In the story "Battle Royal," what is the significance of the electrified carpet covered with bills and coins?

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As the previous Educator mentioned, the electric carpet is not only a symbol of the way in which black people had to demean themselves in order to make a living; it's also a symbol of the mortal risk that existed for upwardly mobile, ambitious black men, like the narrator. The...

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As the previous Educator mentioned, the electric carpet is not only a symbol of the way in which black people had to demean themselves in order to make a living; it's also a symbol of the mortal risk that existed for upwardly mobile, ambitious black men, like the narrator. The message is that these young men, who are scrambling for coins that turn out to be nothing but worthless tokens, can scramble and compete for success in a racist and capitalist system that has been set up against them. In other words, the ring in which the young men box each other during the Battle Royal is a metaphor for the United States, which pits them against each other for nothing more than the illusion of attaining wealth.

Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man in 1952. The postwar period is characterized by a mixture of hopeful progress. A. Philip Randolph successfully led a protest in 1941 that got President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ban discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, and, in 1948, President Truman integrated all branches of the military. Black veterans benefited from the G.I. Bill, but, unlike their white counterparts, they were not given the benefit of moving into any community they wished, and black borrowers, in general, were provided with home mortgages at much higher rates than whites. Additionally, there remained the threat of mortal persecution, which would became particularly evident when Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi, three years after the publication of Ellison's novel.

I suspect that Ellison constructed the Battle Royal scene with this social climate at the forefront of his mind—that is, one in which black men strive for achievement but do so at their own peril.

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The scene shows that even "exemplary" black folks (these young men have won scholarships) are going to experience lives of being forcefully "put in their place" by white society. The idea that they are being celebrated and honored for their achievements is shown to be a mockery. In order to reinforce racism, these young black men have it impressed on them in a painful way that they are in the world for white convenience and amusement.

White youth in a similar situation would have no doubt been given money in a dignified way, but the black young men are humiliated publicly as they try to gather the coins on the electrified carpet. They are being taught not to aspire to equality with whites. They are being shown that the system is rigged against them and that they should not dare to challenge it, because it has been decided ahead of time that they can't win.

In the end, with cruel irony, the young men find out the gold coins they have been eager to gather aren't even real.

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The electrified carpet that is covered in bits of cold and coins and notes is something that the whites in this terrible extract dream up for their own amusement after the boxing match. The sight of the black boys experiencing multiple electric shocks and then also laughing to try and distract themselves as they gather up money is truly pitiful, especially in the way that the text describes it:

Laughing embarrassedly, we struggled out of their hands and kept after the coins. We were all wet and slippery and hard to hold. Suddenly I saw a boy lifted into the air,
glistening with sweat like a circus seat, and dropped, his wet back
landing flush upon the charged rug, heard him yell and saw him literally dance upon his back, his elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by many flies. When be finally rolled off, his face was gray and no one stopped him when he ran from the floor amid booming laughter.

Clearly, the sadistic implications of this scene are rather disturbing when we consider how the whites are enjoying the torture of these black boys, and the racial overtones of the scene make it even more disturbing. However, you might like to consider the significance of what is happening and how it acts as a symbol of white-black interaction at the time. The blacks are forced to experience pain and embarrassment as they try and get the coins that are available to them for the amusement of the whites. They are in a situation where they have to demean themselves to make a living, which is of course exactly what African-Americans had to do back then.

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