In "Battle Royal," what is the significance of the grandfather's dying speech in relation to the narrator's speech/boxing match?

The dying grandfather's speech in "Battle Royal" advises fighting white people in society by smiling and going along with them. This will beat them at their own game. The narrator does this in his boxing match by allowing himself to be humiliated. He also does this in his graduation speech by replacing the word "equality" with the word "responsibility." In return, he earns a scholarship to a black college. He has a dream, however, that questions this strategy.

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The narrator's dying grandfather conveys his anger at white people to his grandson. However, he tells him to fight white people by pretending to go along with them. This way, the grandfather says, the grandson can beat them at their own game:

I want you to overcome 'em with yeses,...

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The narrator's dying grandfather conveys his anger at white people to his grandson. However, he tells him to fight white people by pretending to go along with them. This way, the grandfather says, the grandson can beat them at their own game:

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.

In other words, he is advising his grandson not to give white people any excuses to hurt him while secretly doing all he can to undermine them.

The narrator puts this philosophy into practice when he is asked to make a high school graduation speech before some important white men in his town. He and other young black men are being honored for their achievements. Before he gives the speech, however, he and the other black teens are forced through humiliations for the amusement of white people. These include boxing blindfolded and picking up money from a rug that gives them electric shocks. During his speech, the narrator is forced to keep repeating the words "social responsibility" over and over. When he accidentally says "equality" rather than "responsibility," he has to quickly change his words when the white audience becomes upset.

The narrator is terrified and humiliated by his experience, but he is nevertheless glad to have achieved his goal of a scholarship to a black college. His family is proud of him. That night, however, he dreams of his grandfather laughing as he has to open envelopes similar to the one that held his scholarship. In the dream, it says inside the final envelope, "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." This calls into question the value of accommodating himself to a white society that will always make sure he doesn't have a fair chance to succeed.

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The short speech the narrator's grandfather delivers on his deathbed haunts the narrator throughout the entirety of Invisible Man. The narrator's grandfather is described as having always been meek and mild, but he suddenly becomes fiery and aggressive right before he dies in this scene. The narrator recalls,

On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "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. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. 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."

The grandfather seems to express some regret about how he's lived his life and wants his son and his grandson in turn to try a different strategy to fight the racism and discrimination the grandfather has faced. However, he does tell his son to rebel through "yeses," "grins," and "agree[ment]." The grandfather suggests that this will eventually lead the white man to "swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open," meaning the black man's enthusiastic acquiescence will eventually destroy the white man. Naturally, this contradictory message confuses the narrator, and he is never really sure how to make sense of, let alone follow, this directive.

In the "Battle Royal," which occurs later in the same chapter, the narrator is invited to give a speech, which he has already delivered at his high school graduation, to a group of prominent white men. When he arrives, though, he is blindfolded and forced to fight in a boxing tournament with a bunch of other young black men. They fight for the entertainment of the white men. After the battle, they are forced to try to get money from an electrified rug and are shocked repeatedly. Even during these horrific and demeaning experiences, the narrator wants to deliver his speech, and he does so, though he is beaten and bloodied.

Ralph Ellison sets up the young narrator as an aspiring Booker T. Washington, who was criticized by later black intellectuals for emphasizing labor over education as a form of assimilation. The narrator's speech is mostly agreeable to the white men (he was invited to deliver it, after all), but he slips once and says the word "equality" instead of "responsibility." He is challenged by the audience before he "corrects" himself. This small error shows that the narrator instinctively wants to fight for his equal rights and place in society but he also is too meek to rebel outwardly at this time. In this manner, he acts in a way that is agreeable to the white man, that offers the white man "yeses," as his grandfather suggested. At the end of the chapter, the narrator has a nightmare in which his grandfather is laughing at him and the narrator must open a series of envelopes which eventually lead to the message that whomever it may concern should "keep [the narrator] running." This dream reveals the narrator's confusion and anxiety about his grandfather's deathbed speech, and it proves to be predictive in the sense that the rest of the novel depicts the narrator running from one potential opportunity to another, without ever feeling truly equal or fulfilled.

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In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator is troubled by the words of his dying grandfather. In essence, his grandfather advises him to perpetuate dual existence – an outward conventionality and an inward rebellion. He instructs him to always offer courteous and submissive responses to whites, while inwardly scheming to overcome the oppression that they impose on blacks.  Initially, the narrator dismisses his grandfather’s words as idiotic rambling.

 

On the night of the battle royal, the narrator is forced to at least contemplate his grandfather’s words. When the young black men are blindfolded and thrown together to viciously fight one another for the white men’s pleasure, the narrator is mortified. Still, he composes himself and delivers his graduation speech to the boisterous crowd.  In this instance, he offers words of submission and humility despite his feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction.  He behaves contentedly although he suffers in misery. The audience, composed of white men, accepts the duplicity and rewards it with a gift and a scholarship to college.

 

 

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