Explain the difference between "social responsibility and social equality" in "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Battle Royal” is the first chapter of the acclaimed novel The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The narrator, now a 40 year old man, looks back at his high school graduation speech that was given to acclaim. This incident has haunted him for all of his adult life.  

The narrator is asked to repeat his speech at a meeting of the town’s well-to-do white men. By the time, the narrator arrives at the meeting, most of the white men have already had too much to drink.   Extremely nervous, the main character has to go through a night of “hell” before he actually performs his speech.

Several boys have been asked to compete in the Battle Royal. The young men are blindfolded and taken into a large area in front of the white men.  The narrator and the others  are to eliminate the other contestants anyway they can.  The last two standing will fight until the other one has been defeated.  The narrator is one of the last two, but is soundly beaten by a much larger boy.

The white men have been thoroughly entertained by making these young black men look like fools.  The narrator’s mouth is bleeding, but he is still unhappy that he was unable to deliver his speech.  The School Superintendent remembers the boy and the speech. Despite his bleeding mouth, his name is announced and he begins to recite his speech.

As the narrator speaks, many of the men continue to talk.  He is asked to speak up.  They continue to ignore him as he quotes verbatim large sections of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address. During the speech, the narrator repeats the phrase “social responsibility” several times.  However, he accidentally says “social equality’.  Then there is silence.  The white men demand that the young man explain himself. 

‘Say that slowly, son!’

‘What, sir?’

‘What you just said’

‘Social responsibility, sir,’ I said.

‘You weren’t being smart, were you boy?’

‘No, sir!’

‘You sure that about equality was a mistake?’

‘Oh, yes, sir. I was swallowing blood.’

Why would the white men react so strongly to social equality versus social responsibility? What is the difference?

Social responsibility implies that men feel obligated to help those in need.  How would these men assume social responsibility?

  • They would attend church and contribute.
  • They would contribute to charities.
  • Their wives would volunteer to help others.
  • They would give money in isolated instances.

That would be their social obligations. The idea is that if someone has plenty, then he should share what he has with those who have little.

Social equality is entirely different. During the 1940s, white society still had not changed attitudes to accept the black man as an equal. Despite his explanation of the words being a mistake, somewhere in his subconscious, the narrator meant for these men to think about social equality.

These white men did not feel that the black men were equal to them.  A young black man telling this group of upper class white men that they were socially equal with him or even questioning equality to imply that there was sameness or likeness between the two races was not acceptable.

Because of the degradation from Battle Royal, the white townspeople see the narrator as an absolute inferior. This sudden hostility reveals the limitations of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy: the narrator’s blind obedience to the good slave role does not free him from racism.