Short story “Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison provides a satirical analysis of racial discrimination and how it plagues the African American community’s growth after slavery. The story is about an African American teenaged boy who is invited to be a guest speaker before a congregation of elite white men. The event turns sour once the protagonist is made to partake in horrific humiliating events to entertain the white upper-classmen. Set in 1952 Ellison’s “Battle Royal” uses symbolism to illustrate the many ways in which white supremacy subjugates black people specifically black males.
Ellison was born of humble beginnings in Oklahoma. His father was a small businessman who sold ice and coal and his mother worked as a janitor, nurse, and house cleaner. When he was three, his father died from painful stomach ulcers leaving his mother a lone widow. Being raised in Oklahoma, could be the source of inspiration he needed to write such a provocative novel. Ellison’s parents believed their son was going to achieve many great things. His father even named him after journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson to ensure such success. Ellison’s nameless narrator is also pressured to succeed from his parents, community, but particularly and having most effect his grandfather. The narrator goes into detail of his grandfather’s dying words and how they affected him. “It was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety…It was as though I was carrying out his advice, in spite of myself …the old man’s words were like a curse.”(Page 403). Ellison, like his protagonist, considered himself an intellectual and cultured man. Both being very bright individuals were awarded scholarships and attended historical black universities. Ellison attending the Tuskegee University established by Booker T. Washington, ironically his characters idol. After college Ellison traveled to New York and did a few odd jobs before landing a gig writing for the New York Writers Program, their meeting fellow Renaissance men Richard Wright, Alan Locke and Langston Hughes. Becoming more confident in his writing Ellison began to write his own novel, Invisible Man, while living in Vermont. Invisible Man turned into a huge success earning him a number of accolades, it being revered as a classic novel.
Although slavery had been abolished eighty-five years ago, the black community found themselves in the same situation as before in terms of racial inequality, racial discrimination and withstanding white supremacy. Some coping mechanism African Americans had to acquire in order to survive in the “post racial” society was appease the white community by staying in an inferior place. The narrator’s grandfather on his death bed teaches the family the only way to overcome racism is to undermine them with compliance, in essence become docile even though it goes against his own personal belief. The invisible man to his dismay heeds his advice and becomes a meek black male as well, praised by most whites and his own community. The title “Battle Royal” itself defines the protagonist situation, he is constantly at odds with a group of people who are presented in every facet superior. You get an idea of the protagonist own inferiority complex by his need to impress and prove himself before the bigoted white men when stating “I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything else in the world, because I felt that only these men could judge truly my ability.” This shows the narrators want for acceptance from the white men and his need for validation.
Ellison writes in “Battle Royal” the sanctity and protection of white womanhood from black males. Although her place is below the white males, expressed by the way big shots grabbed for her and watched her hungrily like a slab of meat, her place is still above the black males who did not give in to their humanly desires in fear of how the white males would react. Historically the repercussions of this once taboo act incited the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in which white’s bombed and burned down a black affluent community. In Tulsa, Oklahoma an emerging black elite was forming finding doctors, lawyers, businessman among other like-minded black people achieving the American Dream. What is said that instigated the riot was allegedly a black male was accused of raping a white woman. Sexual relationships between black men and white women were tried as a crime. White males punished black males by burning down their residence, throwing them in jail, and most frequently, lynching them.
Throughout the short story Ellison utilizes symbolic imagery to illustrate the ways in which white supremacy is used against African Americans. The symbol of the battle illustrates the constant fight African Americans are forced to endure. Whether poor, educated, scared, or fearless if you are black you are automatically in the fight to preserve yourself within the system of white supremacy. The narrator speaks of being a part of the black collective and not wanting to be there when stating “I felt superior to them in my way and didn’t like the manner in which we were all crowded together into the servants’ elevator.” This shows the narrators naivety before realizing he too, is just another black man or invisible man. The battle showcases the black community as a group of people willing to harm each other in order to get ahead whether through financial gain or in the narrator’s case notoriety. In modern time “Battle Royal” can be related to reality television shows specifically shows like Bad Girls Club, Basketball Wives, or Love and Hip Hop where the majority of the cast are African Americans and the premise is based around dysfunction and fighting. Like within the battle African Americans are willing to harm each other for fame and financial gain while simultaneously providing entertainment for the white middle class. Reality television has created a genre based on exploiting the naivety and ignorance of its characters especially when those characters are African Americans.
During the fight the black males were yelled at by the whites with a barrage of racial slurs. So not only where they hit literally with gut busting punches, they were hit mentally with dehumanizing words. Being crafty the narrator figures out a way to see through the blindfold and begins to outsmart some of his opponents. By the end of the fight he realizes him and the bigger black male being the last men standing was all a part of the plan. This symbolizes disharmony between African Americans by the hands of white males.
Another form of symbolism was the white blind fold. When you think of the color white words like heavenly, clean, and innocent to name a few come to mind. In the situation where the narrator is blindfolded with the white cloth he describes his experience using words like “terror…darkness…tight.” I feel these words describe the world in which the narrator lives in. He is in constant terror for his life, fear of doing something wrong before his community and especially the white community. The darkness symbolizes him not knowing his place in the world in which he lives, having not realized he is an invisible man. The tightness of the blindfold describes the restrictions he has in his life due to racial discrimination and racial inequality. He even states “Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity.” (Page 407). In all the white blindfold is an analogy to white supremacy keeping African Americans suppressed and blind having to live a life always directed by white males.
By the end of the story the line between humility and humiliation are intertwined when the narrator finally delivers his ‘highly anticipated’ speech. Unfortunately while giving the speech the invisible man is still disrespected and disregarded by the white males in the manner of laughing at him, talking over him, and even stopping him mid-sentence to interject. While giving the speech the narrator proclaims how he felt it was “a hundred times as long as before” this is symbolic to the fight for racial equality. Although blacks were no longer slaves their progression was still being halted by whites. This is especially shown when the white audience corrects his word choice from social equality to social responsibility. Equality being a revolutionary word of change and responsibility being subjective, giving authority back to the white males. During the speech the narrator also swallows a mouthful of blood this action is an analogy to him swallowing his pride while participating in the humiliating battle and in his future endeavors. When the speech is over the white males award his compliance with a scholarship to a state college for Negroes, which further solidifies their point of him being inferior and having to live by the terms of white supremacy.
In conclusion Ralph Ellison’s story “Battle Royal” uses many symbols to express the many ways in which white supremacy is used the subjugate African Americans. The battle symbolizes the constant fight African Americans endure for racial equality. The white blindfold symbolizes white supremacy and how it keeps African Americans suppressed and bound to a life of servitude. And the scholarship represents the trinkets African Americans are rewarded for their compliance as long as they stay in their place.
Seidlitz, Anne. “Ralph Ellison: An American Journey.” PBS. PBS, 25 Aug. 2005. Web. 13 Oct. 2013
Schakel, Peter, and Jack Ridl. “A Collection of Stories.” Approaching Literature. 3rd ed. Boston/New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2012. 402-13. Print.
Caudle, Paula, Naomi Lancaster, and Andy Stamper. “Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994.” Modern American, 1914-present: Literature. University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 9 Nov. 1999. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.