Explain the motif of "blindness" in the short story "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” was originally published as a short story.  Later, the author included the story as the first chapter of his acclaimed book The Invisibile Man. The main character, a young, unnamed black boy, narrates the story in first person.

The story takes place in  the 1930s.  Segregation is the rule of the white man’s world.  The narrator’s dying grandfather describes race relations as a “war” that has not been won.  He also maintains that the black struggle is the “good fight.” 

The dying grandfather tells the narrator’s father that he feels like a traitor.  He has been whatever the white man wanted him to be to get ahead.  The grandfather’s advice is to make the white man feel that he is agreeable to their wishes and “agree ’em to death and destruction.”

Blindness is a recurring theme in the story.  Ellison’s idea is that people avoid seeing and facing the truth.  The narrator repeatedly mentions that people have the ability to ignore what they do not want to see.  It is the prejudice that enters the mindset and allows the blindness to take over.  Because of this, the black man has been forced into a life of invisibility.  Prejudice is a form of blindness.

The young men who fight in the “battle royal” wear blindfolds to enhance the hilarity of the situation for the white men. The battle royal symbolizes the struggle for equality for the black culture.  The blindfolds represent their powerlessness; in addition, most of the boys fail to recognize their manipulation at the hands of the white elite. 

The white men exhibit a blind hatred of the black boys. Even though the boys do not understand the fight, they yell at each other, randomly and blindly hitting one another following the instructions of the white authorities.

The narrator gives his reactions:

“Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity.  I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man.”

“Get going, black boy! Mix it up!”

The men kept yelling, “Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!”

Feeling there is no other choice, the black boys fight each other like animals which was exactly what the white men wanted.

The narrator is completely blindsided by the battle royal.  He believes that his only reason for being at the event was to give his graduation speech.  Previously, he  received acclaim for the speech; now, he hopes that it would impress his white audience.  Stunned and physically hurt by the fighting events, it is only after the battle that he is able to perform his speech. 

White prejudice rears its blind head as the boy gives his oration.  The men yell and talk during the speech.  They stop him as he speaks and ask him to repeat what he has said.  When he mentions social responsibility, one of the men thinks that he is talking about equality which could be an indictment of the white men.  Explaining his point, the young man finishes his speech to applause.  The prize is a scholarship to a black college.

The white men are the most blind in the story.  Their inability to perceive that the black boy is talented indicates their thoughtlessness.  The narrator is talented not just for a “black boy” but for a young man white or black.  Prejudice is blindness in its deepest form.  Until the men are able to see the young men as human beings and not as a separate race, the black boys will not rise from their invisibility.