Refusing to Fight in Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal
The 1940s represent a decade of turmoil for the United States in general. Perhaps no group of people struggled more during that time period, however, than African Americans. With racial segregation prevalent, particularly in the South, opportunity was lacking for African-Americans. However, Ralph Ellison suggests in “Battle Royal” that due to the lack of racial unity among black men as well as a certain amount of naiveté, black men prevented themselves from succeeding more so than their white oppressors.
With few outlets to succeed in America at the time, African Americans put forth extra effort to succeed when they were given a chance. Often times, this set black men at odds with each other, as they fought to get ahead in a white-dominated society. In “Battle Royal”, this type of dog-eat-dog behavior is duly noted in the actual fight scene. From the moment the narrator steps into the elevator with his classmates, he “felt superior to them in [his] way” (200), and yet he also felt intimidated by their overwhelming fierceness. The only hint of unity that the reader can sense is when all the boys are thrown together, feeling awkward and uncomfortable at the site of the naked white girl in front of them. This distorted sense of unity ends as they are blindfolded and thrown into the ring together. This immediately draws a parallel to society in general, as black men were thrown out into the world, competing against each other to see who would succeed. Likewise, the boys immediately turn on each other, as “everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long” (203). Though it is their white oppressors that serve as a catalyst for this kind of disunity, it is up to them to stand together as one and fight to win over white dominance, not to be at constant war with each other, hoping for the same outcome.
This type of intra-racial conflict is explored further in the scene where the narrator must fight Tatlock. The narrator had been at this point “fighting automatically” (203), fighting without a solid purpose, fighting against members of his own race, with whom he went to school. Now, he must face his biggest challenge to prove himself physically to the white men by fighting the biggest boy, Tatlock. Left in the ring, it is the strong versus the week, the uneducated against the educated. With fear and anger both in his eyes, Tatlock wants nothing more than to rip the narrator apart, perhaps perversely taking his own frustrations meant for the white men who have done this to him out on the narrator. This is clear when he is asked if he is fighting for these men, and he responds, “For me, sonofabitch” (204). That is the same vulgarity that had been shouted at all the boys by the white men. Thus, Tatlock, large in stature and dense in wit, represents the distorted sense of anger felt by the black boys. Rather than expressing it...