Ellison’s Powerful Battle Royal
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)
These insightful words written by Ralph Ellison in the powerful short story "Battle Royal," which later became the first chapter in the critically acclaimed novel Invisible Man, convey the repressed desires of the maligned African American spirit, in an age of oppression ruled by ignorance and fear. In "Battle Royal" Ellison utilizes remarkable powers of perception to deliver a shocking and thought-provoking dissertation on the plight of the African American culture, through the inhumane scourge of slavery to the sinful separation of segregation. "Battle Royal" solidified Ellison's position as an enlightened commentator on African American issues, while serving as a precursor to what is arguably his best work, Invisible Man. "Battle Royal" is an expertly crafted allegory illustrating the African American community's painful pilgrimage to overcome the oppressive attitudes and unfounded fears of an overtly racist and segregated South.
Ellison uses the horrifying experiences of the narrator, a young black man struggling to overcome racism, as a symbol to emphasize the barbaric treatment endured by African Americans in the early 1900's. "Battle Royal" begins with a revelation by the narrator concerning a message delivered by his grandfather on his deathbed. The dying grandfather advises, "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 938). The grandfather's last request acts as a call to arms for all African Americans, from those who suffered through the brutal bondage of unsolicited servitude, to those who encouraged the black community to behave as the "white man" wished publicly; and to those who secretly pursued a hidden agenda to liberate themselves from their unsuspecting oppressors.
The narrator delivers a well-received discourse at his graduation, 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). The acceptance of the narrator's speech affords him the opportunity to address an assembly of prominent members of the white community, but first he must survive the Battle Royal, a boxing war in the ring against fellow African Americans. The Battle Royal is symbolic of the fight that many blacks wage against themselves to gain money, position, and prominence. The narrator is forced to participate in a battle...