The Struggles Faced on a Daily Basis by Black Americans in America in Battle Royal, a Short Story by Ralph Ellison

Topics: Battle Royal

In “Battle Royal”, Ellison gives the reader subtle instruction to maintain their identity while growing up in the racial distorts of America. The characters of interest are the grandfather and narrator, who both face an internal conflict with one selves regarding their place in civilisation. Being black in America was not always easy. Any misstep was a setback for the African American community, being a great challenge as of how to manage life while living in a predominantly white-privileged society. Even though the story takes place in a world back then, it is without question that the struggles of African Americans remain today.

The only problem is how to go about life knowing what lies ahead.

The narrator has always been an upstanding student. Never caused any trouble in or out of his commune and kept his nose clean. What made him unique in the eyes of those around him was his grasp on knowledge and drive for higher learning, a trait “respected” by the white population.

He saw nothing of its importance beyond what his grandfather professed on his deathbed, that this very act of obedience had a deeper meaning. The way the narrator’s grandfather had lived his life doing what he is told, being respectful, nice, and agreeing to everything his white associates say and do. This very act of submission is a form of internalised racism. The topic itself is important for research being that the foundations of oppression is derived from the 250+ years of institutional practises of slavery being that where the methods of oppression come from (Seabrook and Wyatt-Nichol 22).

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Racial oppression has been so repetitive and recurrent that it has made its way into African American communities as internalised racism, defined as developed ideas, beliefs, actions and behaviours that support or collude with racism (Bivens 44). The grandfather unknowingly supported the white privilege in fear of the consequences if he by any chance showed contempt. This practise conceded his better judgement, hence why he called himself “a traitor all [his] born days” (Ellison 152). The systemic nature of racism was put in place to deter the advancement of black people, that of which the grandfather participated in. Back then, African Americans had scarce resources to education and political prospects as well as a limited window to healthcare. To get those resources, African-Americans had to work twice as hard as non-African Americans or sometimes had to leave those in their community behind. DuBois calls this “double consciousness”, the concept is long-standing, and it refers in part to the challenges posed by the need to negotiate their Black and American identities in a social context that sometime pits one against the other (Eidelson and Lyubansky 4).

Part of the narrator’s guilt comes from the fact that he was able to succeed amidst the rest of his classmates, being rewarded by the white men of his town for making it in a society that was built to fail him (Orelus 4). The grandfather went along to say, “I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction” what Orelus says Black and Brown people are generally expected to be either obedient or super nice and feel that they have outperformed their White counterparts to receive the respect that they deserve (4). The narrator was afraid that the white people would see through his behaviour as a sign of disrespect. Deep down, he did not really believe the words he spoke at his graduation but that the philosophy worked.

The last thought leads to the next point that the ways of humility and meekness was not in fact the true meaning to coloured people’s success. This philosophy was fashioned by Booker T. Washington who believed that the ultimate solution to the race problem was for African- Americans to prove themselves being reliable and superior laborers, eventually making themselves essential to the economic well-being of the country, needing an education that would be valuable in an economic sense. The narrator proudly quotes Washington, but it is not

completely sure if he is aware of the inequality Washington values. Washington wanted African- Americans to accept their place in society as proper. However, it would keep African-Americans subservient and exploitable. For Northerners, it would serve as a way of calming racial tensions and providing a well-trained labouring underclass that could be used in the effort to industrialise the South, deeming vocational training as a failure as it kept African-Americans from moving up in society (Johnson and Watson 66). Washington coined his philosophy that Black Americans had to keep ever faithful to the virtues of sacrifice, discipline, delayed gratification, and most important, economic salvation for their own communities (Johnson and Watson 68).

The battle royal continued not to change the mind of the narrator. Nothing could shake him from wanting to deliver his speech even if it meant engaging in a brawl that exploited his financial poverty. All the while his judgement was blind to the antagonising the white leaders organised: the naked lady with the makeup and tattoo and the “money” on the rug. Both are symbols to what the black man will never have, economic security and a beautiful white woman. This style of exploitation was used in the 17th century and termed internal colonialism, or “a country exploiting its own minority groups, using social institutions to deny minority access to society’s full benefits” (Seabrook and Wyatt-Nichol 22). The boys did not know whether to look at the woman or not when they were threatened either way. Ellison did not hold back on the imagery in the text; the woman’s body as she stood in the middle of the room, how the room smelled and covered in “the smoke of a hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils”, the large fighter and his arousal (Ellison 155), the narrator’s emotions as he was blindfolded, lastly his recollection of the blows throw at him and his body’s response.

As the fight persisted to the final minutes, he notices how the other fighters were spared for the rest of the evening, realising they planned the whole ordeal in spite of the narrator taking place of one of their friends “out of a night’s work” (Ellison 154). Tatlock, the opponent, tuned out the narrator’s proposal of ending the fight because (of exploitation) Tatlock’s needs overpowered his dignity (Ellison 159). It is until the end of the story the reader can sort of see the narrator waking up and seeing through the madness he was thrown into. When he finally has a chance to deliver his speech, it was rather difficult with the interruptions and the cut reopening in his mouth causing him to choke on his blood (Ellison 163). During the deliverance of his speech, he accidently says social equality in place of social responsibility. It was an accident on the narrator’s part but not on the author’s. This utterance was intended by the author to express his distaste towards Washington’s viewpoint of black people accepting their place in society. Being socially inferior is what elite whites want, making the fight of influential African American leaders worth nothing. Seeming to regain his senses in the eyes of the white leaders, the superintendent went about giving the narrator his scholarship as a reward for sacrificing his virtues and self-respect (stemming back to internalised racism, accepting white privilege).

The true meaning or theme behind the works is debatable, although, freedom and equality scream at every turn of a page. In a course of one chapter, Ellison managed to summarise the perpetual struggle the average Black person in America faces on a day to day basis. It goes to show history repeats itself and it is by the hands of communities of all races and ethnic backgrounds to change it.

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The Struggles Faced on a Daily Basis by Black Americans in America in Battle Royal, a Short Story by Ralph Ellison. (2023, Jan 12). Retrieved from

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