Ralph Ellison - Battle Royal Thematic Essay

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Chris Reinert
English 102
6/4/12
Mr. Jakubowski

“Battle Royal”

Racism was a harsh reality for African Americans after the American slave era and is a prominent theme in the short story “Battle Royal”. This story highlights how racism is not only a powerful tool used to keep people down but can also promote savagery. The author, Ralph Ellison, uses vivid imagery to depict the acts of savagery shown by both the slaves and the white crowd. This short story takes place in the post-slavery south during segregation. The story begins with the narrator remembering his grandfather on his deathbed. His grandfather told the narrator’s father, “Our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days.” ( ) By saying this he means that he was always so meek and didn’t step out of line. He felt he was too obedient to the white men and realized that he had betrayed his own race. These words had a profound effect on the narrator although he couldn’t be sure what he meant because his grandfather had always been a quiet person. The narrator is very much like his grandfather in that he is considered, “an example of desirable conduct.”( ) When he is praised for his good conduct he feels guilty because of his grandfather’s words. For this reason he considers his grandfather’s words a curse.

On the narrator’s graduation day he delivered a speech that stressed, “Humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.”( ) Although he did not believe the words in his speech, it proved to be very popular among the important white citizens in the town. He was invited to give the speech at an occasion at a local smoker in front of a white audience. The occasion also included a battle royal which is a free-for-all fight in which their can only be one victor. The fighters are all African American boys. The narrator was told that he must join the fight with his schoolmates. The narrator is not particularly fond of the group he is about to fight with. When entering the smoker he notices that the important white men in the crowd are drinking and smoking. They are then forced to watch a naked white woman dance before the match. Despite being attracted to the woman the narrator says,”I felt a wave or irrational guilt and fear.” ( ) He also says about the crowd in regard to the naked woman,” Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not.” ( ) The narrator does not know how to react in this situation because in this period it looking at white women was not allowed. While she was dancing a few men began to grab her and taunt her. Soon after the narrator says, “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.”( ) After the woman got away, the fight is set to begin. They are wearing boxing gloves and are blindfolded. Once the fight begins all the African American boys start blindly swinging at each other in reckless disregard. The narrator describes the chaotic scene, “Everyone fought hysterically. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long. Two, three, four, fought one, then turned to fight each other, were themselves attacked.” ( ) As the participants are fighting each other, the crowd yells racial slurs and taunts the fighters. Eventually it is only the narrator and another man in the ring with their blindfolds off. The narrator tries to reason with him and offers him the prize money if he throws the fight. The narrator just wants to give his speech but the other fighter says, “Ill break your behind.” The narrator continues to try to persuade him but to no avail. He eventually is beaten and the fight ends. After the fight money and coins were placed on a rug for the participants to collect. After reaching for the coins and getting shocked they realize that the rug is electrified. They scramble to push the coins off...
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