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Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal” can be compared and contrasted with M. Carl Holman’s poem “Mr. Z” in a number of ways, including the following:
- Holman’s poem is about an African American man who chose, during his youth, to adapt himself as much as possible to the demands and expectations of white culture. Although his skin was black, he essentially chose to live as an upper-class white. In contrast, Ellison’s story is about a youth who seems tempted to behave as “Mr. Z.” does, but who finally decides to choose a very different path – a path of resistance and lack of compromise.
- Mr. Z, in his youth, like the protagonist of Ellison’s story, is educationally accomplished. He uses his intelligence to make a secure place for himself in white society. Ellison’s protagonist, on the other hand, never really has the chance to use his intelligence in such a way. He may think that he will be admired for his talents, but in fact the ceremony supposedly designed to honor him has precisely the opposite effect.
- Mr. Z leads a relatively calm and untroubled life. He achieves his goals of being accepted by most whites; he even marries a white woman. In contrast, Ellison’s protagonist is abused and humiliated at an early age by a group of mean-spirited, racist whites. He is never given the chance to blend into white culture and society as Mr. Z is able to do.
- Both the story and the poem end on notes suggesting that the racial identity of African Americans is something they are never allowed, by white society, to forget or escape. In the case, of Mr. Z, this insistence on racial identity persists even after he has died:
Not one false note was struck—until he died:
His subtly grieving widow could have flayed
The obit writers, ringing crude changes on a clumsy phrase:
“One of the most distinguished members of his race.” (23-26)
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