The term battle royal refers to fights to the death between gladiators in ancient Rome. The term later applied to the pre-Civil War period in the United States when slaves, frequently blindfolded, were pitted against one another in boxing matches.
In Ralph Ellison’s story “Battle Royal,” which became the opening chapter of his novel Invisible Man, the narrator has been invited to give his graduation speech before a group of white men in the community. When he arrives, he enters the main ballroom of the town’s leading hotel, only to be told that he and some of his schoolmates were to fight the battle royal “as part of the entertainment” prior to the speech. The narrator ironically worries that participating in the battle royal “might detract from the dignity of [his] speech.” Nevertheless, he naively goes along with the activity, even after one of his schoolmates argue with him that he has taken the spot of one of their friends, taking away “a night’s work.” At this point he has no idea what degradation awaits him, and he goes along, probably because he wants so badly to give his speech and—he thinks—gain the respect of the community. He is “overjoyed” when he receives the scholarship toward the end of the story but then he dreams of his grandfather, who, on his deathbed, had encouraged the narrator not to be docile and cooperative with the white man. As the story ends, the narrator admits he had no understanding of his grandfather’s meaning; ironically, he must go to college first. This ends the story but leads into the rest of the novel Invisible Man.