In the 1940's racial segregation gripped southern American life. The notion of separating blacks from whites created immense tension. Separate water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, etc. were variables that helped keep races apart.
"Jim Crow" laws in the south were intended to prevent blacks from voting. These laws, combined with the segregated educational system, instilled the sense that blacks were "separate" but not equal (174). Many people of color weren't able to survive through this time period because of the actions of whites. One individual who overcame the relentless struggles was Ralph Ellison. Ellison, a famous author, depicted racial segregation in the 1940's through a fictional short story entitled "Battle Royal." Battle Royal symbolized the actions of what "other" people became accustomed to. Blacks were thought to be socially inferior and live in the shadows of whites.
The idea which Ellison uses to paint "Battle Royal" consists of that when one sex or race treats another as an object or animal, both become dehumanized (174). Ellison's use of hidden meanings conveys his theme more effectively. Literary critic, Norman German, creates an interesting spin on "Battle Royal." Published in the CLA (College Language Association) journal in 1988, German emphasizes Ellison's use of animal imagery which graphically stresses his theme (German). The narrator (the main character) struggles with his grandfather's dying words, "Live with your head in the lion's mouth." (The animal symbolism in the quote through his dying grandfather lived his life in the hands of "whites." ) The narrator, although he strongly disagrees, has his grandfather's words embedded in his mind. The constants in the "battle royal" are portrayed as foreign creatures as they are herded "like cattle" into the servant's elevator. German believes, that because the rich white men treat the black men as animals and the naked white woman as a sexual object, it ironically reduces the white men to animals: One man watches the woman dance and holds his arms up like an intoxicated panda, winding his belly in a slow and obscene grind.
The creature was completely hypnotized... The men then sink their beefy fingers into her flesh... Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad.
Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her (178). Ellison's use of language helps imply the animalist ic treatment of the young fighters (German). A writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Michael Eric Dyson, is thoroughly amazed by Ellison's wordplay by saying, "He spoke elegantly of the beautiful absurdity of the American identity (Dyson)." The choice of words Ellison navigate through America's history of ideas (Dyson). The portrayal of fighters emphasize the fact that "blacks" were socially inferior. White's would of never thought to view blacks in the same "league" with them.
At this time, no one could imagine the battle royal happening with white's fighting with an animalist ic intentions, while rich, black men sat smoking cigars, cheering for brutality. By using nouns and adjectives, the description of the young fighting has a deeper, harsher connotation. Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man. The smoke had become think and with each new blow it seemed to sear and further restrict my lungs.
My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood (179). A fellow fighter is said to have "whimpered like a dog over his crushed hand (179)." The brutal action of undergoing a battle royal has the unseen indication that the cigar-smoking whites wanted to take the human out of the blacks and place it with animal instincts. By the use emphatic parts of speech, the story has a stronger sense of the racial mistreatment of blacks.
German also describes the "superior" white men as regarding the blacks along with the white lady as invisible entities (German). The invisible quality suggests that the blacks were invisible from society. Black were held without a voice, even within their own lives. In order to survive the horrible, animalist ic actions by the white men, the naked white women inevitably has to desensitize herself. In order to do so, the naked woman transforms her attitude and mindset into that of a care-less woman. By doing this, the narrator sees her as being impersonal and described her as a kewpie doll (any brightly colored doll, commonly given as a prize at carnivals) wearing an abstract mask (German):" Chairs went crashing, drunks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her.
They caught her as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes (178)." The narrator is compared, and compares himself, to objects as a limp dish rag and a pocket-sized dictionary (German). The hidden intention of the white men was in essence to dehumanize everyone who wasn't them. The symbolism of the cynical white men pressing the black men into fighting for their amusement, calls attention to the social caste system in the South and ultimately prepares the narrator for the cruelness and unpredictability of American life (O'Meally, 80). Actions the narrator and the naked white woman took do not show the type of people they are, but show the type of people the rich, white, upper-class men are.
Ellison takes the event's and the inhumane actions of whites during the 1940's, and puts them into vivid, symbolic writing (Dyson). By doing so, he calls attention to the mistreatment of everyone who was "different" then whites. The hidden intention of the white men was in essence to dehumanize everyone who weren't them. Ellison's invisible themes of race is a way seeing that blacks have always counted on themselves for support in hostile times (Dyson). At one point, the black fighters conned into electrical shock (almost to death), when the whites threw money into a carpeted rug (182. ) That brutal action signifies that the wealthy white men thought of the black fighters as mere objects, not human individuals.
I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me. I tried frantically to remove my hand but couldn't let go. A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified (182). The seemingly unnoticed artistic paring of animal and color imagery reinforces the patters in Ellison's theme and adds an extra quality to his story (German). Ellison doesn't employ symbolism only by animals but through two pairs of colors: black-white and blue-gray.
The black-white pair clearly highlights the racial problems through out the story. During the time period in which this short story was written, racial inequality was widespread. The color "white" was seen to signify everything pure and superior as the color "black" symbolizes everything dirty and wicked (O'Meally, 75). In a drastic fashion, Ellison used this theme to highlight the pressures and inequalities between the black narrator and the white society. The narrators pressures and inequalities are apart when he "humanly" considers, "The harder we fought the more threatening the men became. And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again.
How would it go? Would they (the white men) recognize my ability. What would they give me? (180) " The imagery indicates a white mask over the eyes of the white mans world, but the "black boys" can't see through a white man's eyes, as Ellison indicates by their being blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth (German). The white men seem to only be able to see the color "white," as the black fighters can only see the color "black." The blue-gray theme is evident when the battle royal is fought beneath a cloud of blue-gray smoke, billowing from the hundred's of black cigars smoked by the white men (symbolically the Civil War was fought under these conditions) (German). The narrator was blindfolded and then kicked, battered, hooted, and tricked by phony coins and became soaked with perspiration and placed onto an electrified carpet (O'Meally, 13).
German iterates that once the narrator is struck by another fighter flashes of blue light fill the world behind the blindfold (German). The whites that attended the battle royal are keen to constantly force the helpless blacks to succumb to their every wish, sometimes brutally. Each time he grabbed me I slipped out of his hands. It became a real struggle. I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug.
It was such an enormous idea that I found myself actually carrying it out (182). Gray symbolizes the color of the smoky atmosphere the fighters have to unwillingly breath in. The use of the blue-gray theme emphasizes and symbolizes all the actions that blacks were subjected to in the 1940's. Not often during periods of segregation did writing discuss a major American issue as Ellison has. The unique literary style of hidden meanings creates a more powerful themes and symbolism. Battle Royal takes opposite races (black and white) and weaves the their issues into a web of brutal truth.
Ellison wanted to emphasize that black youths are over-looked and disregarded by a dominant culture that at once loves and hates them (Dyson). Ellison created a everlasting classic because it refused to neglect the cruelty of racial segregation. Racial segregation will still live with in the mind frame of countless Americans and will never totally die, and never will Ralph Ellison's Battle Royal. As quoted by Cornel West in Race Matters, (1993) Ralph Ellison states: Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are.
One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize up on the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the "outsider." Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed and easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term "n g ger" -- it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man's value system but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black. Works Cited West, Cornel. Race Matters.
New York: Random House, Inc, 1994 O'Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980 German, Norman. "Imagery in the "Battle Royal." CLA Journal Vol.
XXXI (2001): 394-399. 11 June 1988 Dyson, Michael E. "Ellison's landmark turns 50." Chicago Sun-Times on the Web 19 Feb. 2002.