Battle Royal; or, The Invisible Man Historical Context

Ralph Ellison

Historical Context

Slavery, Reconstruction and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
The Civil War was fought to keep the United States together as a single nation. While the Declaration of Independence asserted that it was ‘‘self-evident’’ that ‘‘all men were created equal,’’ the subsequent formulation of the United States Constitution stipulated that slavery would remain legal. Because of the plantation system, the Southern states' economic livelihood depended on having a labor force which it could deny any legal, social or human rights. In the decades before the Civil War, the United States was held together through a series of compromises (The Missouri Compromise (1820), The Fugitive Slave Act, Compromise of 1850, The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)) that attempted to balance the political power of slave and free states. One of the most blatant statements of deprivation of Blacks' basic rights of citizenship and the attendant human rights was the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which stated directly that no black person had rights any white man need respect. Under this ruling, no Black person was allowed claims to citizenship.

The Civil War began in 1861 as the North tried to keep the South in the national Union. Slavery was partially abolished by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which did not outlaw slavery in the border states between North and South in an attempt to keep those states aligned neutral in the war. After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment (ratified 1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868) guaranteed the rights of citizenship to freed Blacks. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified 1870) guaranteed the right to vote. While these were important steps, they did not prevent the further oppression of African Americans.

Reconstruction was a federal policy to engineer the inclusion of freed African Americans into the national—political, economic and social—framework. In the 1870s, the North had grown weary of the enterprise and more concerned with facilitating industrial and corporate development. Prejudice against African Americans in the North severely limited their employment opportunities while local laws and social practices in the former slave states intimidated African Americans, and effectively locked them from participation in the marketplace. Local laws like the Black Codes and Jim Crow as well as brutal Ku Klux Klan violence effectively prevented many African Americans from voting, working or living where they would have chosen.

The presidential election of 1876 marks the unofficial termination of federal attempts to reconstruct the South. The election motivated a political compromise that installed the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, as president despite his failure to win a majority of electoral votes and his loss of the popular vote. The Democrats, who represented the interests of the former South, traded the presidency for assurances that under Hayes the last federal troops would be withdrawn from the South. Without the troops, the local governments in the South were able to follow with impunity programs of segregation and intimidation against African Americans. In 1896, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, legally sanctioned separate Pullman cars for Blacks and whites, citing the segregation of public schools in Washington, D.C. as social precedent that demonstrated the social proclivity to segregate. The legal sanction of racial segregation structured the school system, employment opportunities and loan opportunities until Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954), which ruled that segregationist policies were inherently unequal. Ellison's novel is published just two years before the Brown decision.

African American Resistance and Leadership: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois
In equating himself with his grandfather and with Booker T. Washington, the narrator recalls major figures who served to fight against the marginalization of African Americans, during and after the abolition of slavery. It is notable that the short story and the novel seem to use figures of men as leaders while women serve relatively minor roles. The narrator projects himself into a clearly empowered, masculine agency.

To understand the novel's irony regarding the narrator's reverence of Booker T. Washington, it is important to consider the context in which Washington became powerful. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901. It tells of his rise from his childhood status as a slave to being one of the most influential men of his...

(The entire section is 1900 words.)