Because Ellison's Invisible Man, from which "Battle Royal" is taken, offers a complex and nearly comprehensive indictment of racism in early twentieth-century America, multiple thesis statements could work for an essay on the chapter. One that seems to address several elements in the story concerns the ability of the narrator (or the black man) to have agency in his life, as opposed to be played for a fool, a token "Uncle Tom," an entertainer, or a confirmation of stereotypes about his race.
Much of the novel, and certainly this chapter, centers on the narrator's growing awareness of his perceived place in society. In this chapter, the young narrator believes he has achieved something through discipline, hard work, and conformity that will allow him to move upwards in society. He believes he has been nominated to speak in front of the white business owners at this event, delivering his graduation speech:
On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.
This entirely non-threatening appeal serves the conscience and the policy of these white members, who in exchange for this speech bestow a briefcase and a scholarship to the Negro college. Because he is praised for his speech, the narrator foolishly thinks he possesses dignity among these men, who include his school's superintendent. This man had invited the narrator to deliver his speech, but also lumps him among "the shines" who will take part in the Battle Royal.
At one point in the speech, however, the narrator—who is physically damaged from the boxing match and is swallowing blood—stumbles on his speech's words, which he is nearly shouting to be heard over the din of conversation in the audience. Being pressed by the audience to say "social responsibility" ever louder, he accidentally says "social equality." This slip of the tongue reflects the eventual growth the narrator will make from believing his role is to conform and seek individual advancement over other members of his race to instead seek a change in the social dynamics that insist on inequality of races and that the narrator "know [his] place at all times."
The nightmare the narrator experiences at the end of the story addresses this same problem. No matter how many awards given by white people, no matter how complacent one is to social inequality while pursuing one's individual success, others have the power to define the person of color in America and to insist they perform like clowns at a circus. Like the fake gold coins the young men struggle to snatch from the electrified mat, the accolades earned from white society are false promises of advancement and are certainly not meant to promote equality. After years of obedient complacency, the narrator finds that society is not on his side at all.
One thesis for "The Battle Royal" should include the idea of exploitation in racism.
Though the focus of the narrative is on racial exploitation, the exploitation of women is also evinced with the introduction in which a drunken and nude white female dancer comes out. The cigar-smoking and whiskey-drinking men, who are the community's leading white citizens, try to grope her and force the frightened black high school boys to look at her--an act for which black males could be hanged in the South--but she makes her escape. Then, nine young African American males are blindfolded and made to box one another for the amusement of their white audience. Finally, only the narrator is left with the biggest fighter named Tatlock; the narrator tries to bribe Tatlock, but the mean fighter refuses and the narrator is knocked out.
After this event, the same young men are invited to grab as many gold coins as they can off a rug. But, when they try to pick up the coins, they receive electric shocks as the rug has been wired underneath, so they are again exploited for the delight of the white men.
Later, the narrator gives his graduation speech before an audience of prominent citizens who applaud his words that underscore blacks' acceptance of the social ranks until the narrator, whose mouth is sore from his fighting, says "social equality" instead of "social responsibility" and a threatening silence emanates from the audience. Then, when he corrects himself, the audience applauds. That evening, he brings home a briefcase given him along with a scholarship to the "Negro" college.
That night the narrator dreams about going to a circus with his grandfather, a place where many are exploited. His grandfather finds no delight in the acts, including those of the clowns. Later, his grandfather tells the narrator to open the briefcase that he received with his scholarship. Inside is an official envelope with a state seal. This envelope has another inside it which contains a note that reads, “To Whom It May Concern . . . Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
Clearly, with the actions of the audience, whether in the forcing of the black males to look at the nude white woman, in the boxing match, in the competition for gold coins, or in the auditorium where the graduation speech is given, elements of exploitation--both racist and sexist--are apparent. This could form the basis of a thesis statement on "Battle Royal."
There are many different thesis statements which one could use to examine racism in Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal."
1. Racism plays a very important role in the movement of the Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal."
2. The role of racism, in Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal." affects the incidents portrayed in the text.
3. The narrator of Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal" must come to understand the effect which racism has on in society before he is able to make a change in his life.
4. One does not need to look very deeply in Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal" to find different elements and examples of racism.
5. The narrator of Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal" feels so alienated by society given his race that he feels as if he must regard himself as an "invisible man."
6. The protagonist in Ralph Ellison's Short story "Battle Royal" embraces his invisibility as a way to survive in a world which embraces racism.