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...
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.