What happens in Battle Royal?

In Battle Royal, the narrator is blindfolded and thrown into a boxing ring for the amusement of a group of tuxedo-clad white men. Beaten and bloodied, he is then forced to deliver a speech about the importance of meekness and education to African Americans.

  • The narrator's grandfather gives him a piece of advice: to pretend to be meek and servile around white men so that one day he will be in a position to undermine the status quo.

  • The narrator is invited to a party where he's later blindfolded, pushed into a boxing ring,  pitted against other African American boys, and beaten to a pulp. His "reward" is placed in an electrified circle, where he collects "coins" that turn out to be brass.

  • After the battle royal, the narrator delivers a speech about the importance of education in the lives of young black man. This speech also emphasizes that black men should defer to white men in all matters. For this speech, he's awarded a scholarship to college.

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"Battle Royal" is the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man. Powerful enough to stand on its own as a short story, the chapter was published in 1947, nearly five years before the publication of Invisible Man. “Battle Royal” is set in the deep South in the late 1920s or early 1930s. It begins as the narrator remembers his grandfather’s deathbed advice about fighting racism:

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... Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

The narrator takes this advice to heart without truly understanding what it means. As he grows up, he feels guilty and unsure of his acceptance by white people, despite being “considered an example of desirable conduct” “by the most lily-white men in town.”

At his high school graduation, the narrator gives a speech stating that “humility [is] the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.” He is asked to deliver this speech again the next day “at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens.” The gathering takes place in a hotel ballroom, and the narrator discovers upon arrival that the event is a smoker, a kind of illegal and unregulated boxing match common in the early-to-mid 1900s. Nine of his black classmates have been invited to be a part of a battle royal, a fight in which multiple people box each other until one person is left as the winner. 

Though the narrator is there to give his speech, he is told that he might as well join the fight first. The audience of white men—doctors, lawyers, bankers, and even a pastor—is already quite drunk. Before the fight, the black students are lined up and forced to watch a naked white woman dance for the room of men. The white men behave boisterously as they watch both the dancer and the black students’ reactions of humiliation and terror. As the music continues, some of the white men start to grab at, and eventually chase, the woman, catching her and tossing her above their heads. The narrator can tell that, like him, the woman is terrified; she finally escapes with the help of some “more sober” audience members.

The narrator and his classmates try to leave but are ordered into the room’s portable boxing ring, where they are blindfolded and taunted from the sidelines. The bell rings and the boys frantically pummel each other. 

My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor.

The battle royal is “complete anarchy,” but even as he fights harder, the narrator thinks about his speech: “How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What...

(The entire section is 1,557 words.)