Battle Royal Characters
The main characters in "Battle Royal" are the narrator, the narrator's grandfather, the dancer, the superintendent, and Tatlock.
- The narrator is a young black man who is conflicted about how he is perceived by white people.
- The narrator's grandfather is a former slave who encourages his grandson to be meek to pacify white people.
- The dancer is a white woman who is brought in to entertain the men before the fight. The narrator empathizes with her objectification.
- The superintendent is the head of the school the narrator attends.
- Tatlock is another participant in the Battle Royale and the last man standing besides the narrator.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
The unnamed narrator is the protagonist of “Battle Royal.” He tells the story retrospectively, about twenty years after the fact. As he reflects on the past, the narrator remembers struggling with his identity as a black man in the South, specifically in light of his grandfather’s advice to undermine white people through compliance with their expectations. After hearing his grandfather’s dying words, the narrator is conflicted in his relation to the white community; he sees that his meekness is praised even by the “most lily-white men in town,” yet he struggles to understand how his grandfather used the same tactic to undermine white supremacy. In the battle royal, the narrator’s struggle is made physical as he complies with the audience’s wish to hurt the other students and is in turn beaten by his peers. During the fight, the narrator’s conflicted feelings about how he is viewed by the white audience continues to haunt him, and he worries how his speech will be received.
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The Narrator’s Grandfather
The narrator's grandfather was once a slave but was freed eighty-five years before the writing of the story. The narrator says that he “had been the meekest of men.” As the grandfather died, he told the narrator’s father that he expected him to “keep up the good fight” and that all his life he himself had been a “spy in the enemy's country.” His instructions were to overwhelm the enemy—white people—with kindness: “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.” He instructs his son to teach this lesson to the children. Though the narrator doesn’t interact directly with his grandfather in this deathbed scene, his grandfather’s words haunt him.
The dancer entertains the room before the battle royal. She is described as having magnificent blonde hair and a tattoo of the American flag on her belly. At first as she dances, she is “smiling faintly at the big shots who watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at [the black students’] fear.” However, her expression is soon described as “detached,” and once she is thrown over the heads of the audience, the narrator perceives “above her red, fixed-smiling lips… the terror and disgust in her eyes.” This development suggests that her initial smiling was not in genuine pleasure at her situation. Like the black students, the white woman is treated by the white men as an object for their enjoyment. She is manipulated, objectified, and finally, through the narrator’s empathy for her, humanized.
The school superintendent invites the narrator to speak at the hotel event. After the narrator’s speech, he presents the narrator with a briefcase containing a scholarship. Though the superintendent’s actions seem supportive of the narrator’s education, his benevolence is deceptive: the man’s first words during the event degrade the black students with a racial slur, and he compliments the narrator by saying “some day he’ll lead his people in the proper paths.” Still, the narrator looks to him as a familiar figure that leads him through the series of events. The superintendent’s racism is unquestionable, and it’s possible that he consciously uses his kindness to manipulate the narrator into continued compliance with the social order. The narrator’s grandfather’s message is the perfect antidote to this insincerity, as it urges his family to return this sort of treatment with a fake benevolence of their own.
Tatlock is one of the other black students in the battle royal. The narrator describes him as “the biggest of the gang.” Tatlock and the narrator are the last two left in the ring at the end of the fight and have to fight each other for the winner’s prize. Tatlock refuses to take a dive for money, as suggested by the narrator, and knocks the narrator out. Notably, unlike the narrator, he is not fighting for the approval of the white audience: when the narrator asks if Tatlock wants to win “for them,” Tatlock vehemently replies that his victory will be for himself. It’s in a moment when the narrator is unsure of how to behave so as to best please the viewers that Tatlock is able to land the punch that knocks the narrator out.
Jackson is a white man in the crowd who, before the battle royal begins, screams that he wants to attack one of the black students. Other spectators seem forced to restrain him.
Mr. Colcord is a white man who owns a chain of movie houses. Colcord and the narrator engage in a small skirmish, and Colcord kicks him onto the electrified rug.