The Path of the White Men Versus The Path of the Grandfather
The narrator in “Battle Royal,” by Ralph Ellison, is confused and disillusioned. He is black man trapped in a world of cruelty and social inequality with nobody to guide him. He is being ripped apart in two directions by the advice of his grandfather and by the wishes of the white society which he longs to please. While attempting to satisfy their wishes, he forgets what is most important- his own dignity.
The narrator’s problem is rooted with his parents. They refuse to discuss his grandfather’s advice with him, and as a result he never knows exactly what it means. One could see how it would be confusing to a young boy:
Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open (Ellison 430).
His grandfather followed this advice by saying, “Learn it to the younguns,” (Ellison 430) and then he died. The advice was meant for the young children, and yet they were never taught its meaning. The narrator was left to ponder its meaning, and his confusion left his mind in constant guilt and disillusionment.
His grandfather had always been a model citizen. He was a quiet, meek man who always acted in a desirable way towards the whites. And then, on his deathbed, he called himself a traitor and a spy. What haunted the narrator is that he acted in the same manner as his grandfather did, and had always received compliments and praise from the whites in his society. And on the other hand, his grandfather referred to those acts as being treacherous. This brought about a feeling of guilt in the narrator. How could he maintain the respect of the whites without being dubbed a traitor?
It took him a while, but eventually he learned the meaning of his grandfather’s advice. He was doing the acts that his grandfather meant, when he referred to “the good fight.” However, there was one major difference issue that he didn’t understand. In trying to impress the high-standing white members of his community, he allowed them to take advantage of his ambition. He wanted to impress them because he felt that they were the ones who mattered, and only their respect and admiration counted. This was the difference. His grandfather’s advice was meant to have the “younguns” put on a mask when with the whites. Their opinion did matter, because it was them who controlled society and them who determined the quality of life in the black community. But the agreeing and sucking up that was done had to be artificial. His inner-self must be preserved, otherwise he would be nothing more than a slave to the whites. The “good fight” is the battle to maintain his own dignity, and also earn the praise of the whites. This is the only way to maintain one’s self-respect and survive (or maybe even advance) in a white-dominated society.
“Battle Royal” gives the reader a frightening look at just how society looks at blacks. In the story, the narrator and another group of young, black boys are humiliated and degraded simply for the entertainment of some older white men. The narrator goes to the gathering with the intention of delivering a speech which he earned acclaim for from the white superintendent. He was incredibly excited, and was hoping to impress the other whites in the community. He is driven by the desire to please the whites, and therefore advance his own standing among them. He measures his accomplishments by what the white men think of him. He says it was a “triumph for his whole community” (Ellison 431) when he was asked to deliver that speech again, and couldn’t be more proud. Of course, things didn’t go exactly as he had planned.
The white men whom he had hoped would treat him with respect proceeded to humiliate him just as they did to his black peers, whom he referred to as “tough guys.” One example is when the boys are presented with the white exotic-dancer. Many of the white men in the room force the boys to look at the dancer, while others threaten them when they do. It is clear that at the time that this story was written, black men could never show any kind of attraction towards white women. This was an unwritten, but inexcusable law of society with harsh consequences. Just 3 years after the book was written, a young black man by the name of Emmett Till was lynched for simply whistling at a white woman whom he must have found attractive. Now, it becomes rather obvious the stress and apprehension that this group of boys must have felt when forced to look upon that beautiful white dancer. Some of them cried, one of them fainted, and another tried to hide the proof of his arousal. The fear they must have felt is unimaginable. Even when they tried to leave, the white men, who seemed to find humor in the situation, forced them to watch despite their fear. The narrator spoke of the white dancer as “I want to caress her and destroy her, love her and murder her.” This is showing that he is very much attracted to her despite the fact that he shouldn’t be. His attraction to her is natural, and he is only feeling what most men would feel. He understands that his attraction could hurt him, and this is why he says he not only wants to caress her, but because of this attraction he also wants to destroy her. He loves her, and because of this he wants to murder her. He sees her as a danger to his own life because it is impossible for him to control his dangerous feelings for her.
The night progressed and brought along with more disgrace for the boys. The boxing match between the narrator and the other boys was the next event in the evening of humiliation. They were blindfolded and told to fight each other like wild animals. They continued to beat on each other while echoes of the white men’s taunts and threats were all they could hear. In the end, it came down to the narrator and the bigger Tatlock as the only ones in the ring. Tatlock was quite a character. His ideals differed greatly from those of the narrator, and the narrator called him a “stupid clown” for it (Ellison 436). The narrator could still only think of his speech that he would deliver at the end of the night despite being beaten and humiliated at the hands of the white men whom he still longed to impress. He goes as far as to offer Tatlock money to throw the fight in order to enhance his own image in front of the white men. Tatlock’s response surprises him, as he refuses and says “I’ll break your behind” (Ellison 435). His reasoning, though, is why he is actually living the life of the grandfather and not the narrator. Tatlock refuses to take the money not for the white men, but for himself. He wants nothing more than to beat the narrator into oblivion. He is not doing this to impress them, but instead for himself. He is working for the whites, and is in the same ring with the narrator, but he still manages to maintain his own soul, his own inner-self. He acts on his own feelings. This is where he differs from the narrator, who is in the ring only to impress the whites. The narrator is naive, and blind to the truth of society. The truth is that despite his efforts and talent, he could never reach the level among the whites that he desired simply by his conduct and manner towards them. They would always consider him a step below their social standing, and would never allow him to reach their level. He had a place in society, and that would not be permitted to change. His desires along with the determination of the whites were illustrated quite clearly during his speech at the Battle Royal.
At the end of the night, after he had successfully endured humiliation and physical pain at the hands of the whites, his speech finally came. At this point, the reader gets a very good glimpse at just how the whites see him now after he has suffered for them. While delivering his speech, he mistakenly brings up the word “social equality” (Ellison 439). At the mention of this, he is berated by a white member of the audience, and told to “know his place at all times” (Ellison 439). He must know his place. Well, his place was right at the feet of the whites, and that is exactly where they intended to keep him. Though still, he continued to persist. He swallowed a great amount of blood during the speech from cuts he had suffered in the fight, and refused to spit it out for fear that it may detract from his speech. He certainly was determined, and willing to sacrifice anything- including his dignity.
Well, the narrator would eventually come to an understanding of his grandfather’s advice. He states that he first had to attend college though. In the end, the narrator did actually benefit from his grandfather’s advice, which had tortured him for so long. He states during the story (referring to his grandfather), “It was as though he had not died at all…” (Ellison 430). This is a very true statement. The advice that he gave to the young boy stayed with him for a long time, and in the end guided him to an understanding of the ways of society. The grandfather had his greatest affect on the narrator after he was dead, so it was as if he never died at all because his “good fight” carried on.
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