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A Lifelong Battle
Growing up and striving to find one's true identity is a complicated task in itself, without the worries of prejudice and discrimination to add to it. In "Battle Royal," Ralph Ellison presents a young black man and the confusion that fills his mind while trying to survive and succeed in a society where those who are white possess all the power, and those who are black have none. The young man in the story struggles with the "correct" way to live life as a black man: be submissive and please the white men, or stand up for one's self despite the consequences.
The narrator's grandfather was a man who lived his life as a "quiet old man who never made any trouble (Ellison 379)." When he was dying, he shared his last few words of wisdom with his grandson:
"Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our own life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days,
a spy in the enemy's country ever since I gave 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 (378)."
So, this young man went about his life practicing humility and passivity, living his life according to his grandfather's advice even though he isn't sure he should. To him, "the
old man's words were like a curse (379)" and it was a constant and perplexing issue for him to grapple with. As he said, "I could never be sure of what he meant…he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity (379)."
The narrator is highly respected and praised in the community, especially for a black male. He grew up to be a very intelligent young man, coming so far as to deliver a commencement speech focused on humility as the key to advancement. Although he doesn't believe in what he is preaching - "how could I, remembering my grandfather (379)?" - he believes that it works. By this, he is claiming that submission can socially advance blacks, although he doesn't believe it will further someone personally nor mentally make them a better person. Yet, he never seems to be completely proud of himself; he is always torn on the inside - questioning his role in life and what he wants to be known as. "Whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable (379)."
The praise and recognition this young man received by (white) influential members of society led him to feel very important at times. He says, "I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct-just as my grandfather had been (379)." He had goals and visions for himself in these "pre-invisible days," one dream as seeing himself as the next Booker T. Washington.
The actual power structure as seen in this society becomes blatantly evident at a "gathering of the town's leading white citizens (379)." The young narrator is invited to deliver his commencement speech once again, but this time the audience will be the influential men of the community. Of course, it was only natural for him to be thrilled -
"It was a triumph for our whole community (379)." Ironically, this same meeting turns out to be the day he begins to lose his self-worth, on his path to invisibility. The prestiged men of the community torment a group of young black adolescents. The
meeting just so happened to fall on the night of a "smoker," and the narrator is expected to take part in this "battle royal" between he and his classmates. This is considered "part of the entertainment (379)."
Prior to the actual brawl, the young black boys are taunted with the sight of a blonde, gorgeous, and naked young female standing right in front of their very eyes. For the white men, this was merely fun and games and a way to get their point across as to who is who, because upon this girl
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Circus, Clown, White, Invisible Man
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