Ellison's "Invisible Man" portrays combat between blacks and whites--both physically and psychologically. Chapter One reflects this through a horrifying incident.
The story describes a horrifying episode in the first-person narrator’s life in a southern town, Greenwood. Ellison’s narrator identifies himself as a “ginger” colored black who has distinguished himself in school, and who has given a superb speech at his high-school graduation ceremony. He has been asked to give the same speech before a meeting of town dignitaries, and goes to the meeting expecting to be received warmly and sympathetically. Instead of such friendliness, he is shown the very worst and most discriminatory vindictiveness of the members of the town’s white power structure.
Instead of friendliness at the meeting of town dignitaries, which the narrator might have expected, he is cast among a dozen boys who are to fight a “battle royal,” or no-holds-barred free-for-all, to amuse the men at the meeting. After being forced to witness a seductive dance by a naked white woman (paragraph 9), the boys are blindfolded and forced to slug it out on the mat. As they swing against each other blindly, the spectators call for blood and insult the boys with all the negative words in the arsenal of racial discrimination. They single out some of the boys for particular punishment.
The affair is a virtual hell for the boys, one of whom seriously injures his hand. The narrator, clearly by the design of those in charge of the meeting, is finally bloodied and knocked down by a bigger boy, and when he gives his speech he is still spitting blood. The plan of the whites is of course not only to exploit the battling boys—the usual case with such organized brawls—but more importantly to put the narrator, as a boy with special talents, in his place.
The major structural development in the story is that of black against white. The other is the outright contempt and mistreatment of the black boys by the white spectators. There is also a broader conflict between oppressor and oppressed, for the white dancer might be included as one of the exploited. When she is tossed in the air it is clear that she, too, is being dehumanized, just like the boys (paragraph 9).
In addition, Ellison brings out the conflict of ordinary male adolescent intimidation, for the boys by no means present an organized and unified front. The larger boy, Tatlock, dramatizes his contempt for the narrator both with words and fists (paragraphs 27-37). We may conclude that Tatlock embodies the hostility and jealousy that the less intelligent often exhibit toward the more intelligent.
In short, the men at the meeting are unbelievably cruel and perverse, and the advice to “know your place at all times” is a reminder that the narrator, no matter how intelligent, is inferior to the most stupid of whites. The narrator is reminded that his role is to be invisible with regard to the white power structure.