend yourself properly and your opponent has a greater advantage of winning. Being blindfolded will make one feel weak or having less of the advantage of one who doesn’t have on a blindfold.
Throughout the battle, the narrator keeps thinking about his speech, “And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?”(Ellison 407). The narrator wonder what he will receive, such as a gift or a recognition of some kind. After the battle was over, he finally read his speech, “I spoke even louder in spite of the pain. But still they talked and still they laughed, as though deaf with cotton in dirty ears. So I spoke with greater emotional emphasis. I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered” (Ellison 411). The narrator is so determined and eager, he reads his speech despite the fight he had to go through. He holds back showing the physical pain he felt to avoiding showing additional weakness. So, the speech symbolizes how smart he is and how he want everyone to acknowledge the problems during that time period.
After giving his speech, he did indeed receive recognition and a gift. “Gentlemen, you see that I did not overpraise this boy. He makes a good speech and some day he’ll lead his people in the proper paths, and I don’t have to tell you that that is important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy and so to encourage him in the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in the form of this…”(Ellison 412). The response to his speech was demeaning. The presenter made it seem like the narrator is moving up to their level (the level where the whites were) but in reality he was keeping him where he is, in a sense keeping him running. The prize was a scholarship to a Negro college where, we can assume the teachers or professors only teaches what they want the African American students to know. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll gain the tools needed to reach the same level of the white men. Black men feeling invisible in this specific time comes from the fact that they were only allowed to attend schools with other African American students and taught by African American teachers who only teach what they were instructed to. This structure held African Americans back, not allowing them to be equal to the white students, meaning that whatever they wanted to contribute didn’t matter.
These three symbols; the battle, being blindfolded and the speech, all lead to black men to feel invisible. Black men put so much effort into something they’re proud of, go out of their way to present it, only to be brushed off in the form of a slight recognition. The narrator’s grandfather left a significant piece of advice in the beginning; “learn it to the younguns” (Ellison 403). He also called himself a traitor and a spy. Then near the end, in the narrator’s dream, he reads a letter from his grandfather that reads “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (Ellison 413). When the grandfather said “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” it was a sign that he was mocking the prize the narrator received. The grandfather is a representation of someone who is of the same race and will down his own people.
In conclusion, controlling a person, making a person feel weak and giving false recognition contributes to making one feel invisible. One race isn’t a sign of being higher than another. Once you realize that you aren’t free because of what you’re allowing others to teach you instead of teaching yourself what you need to know, will be the day you become equal to yourself and those who are now doing the same as you. “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: that I am nobody but myself”(Ellison 402).