Battle Royal; or, The Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison
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What do the grandfather's last words mean in "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison?

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The narrator's grandfather's last words, uttered to the narrator's father, are as follows: 

Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller [sic] you till they vomit or bust wide open" (16).

The narrator precedes this recollection by describing his grandfather as a meek man who, along with the narrator's grandmother, "stayed in [his] place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same" (16). His final words diverged so much from whom they had known him to be that "younger children were rushed from the room, the shades drawn" (16). 

His words contain a sense of being conflicted: he describes himself as "[keeping] up the good fight" in a war against white supremacy, but he also describes himself as a "traitor." Ellison is suggesting that the narrator's grandfather, like some black men of his generation, was not averse to betraying other blacks in order to survive or advance himself and his family. This willingness to be complicit in certain aspects of white supremacy is morally questionable, but it was the only defense that he had after giving up his means of self-defense. The end of Reconstruction, marked by the Compromise of 1877, was the death knell for racial equality in the South and, arguably, the rest of the nation.

To live with one's head in the lion's mouth is to live with an awareness and acceptance of being at the mercy of a force much greater than you while still being willing to contend with that force.

Grandfather's belief in being agreeable to the point of obsequiousness is a form of subterfuge. If black people are exemplary and polite, even in the face of torment, it undermines everything white society wants to believe about them. In other words, it dismantles racism and, in turn, dismantles racists.

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Dealing with the grandfather's deathbed speech to his son wherein he tells his son to live "with your head in the lion's mouth" and that "our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days," we can point again to an important contrast between the grandfather's highly developed self-awareness and cynicism and the narrator's blind sense of faith in the good intentions of others. 

The grandfather suggests with his literal last words (as opposed to his final words in the chapter, dealt with above) two essential ideas. First, Blacks and Whites exist on two sides of a conflicted divide. Second, the best course of action and attitude for a Black man to take is to be always aware of this divide. 

The narrator does not understand such a point of view but the course of his life as told in the novel demonstrates what his lack of understanding can lead to as he is exploited and betrayed by those who he believes to be on his side. 

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The narrator of the story in Ellison's Invisible Man is very different from his grandfather. Where the narrator is naive and hopeful that he will be able to succeed and get ahead on the terms set by those in power, the grandfather is deeply cynical. He does not trust White authority and does not, it would seem, believe in any real altruism or generosity on the part of that same authority. 

When the narrator is subjected to electric shock, humiliation and physical punishment before giving a speech praising an race politic of appeasement and humility, he is entirely unaware of the irony of his situation. He goes home with a scholarship and a briefcase and is happy.

The narrator has been co-opted, to use a term from critical theory. He has identified his own goals with those selected for him and preferred for he and his kind by the White authority. He has, basically, agreed to be patronized by interpreting the events of the evening in a compartmental fashion.

Far from regretting the terrors of the evening, the narrator reflects only on his "triumph" at receiving a scholarship.

"I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile."

As long as the narrator is willing to accept the gifts and praise of White men like these, he will be subjected to their terrors as well (just as he was in the course of the evening).

This is what the grandfather's last words are intended to convey. The narrator will be kept running in ways that parallel the painful and humiliating ways he was kept running in order to earn his briefcase.

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