“Battle Royal,” published as a short story and then as the first chapter in The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison presents the main character, the unnamed young, black narrator. The story takes place in the 1930s in a town which is fully segregated. Told by the older narrator, he reminiscences about his early life.
The initial incident in the story concerns the death of the protagonist’s grandfather. On his death bed, the grandfather purports to being a spy in the white man’s world. The old man explains that the life of the black man is a war to gain their independence. He became whatever the white world wanted him to be. It is unclear to whom he feels he has betrayed: his race, himself, or his family.
He advises his children to maintain two identities: the bitter, resentful part of themselves and the stereotypical model of the meek, subservient Negro. From this model, his descendants can protect their personal self-respect, yet internally despise the second-class citizen status given by the white man.
The narrator is haunted by his grandfather’s statements. Pretending to the whites to be something that he is not becomes a way of life for the black man, but the advice confuses the narrator. It is not until the later events of the story that the grandfather’s message is carried to fruition, without the young narrator recognizing it. That is where the grandfather's advice becomes significant to the story.
There are six events that occur in the story: the grandfather’s deathbed advice; the invitation and to and attendance of the big event; the blonde stripper’s dance; the actual battle royal; the speech; and the dream. As each event occurs, the reader becomes aware of the narrator’s innocence and the truth of the grandfather’s instructions. Viewing the advice as though it was a curse, the young man unknowingly does exactly as his grandfather told him. He dances to the white man’s music to please them.
In the battle royal, the young men fight with white men’s blindfolds, cavorting and moving with the white man’s laughter in their ears. The fighting is both terrible and bizarre. In the end, the last two--including the main character--are made to fight until one of them is forced to give up. It is the narrator who succumbs. More than ever, the reaching for the electrified coins adds to the humiliation provided by the white men for the young black men. It makes the reader wonder whether the same treatment would occur if the boys were white.
Just as the narrator believes that he will not get to give his speech, the superintendent of schools who has been a part of the horrific proceedings calls the narrator up. Despite his battle wounds, he begins to speak. Many of the white men continue to talk during his speech; however, there are some who listen. One incident gets the attention of the audience:
What’s the word you say, boy?
Social responsibility,’ I said.
‘What?’’ they yelled.
His speech represents the final humiliation before this crowd of rude and racist white men. In his heart, he knows that he has played the fool; yet, he is grateful for his scholarship.
The last event comes from the exhausted narrator's dream that same night. In it the narrator continues to dance the white man’s dance. His final statement in the dream becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Keep This N……-Boy Running.” The grandfather’s laughter completes the degradation of the night and predicts the future.
The grandfather's advice is significant in the beginning of the story because it foreshadows the inevitable mistreatment and humiliation of the narrator at the hands of white men later in his life. This foreshadowing shows how a black man at that time had an inescapable future, no matter how hard he tried to change his fate.