The short story "A Party Down at the Square" by Ralph Ellison is narrated by a white boy from Cincinnati. On a dark, cold, rainy night he accompanies his uncle down to the town square to watch the townspeople murder an African-American man. The black man is tied up, and...
The short story "A Party Down at the Square" by Ralph Ellison is narrated by a white boy from Cincinnati. On a dark, cold, rainy night he accompanies his uncle down to the town square to watch the townspeople murder an African-American man. The black man is tied up, and a man named Jed Wilson, who is popular and probably going to be elected sheriff, taunts him and leads the other townspeople in building a fire and burning the black man with it. In the midst of this horrific mob scene, an airplane, presumably attracted by the light of the fire, descends upon the town, snapping power lines, one of which electrocutes a white woman. The mob quickly turns its attention back to the black man, though, and mercilessly burns him alive. After the black man dies, the young narrator feels sick and vomits, and he feels too weak to go out the next day. His uncle makes fun of him for his weakness.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to dehumanize is "to deprive (someone or something) of human qualities, personality, or dignity: such as to subject (someone, such as a prisoner) to conditions or treatment that are inhuman or degrading; or to address or portray (someone) in a way that obscures or demeans that person's humanity or individuality."
There are numerous examples of dehumanization in the narrator's telling of this story. First of all, he repeatedly uses the N-word when referencing African Americans, and differentiates black people and "white folks" as if they are not both simply human beings. Using the N-word, even back when the story takes place, indicates disdain for black people.
The narrator also manifests dehumanization when he describes the murder as a form of entertainment that all the white people in the town come out for and participate in. Even when he begins to be disgusted and sickened by it, he continues to watch. This is an example of the "bystander effect," a psychological term that defines the phenomenon of people in a large crowd being unwilling to help victims of injustice. In fact, observing it and doing nothing causes onlookers to become desensitized to violence, so that even horrific deeds such as the events in the story do not affect them so much.
A grotesque example of dehumanization is when the narrator compares the victim's terribly burned skin to the meat at a barbecue. However, this does not cause him to feel sympathy for the black man; instead, he merely comments that he always thinks about it when he goes to a barbecue. Additionally, when the narrator discusses the killing of blacks in the last paragraph it is not in a tone that is sympathetic to those being killed, but rather to how much the killings will benefit or not benefit white people.
The emotional response of a sensitive reader to all of this dehumanization will be to realize how wrong it is and to feel sympathy and understanding for the African Americans who were the real victims of tragedies like these.