Social Injustices and the American Dream in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”
Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” represents the socioeconomic tensions in the early twentieth century. Written in 1952, Ellison brings light to the fact black citizens were still being seen as inferior to their white counterparts decades after slavery was abolished. In a society where black citizens were seen as second-rate, they were mostly given only second-rate opportunities. Without a fair, level playing field, there are no equal chances to obtain the American Dream. According to the ideals of the American Dream, anyone who works hard enough can rise from “rags to riches.” Yet, there are a vast number of people within this country who do not have equal opportunities due to their race and socioeconomic class. The narrator of “The Battle Royal,” who recently obtained the honor of being valedictorian of his high school class, represents the suffocating limits given to black people in regards to educational and social changes on improving their standard of living. The narrator successfully competing with his white counterparts diminishes as the audience, as well as himself, realize he must partake in a boxing match between his other black peers if he wanted to recite his speech for the affluent white hosts of the event. His goal was to obtain a scholarship to further his education, and what he had to endure would be unfathomable for a young white man aspiring for the same goal. The audience now sees the white power dynamics take hold of his opportunities. All the narrator’s hard work to reach the American Dream were discouraged under the allusion that his persistence and hard work would give him an equal chance with white society.
Within Ralph Ellison’s chapter, “The Battle Royal,” he critiques and questions the beliefs of an infamous black writer, Booker T. Washington. The narrator quotes Washington in his speech to the powerful white men. The philosophies of Washington specified that blacks should avoid fighting and causing a scene over obtaining political and civil rights. Rather, they should keep quiet and work hard to prove themselves, seeing as that would help obtain equality. What Ellison does though, is disprove this way of thinking, seeing as what happened to the narrator’s grandfather when he followed Washington’s ideology. The narrator’s grandfather always fell in line and only later in life, on his deathbed, realizes that sort of ideology had major limitations. Furthermore, when the narrator is giving his speech to the judgmental white men, they give him no respect. Rather than taking him seriously, they snicker and laugh towards something the narrator had great pride in. This was his chance to succeed and further his education, yet the white men were still demeaning him to a low-ranking level.
They would not allow the narrator to feel confident, as confidence does not fit within their idea of the model black citizen. As soon the young man says something that challenges the idea of white supremacy, the hostility that is then aimed towards him is astounding. Even decades after slavery was abolished within the United States, the men command that the narrator resume the good slave role. After all this chaos and embarrassment, the narrator does end up receiving what he yearned for all along. Yet, he does not technically “win” when it comes to attainting the coveted scholarship. By rewarding him with the scholarship, the men also restricted his social advancement. As the audience comes to realize, it was only because he kept in line and was an obedient black citizen. What this unveiled is what the narrator’s grandfather was trying to express to him. No matter how obedient the narrator is, he will still only be seen as the same level as a poor, uneducated black man. Even when he worked immensely hard to obtain that status of valedictorian, the white men taunt him regardless. The narrator’s reaction is ironic, as he seems to be oblivious to such behavior and reasoning.
There is evidence that shows the audience how the narrator’s focus on the American Dream blinds him to this meaning of the battle royal. Near the beginning of the piece, the narrator is concerned that “fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech” (312). For in that instance, he was more interested in the speech than the fact he was about to get thrown into a boxing ring completely unprepared. The boxing ring was used as a way for the white men to showcase their power over the young, black men. They made them fight each other and found great entertainment in the matter. In the heat of the narrator’s fight, all he could think about while getting his face beat was his promise of a speech in front of very important people. “I wanted to deliver my speech and he came at me as though he meant to beat it out of me” (316). The narrator was even willing to sacrifice his winnings in order for his competitor to fake a knock out. He wanted to finish his beating as soon as possible. Get through what he thought was a pointless obstacle, to read his precious speech. In addition, the negative stance the narrator exhibits towards his fellow black men signals a sense of classism. He feels as if he doesn’t belong with them in the fighting ring since he thinks of himself as socially superior to them.
After all, he was valedictorian from his high school. Yet he doesn’t understand that the white men see them all as one group. They label all of them as lazy and undeserving of any aid to achieve the American Dream. Unfortunately, the narrator does not come to terms that the white men were pitting the young black men against each other. When in reality, they should be combining forces and revolting against the white supremacy. The battle represents the inner turmoil and how the black community was often left no choice but to do what they were told in order to get anywhere in life. “The Battle Royal” displays how the narrator’s main counterparts, the white men, kept exuding a hostile environment where fighting was kept within the black community. While these young black men are forced into a boxing ring to beat each other senseless, the white upper-class seem to find entertainment in such a barbaric setting.
During the fights, the white men keep egging the poor fighters on. Placing bets on what man would come up on top. At one point, the M.C. of the fight exclaimed, “Come on up here boys and get your money” (318). As the young men gather around to all take their chance to attain any compensation, they remind them all by saying “boys, it’s all yours…you get all you grab” (318). This type of direction instills a competitive nature to the setting. The only obstacles these young men encounter are each other. They must do as the white men say seeing as they have no rights in the matter. All the young men are being led into that boxing ring and had blindfolds placed upon them. The white men would often come up and talk to them. Instilling more hostile tactics into their heads and telling them what violence they expect out of them. For example, one white man exclaimed, “I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don’t get him, I’m going to get you” (314). This is evidence of the white men basically threatening the young black men to do as they were told no matter how gruesome. Throughout the fight the audience discovers that the white men yell even more obscenities. For example, when one would try to remove his blindfold, a voice was heard saying, “oh, no you don’t, black bastard? Leave that alone!” (315). The environment the young black men were thrown into was a shock and they had no choice, but to fight each other. In this sense, the battle royal does represent this kind of keep-them-fighting-among-themselves strategy.
Ralph Ellison portrayed a myriad of social restraints of the black community and their struggle to earn their equal rights. Although, he portrayed their strife in a way that was not very traditional. The narrator barely gave any straightforward sentence to express their shortcomings, and explained the majority of their struggle in a symbolic meaning. The fact that the fighters in the battle royal are blindfolded does hold significance. For in that time, the black community was going through a movement where they underwent extreme shortcomings. The blindfold was representative of his metaphorical blindness to the intentions of the white men. The misunderstood intentions include the money sprawled on the electrifying rug as well as the white men’s intentions toward the narrator and his speech. The white men held the power of sending him to college, granted it was for an all black college, which was definitely inferior to any white college. What the white men wanted was a well-trained black man to uphold and teach the “correct, obedient” ways of the black citizen. The narrator was seen as powerless under the control of the white men. They were being exploited for the sake of entertainment and these black men did not understand that.
During one point of the narrator’s speech, he misspeaks and the white man responds, “Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times. All right, now, go on with your speech” (321). The white man is trying to make the narrator feel as if the whites are on his side, yet still maintain the fact that they are superior to him. Equality was the last thing on these white men’s minds and the young black men were all submissive in their lowly positions and accepted the low standing without question. They were blindfolded in this match, as well as blind to the constraints they had in society. The battle royal itself is the strongest symbol of the fight for equality in Ellison’s story. The irony of the battle is that the narrator is fighting his black peers. They are physically fighting each other, while psychologically fighting the white men. The larger battle though, is indeed between the white men. The narrator and the other black men cannot understand the idea of joining forces for the similar cause instead of everyone fighting everyone else. The black men are taking their anger out on each other rather than attaining equality and calmly reducing the control the white men were so comfortable with exercising.
Throughout “Battle Royal,” Ellison uses a variety of symbolism to convey his message about the black strife for equality. The audience has witnessed the mental sufferings and struggles of the black community. With slavery abolished way back, the black community has barely escaped that reality. It is something that continues to haunt them and Ellison illustrates through his text the extreme measures the narrator went through to simply attain a college education form these white civic leaders. It is a sad thought that throughout this period of history we saw extreme discrimination from white society. The white community forever reminding the black people that they will be nothing but a slave no matter what they do or whatever their contributions are to this society. The narrator believed that genuine obedience towards his white community would win him respect and social recognition, yet he ended up being abused by the white people for their entertainment. The American Dream was not as simply attained for him as he was not on a equal playing field as other citizens within this country and Ralph Ellison brought awareness to this in his piece, “The Battle Royal.”