What are two specific events in the story "Battle Royal" that are meant to explain certain aspects of the African-American experience before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two specific events from the excerpt "Battle Royal" expressive of the African-American experience prior to the Civil Rights Movement are (1) the dehumanizing exploitation of the young men as mere animals engaged in a violent blind fight, and the placing of the young men into a situation in which they are subjected to humiliation in their natural sexual arousal and their fear lest they violate the laws of segregation which forbid any acts of miscegenation or even looking at a white woman as the naked blonde is placed in their midst. Another event is (2) the narrator's delivery of his graduation speech before the same "gentlemen" who were audience to the fight.

"Battle Royal" is taken from Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible ManĀ in which the unnamed narrator seeks his individual identity in the segregated South and later in Harlem, New York. In this first chapter, Ellison depicts the exploitation of the blacks and even the white woman by the men who hold important social positions--"the town's leading citizens"--men who control their society as well as the scene before them. The young African-American men and the blonde woman are treated as mere objects for their prurient and sadistic pleasure. As the young men fight, they are called all sorts of pejorative names, but they cannot retort anything. "There was nothing to do but what we were told."

Afterwards, the African-American young men are given five dollars each; the final two are rewarded ten each. Then the M.C. knocks on the table to announce that the narrator will deliver his graduation speech. But while he speaks his heartfelt words, the white men continue their talking and laughing. However, when the narrator says "Social equality" instead of "Social responsibility" someone actually hears him, and the M.C. rushes forward, asking him what he just said. The narrator must pretend that he meant to say "responsibility," but because he was swallowing blood from the fight, it did not come out correctly.
"Yet when I finished there was a thunderous applause." And, the narrator is given the prize of a calfskin briefcase as he is told "Boy,...take this prize and keep it well." He is also given a scholarship to "the state college for Negroes."
While the narrator feels "an importance I had never dreamed" of, he is too naive to realize that he is yet surrounded by boundaries outside of which he will not be permitted.