In Ralph Ellison's Battle Royal, what is the significance of the electrified rug covered with bills and coins? How does this scene show the power dynamic between the white men and the black boys?
Ralph Ellison's short story Battle Royal is a serious indictment of those who sought to play 'the white man's game' in the misguided belief that such conduct would somehow ingratiate oneself into the white man's good graces. Ellison's story is all about the degradations to which blacks were routinely subjected at the hands of whites, and about that misguided belief against which the story's narrator's father had been warned by his dying grandfather. On his deathbed, the grandfather had warned the narrator's father:
"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."
What the grandfather was saying was that any attempt at placating whites through attempts at assimilation into white culture would not only fail, but would further degrade the spirit of the blacks who feigned such desires. A more confrontational style that may lack indications of good breeding yet which preserved black pride was the more rational course to pursue.
The narrator of Ellison's story has not abided his grandfather's warning; on the contrary, he has pursued the road of least resistance in the hopes of being accepted by whites, even at the expense of faith and pride in his own ethnicity. The narrator, however, is not unaware of the paradoxical nature of his character. As the following passage reveals, he is fully cognizant of the questionable nature of the path he has heretofore followed:
"I was praised by the most lily-white men in town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct-just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act any other way because they didn't like that at all."
This lengthy passage from Battle Royal illuminates the moral and emotional quandary in which many blacks found themselves. Those who tried to assimilate were doomed to fail. The white establishment would not have it any other way. The battle that awaits, however, the "Battle Royal," will expose the nature of the whites who assume an intellectual, physical and moral superiority over blacks that is belied by their actual conduct. And, the narrator plays right into the whites' collective hands, presuming to his own level of superiority over other, less educated and erudite blacks. As he relates in the build-up to the start of the battle, a battle that will precede the narrator's address before the assembled elites of white society:
"I had some misgivings over the battle royal, by the way. Not from a distaste for fighting but because I didn't care too much for the other fellows who were to take part. . .No one could mistake their toughness. And besides, I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington. But the other fellows didn't care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way."
Against this concentration of poor, uneducated blacks is arrayed the cream of white society. "They were all there-bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants," the narrator notes, while further describing these white elites as drunken buffoons compelled to denigrate these black men for their own amusement. It is the blindfolds placed on the heads of the blacks, however, that proves something of an equalizer. The blindfolds eliminate the distinctions between the narrator and the other blacks. As he describes the sensation of being deprived of his sight, "now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness, it was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths."
It is during the scene in which the blacks are humiliated by being presented with the appearance of a beautiful, blonde-haired white woman writhing naked before them--an exercise in the most basest of human degradation--that the narrator witnesses most sharply the depths to which blacks have descended in this post-abolition society. The sight of one of the scantily-clad black men trying futilely to conceal his natural and anticipated response to the woman's appearance is designed to further illuminate the irony in the white elite's sense of values and ideas of entertainment.
And then comes the Battle Royal, the denigrating, brutal subjugation of blacks at each other's hand for the entertainment of those who assume themselves to be morally and intellectually superior to their "entertainers." After the narrator is beaten by Tatlock, the rug is rolled out, on which, the blacks are led to believe, are coins and other forms of wealth. Note the narrator's description of the scene:
Looking up front, I saw attendants in white jackets rolling the Portable ring away and placing a small square rug in the vacant space surrounded by chain. Perhaps, I thought, I will stand on the mg to deliver my speech. Then the M.C. called to us. "Come on up here boys and get your money."
And then the narrator hears a "blond man" address him, saying, "That's right, Sambo," to which the narrator responds, "I trembled with excitement, forgetting my pain. I would get the gold and the bills." The narrator has now solidified his status as the worst of the blacks; he has pretended to a stature that was only a mirage. The whites were not going to let him assimilate into their society, and he was the more pathetic of the assembled figures, black and white, for his delusions of grander at the expense of his fellow African Americans.
So, what is the importance of the rug with the fake money? By degrading the blacks and then further humiliating them by letting them believe that they could attain wealth if only they further brutalized each other, the whites were demonstrating their continued subjugation of blacks. Again, note that description of the scene: a small square rug surrounded by chains. Boxing rings are surrounded by ropes, not chains. Chains, however, symbolize the slavery from which these "emancipated" blacks have ascended. And, by having the blacks brutalize each other for the chimera of wealth, the whites have further humiliated them. These blacks only think that they are free, just as the emancipated slaves from earlier generations had been led to believe that they were truly free, when they were still far removed from white conceptions of liberty. Humiliation and delusion: That is what the rug is about.