Ralph Ellision's Battle Royal

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In the 1940‘s racial segregation gripped southern American life. The notion of separating blacks from whites created immense tension. Separate water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, etc. were variables that helped keep races apart. "Jim Crow" laws in the south were intended to prevent blacks from voting. These laws, combined with the segregated educational system, instilled the sense that blacks were "separate" but not equal (174). Many people of color weren‘t able to survive through this time period because of the actions of whites. One individual who overcame the relentless struggles was Ralph Ellison. Ellison, a famous author, depicted racial segregation in the 1940's through a fictional short story entitled "Battle Royal." Battle Royal symbolized the actions of what "other" people became accustomed to. Blacks were thought to be socially inferior and live in the shadows of whites. The idea which Ellison uses to paint "Battle Royal" consists of that when one sex or race treats another as an object or animal, both become dehumanized (174). Ellison's use of hidden meanings conveys his theme more effectively.

Literary critic, Norman German, creates an interesting spin on "Battle Royal." Published in the CLA (College Language Association) journal in 1988, German emphasizes Ellison's use of animal imagery which graphically stresses his theme (German). The narrator (the main character) struggles with his grandfather's dying words, "Live with your head in the lion's mouth." (The animal symbolism in the quote through his dying grandfather lived his life in the hands of "whites.") The narrator, although he strongly disagrees, has his grandfather's words embedded in his mind. The constants in the "battle royal" are portrayed as foreign creatures as they are herded "like cattle" into the servant's elevator. German believes, that because the rich white men treat the black men as animals and the naked white woman as a sexual object, it ironically reduces the white men to animals: One man watches the woman dance and holds his arms up like an intoxicated panda, winding his belly in a slow and obscene grind. The creature was completely hypnotized…The men then sink their beefy fingers into her flesh…Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her (178). Ellison's use of language helps imply the animalistic treatment of the young fighters (German). A writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Michael Eric Dyson, is thoroughly amazed by Ellison's wordplay by saying, "He spoke elegantly of the beautiful absurdity of the American identity (Dyson)." The choice of words Ellison navigate through America's history of ideas (Dyson). The portrayal of fighters emphasize the fact that "blacks" were socially inferior. White's would of never thought to view blacks in the same "league" with them. At this time, no one could imagine the battle royal happening with white's fighting with an animalistic intentions, while rich, black men sat smoking cigars, cheering for brutality. By using nouns and adjectives, the description of the young fighting has a deeper, harsher connotation. Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man. The smoke had become think and with each new blow it seemed to sear and further restrict my lungs. My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood (179). A fellow fighter is said to have "whimpered like a dog over his crushed hand (179)." The brutal action of undergoing a battle royal has the unseen indication that the cigar-smoking whites wanted to take the human out of the blacks and place it with animal instincts....
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