The short story “Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison is a disturbing story about the conflicts between the black and white cultures and the main character and himself. In the story the conflicts between the two cultures had a definite impact on how the main character saw himself and caused the conflicts within himself. “Battle Royal” deals with racism and the suppression of the African American race and how it effected the actions of that culture. The main character of the story is an African American raised in a predominately white area in the early 1950’s, where there was very little acceptance of non-white cultures. Throughout the story the character goes through an extreme revelation about how he was taught by the white culture to perceive himself and who he truly was as an African American male. In the exposition of the story or “background information” the main character talks about his grandfather and what he told his grandson on his deathbed about dealing with the white people.
“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” (185). At first when his grandfather said this to the main character he didn’t understand, but by the Fitzke, page 2 conclusion of the story both he and the reader can see what the grandfather was trying to tell him. The grandfather was talking about one of the main aspects of the short story, the conflict between the black and white cultures. The grandfather called himself a “traitor” to the white society because he would go along with what the white man said even though he did not want to. During the time in which this short story was written, the early 1950’s, the African American culture, even though they were free, still had very few rights under the law.
The white culture or society mistreated and abused the African American’s with racial slurs and putting them as inferior to their own culture. There are several examples of this in the short story “Battle Royal.” The white men at the boxing rink got pleasure from watching the black males beat each other to a pulp and receive painful shocks when they try to get the money they were promised. “And while I still held him I butted him and moved away. I felt myself bombarded with punches. I fought back with hopeless desperation.
I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything else in the world” (191). This is obvious mistreatment of other human beings and would today be unacceptable in society. The fact that the black males were willing to participate in such a degrading and inhumane activity raises the important question, why? Why would they subject themselves to this kind of treatment? What would compel the black males to treat others of their own race so cruelly, merely for the pleasure of drunk, racist, white men? The answer to what compelled the black men is obvious, they did as the white men said to achieve a different goal, and they were traitors to the white men. The main character’s Fitzke, page 3 participation in the battle won him money and the chance to give a speech. This speech ended up winning him a scholarship to the State College for Negroes and without even realizing it, he had been a traitor to the white men.
The main conflict in the story is described primarily in the racist treatment of the white culture towards the African American culture. This conflict between the two races is not very apparent in the story because the African Americans do not fight back with violence, but rather with submission. The main character’s silence seems to gain him the passage to a better future, or does it? The second aspect of the short story “Battle Royal” is the conflict between the character and himself. “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory.
I was nave. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I could answer” (185). As the main character was giving his speech he came upon a revelation that what he truly was fighting for was not just to give his speech, but for equality, and he even accidentally proclaimed this when he was speaking. Throughout the entirety of the story the main character had been trying to prove his self worth to the white men, when really he was trying to prove his worth to himself. Another example of his revelation is when he realized that the fight against the white men would never end.
“‘Them’s years,’ he said. ‘Now open that one.’ And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold. ‘Read it,’ my grandfather said. ‘Out loud.’ ‘To Whom It Fitzke, page 4 May Concern,’ I intoned. ‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.'” The main character is actually dreaming this scene, but it is still extremely significant to the story. This dream shows that the main character realizes that the white race would always continue to suppress the African Americans and where they think they have gained so much they have only gained a small amount. After this revelation it is easy to assume that he would no longer look to white men for their approval and judgment, but rather to look to himself.
The two aspects black vs. white and the character vs. himself are related in the story in how the conflict of these two aspects affected the main character of the story. Because of the suppression of the African American culture by the white culture the main character felt that he needed to have the white man’s approval to prove his self worth. Strangely enough, even though he thought he needed the white man’s approval, subconsciously he still resisted the white men’s control. “Then on a sudden impulse I struck him lightly and as we clinched, I whispered, ‘Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.’ ‘I’ll break your behind,’ he whispered hoarsely.
‘For them?’ ‘For me, sonofabitch!'” (190). In this part of the short story the main character was obviously trying to deceive the white men, or in other words, he was a traitor. In another part of the story the main character’s subconscious mind still resisted the white men, but this time it was in conflict with himself. “A lucky blow to his chin and I had him going too – until I heard a loud voice yell, ‘I got my money on the big boy.’ Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would this Fitzke, page 5 not go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance?” (191).
Overall, even with the racism and suppression of the white men the main character still discovered who he truly was and by doing this he lessened the conflict between the white men and himself. While he did not dissolve the conflict between the two races he lessened it by not letting the white men control his mind. The society that the main character lived in had a definite impact on his actions. At first his actions were negative because he let the white men control him and his culture. After his revelation though he realized that he could not let the white men treat him or his race like they were inferior and he would keep up the “good fight” as his grandfather had asked on his deathbed.