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James Barela

Essay 1 - Eng 201

MW 7:20 -

Though the irony in Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" is overt, an

additional enquiry should be made: What is the rationale behind the

irony? To understand this, we must look to the allegory of the excerpt.

By means of allegory, we can discern the motives of the story's ironies,

why the protagonist is deceived, and the mindset of the aggression set

against him; in doing so, we can also come to understand the

representations of Ellison's absurd imagery. This paper shall attempt to

divulge and uphold the ironic allegory of Ellison's "Battle Royal" as

being the circumstances of the black intellectual and the obstacles and

tribulations that present themselves in the pursuit of knowledge and


Sequentially, we can begin with the protagonist's memory of his

grandfather's final words as the symbolization of two aspects: the

protagonist as black intellectual with feelings of self-hatred and of

injustice, and his fear of never expressing those feelings. His meek,

conforming grandfather had seen his own life of smiles and yeses as a

"treachery". This is the inevitable realization of the black intellectual:

that in order to further himself, he has to be subservient in the face of

a repressive society, but then, can he really deem that as furthering

himself, or would he be lowering himself?—Yet, if he refuses humility,

his intellectual resources become limited and his identity as an

James Barela
Essay 1 - Eng 201
MW 7:20 -
academician is compromised. This 'Catch-22' is given to the reader in

the mainmast of the story's irony: the subject of the protagonist's

valedictorian speech: "...humility was the secret, indeed, the very

essence of progress." His inner conflict is told right after, in

parentheses: "(Not that I believed this—how could I, remembering my

grandfather? —I only believed that it worked.)"

The "gathering of the town's leading white citizens" obviously

signifies 1930s white-empowered culture. This faculty is the only one

that can grant the black intellectual the higher knowledge they seek,

and according to the allegory, white-empowered culture does not

easily grant such a privilege to its repressed peoples.

The protagonist's schoolmates who participate in the battle royal

also have two simultaneous representations: black society at large,

and his fellow black intellectuals, of which there is finite room for in

their repressive culture. This is the battle royal, all v all. On one hand,

they are the everyday blacks, people which he feels himself superior

to, a people he dislikes and who do not like him. This is likely because

they see him as a sellout, are jealous of his intellectual successes, or

disapprove because they see his intellect as a desire to separate

himself from his own culture. Demeaned as it is, the situation of blacks

in America is still embraced as the black identity, evident by his

parents' horrified reaction to his grandfather's final proclamation. On

the other hand, the pugilists are also the other black intellectuals
James Barela
Essay 1 - Eng 201
MW 7:20 -
jockeying for position in senior levels of society, or, in a simpler form,

entrance to a 1930s college for black students. This is apparent in the

passage: "...we had words over the fact that I, by taking part in the

fight, had knocked one of their friends out of a night's work." Both of

these representations are personalized in a particularly hateful and

competitive combatant named Tatlock, who also represents the guilt of

the black intellectual, and eventually knocks the protagonist senseless,

defeating him.

Before the battle, the participants are taunted with a white girl

who represents what white-empowered culture wants the black

intellectual to set as their real goal. The All-American girl, with Old

Glory tattooed just above her crotch, her blonde hair and big breasts,

represents the white American dream; this is meant to distract the

black intellectual. The idea is to convince the black brawlers that what

they want, is what whites want, and that their final goal for social and

academic progress is neither intellect nor insight, but only to become

more as whites. They encourage them to this end while simultaneously

threatening them against it, flustering the fighters, for white-

empowered culture simply wants them to chase after their dream of

whiteness, not actually win it. This is the ironic meaning behind the

white blindfolds they wear during the fight—blinded from each other by

supposed want of whiteness, for only when blinded would fellow

members of an oppressed race counter one another.

James Barela
Essay 1 - Eng 201
MW 7:20 -
After the battle, comes the second attempt to dissuade the

battlers from bettering themselves: money. The boxing ring is rolled

away and replaced by a small square rug, a rug littered with crumpled

bills and coins, some of which are allegedly gold. Here, white-

empowered culture tries to degrade the black brawlers by gleefully

tossing cash at their feet and booming with laughter as the young

negroes frantically scamper onto the rug, discovering it electrified. The

lesson is: If society can convince the black intellectual that his plight is

merely a matter of income, they can keep him lowly and jumping for

cash for their amusement simply by offering compensation. By writing

the electrified rug sequence, Ellison showed tremendous foresight and

cautionary discretion for 1930s America, at a time when black citizenry

could achieve moderate success in any field at best.

The protagonist's gory reaction to his valedictorian speech

symbolizes the ugliness of his words and his inner conflict with the

blood of his race, the blood of Africa. When the protagonist conveys his

speech to the town's leading white citizens, his mouth is bleeding so

much from the fight that he must continually pause during his speech

to swallow his blood, which in turn makes him sick. Returning to his

This technique is employed today. Intelligent black actors will often achieve limited success, then in
order to keep working and maintain a certain lifestyle, they perform in movies such as Soul Plane—which
was written and produced by white men—and they sacrifice every last vestige of dignity for a paycheck to
make what is basically a minstrel show for the new millennium. No one forces them to act in such movies,
just as no one forces them to engage in the extravagant lifestyles which they choose to sustain. They
weigh outwardly status against the deterioration of the black mind and they smear the sambo makeup on
while stuffing their pockets with money, shrugging off the electric shocks as they snatch and grab up bills
and coins, same as the brawlers in "Battle Royal." This cycle can rarely be escaped, and when someone
like Dave Chappelle simply walks away from a highly successful career in Hollywood for these very
reasons, even black folk call him crazy. - Spike Lee refers to all of modern Hip Hop as minstrel caricature.
James Barela
Essay 1 - Eng 201
MW 7:20 -
true feelings on the speech, he believes it to be the truth, he just

believes it an ugly truth, that whoring himself to white-empowered

culture is the only way he will get his true voice heard; in this way, he

sees his blood swallowing as an act of ironic nobility, evident by the

parenthesized lines: "(What powers of endurance I had in those days!

What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!)"

Concomitantly, his blood is trying to strangle him, strangle his words,

making him weary and sick and he wants nothing more than to stop

and spit the blood out. But he cannot, because it is his blood, it is who

he is, of negro blood, and he cannot spit it out anymore than he can

change himself to white. It is the awareness of his negro identity that

causes him to choke on his words. At one point, while gagging it down,

the word "equality" forces itself from his throat, a word he had formally

denounced. The threatening reaction from the rout of white citizens

causes him to immediately retract the word. After preaching black

humility to the whites, they give him thunderous applause. They

reward him a new briefcase, to which his reaction is: "I was so moved

that I could hardly express my thanks. A rope of bloody saliva forming

a shape like an undiscovered continent drooled upon the leather and I

wiped it quickly away. I felt an importance that I had never dreamed."

The undiscovered continent is Africa, which in the 1930s, was still

mysterious and all but wholly unexplored, just so, it is "undiscovered"

by the protagonist, hence, it is his African blood that tries to gag him.
James Barela
Essay 1 - Eng 201
MW 7:20 -
In the last sequence, a dream sequence, his scholarship letter

comes to represent years of unrest, years of chasing the carrot that

white-empowered culture dangles before him like a horse drawing a

buggy—years of pursuing his goals to no gain. He opens envelope

within envelope, endlessly, each one stamped with an official seal. His

grandfather tells him to read one, and inside it reads: "Keep This

Nigger-Boy Running." The envelopes represent future endeavors he will

conquer, such as college, only to find the effort was another ploy of

white-empowered culture, and he must then set another goal,

repeating, ad finitum. Printed on the letter are the instructions for this

grift: to keep him running after what he wants—to keep him thinking

he can achieve equality—but to never let him have it.

In conclusion, the argument can be made that Ralph Ellison's

"Battle Royal" is an allegory for the paradox of the negro academician,

using paradoxical ironies to tell the tale. The story represents the

compromising of black identity for scholarly advancement and the

realization that vying for white culture's approval is not path to

equality, but merely a less painful version of subservience. The brawl is

an example of a hostile societal environment and how it causes both

confusion and reciprocal hostility; the confusion causes the hostility to

be misdirected, ei. against fellow blacks. By definition of irony,

meaning a figure of speech in which there is discordance between

what is spoken and what is actually known, "Battle Royal" certainly fits
James Barela
Essay 1 - Eng 201
MW 7:20 -
the bill in many instances. But in order to string the ironies together

into a comprehensive unit, the reader must look to the allegory, the

allegory being the struggle of the black intellectual.