Mrs. Rowena Southard
20 September 2009
Race, Racism, and Politics in Battle Royal
The story of Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison is a story of the archetypal experience of the African-American in post-slavery America. The narrator’s journey into the world of Jim Crow shows us the dark, ugly side of American race relations. His treatment at the hands of white society is indicative of the wider social and political issues of the day. The significance of the story can only be truly appreciated by viewing it in the context of history. Imagery, symbolism, and first person narration are used to illustrate how political and economic disenfranchisement affected the lives of individual African-Americans.
The story begins with the dying grandfather’s last words to the narrator’s father:
“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.”
This philosophy of accommodating the white man “to death” was prevalent before the more radical activism of the Civil Rights movement. This philosophy of accommodation was popular with many prominent figures of the white community and espoused by prominent African-American figures like Booker T. Washington, who was instrumental in establishing the Tuskegee University, Ralph Ellison’s alma mater. The protagonist also receives a scholarship to an all black college clearly modeled on the Tuskegee Institute. The narrator clearly subscribes to Washington’s philosophy of accommodation and patience, as evidenced by the speech he delivers that states that “humility is the secret.” (244) This was widely regarded as the “proper” course for the black community to take in seeking to gain equal footing with the white community.
At the time this story was published (1947), there was no real civil rights movement. The predominant view was that of Booker T. Washington, who...