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Karpe 1 Ummon Karpe English 1302 Alison Ely May 13, 2013 Black Mans Identity in Battle Royal

Ralph Elisons short story, Battle Royal, portrays a young black man and his attempts to nd his identity. The unnamed protagonist in Battle Royal looked to society for his identity. Elite white men dictated to him that he should fall in line, show humility and obedience to them, and he would achieve progress. The protagonist embraced this as his identity. Cryptic last words from his grandfather and a dream involving the same causde the protagonist to constantly have doubts about his assumed identity. However, he did not realize that from the white mens perspective, his true identity was that of an invisible man. The protagonists identity revolved around gaining the approval of societyspecically white society, and sought to [cultivate] friendly relations with the Souther white man. He learned from his ancestors who stayed in their place [and] worked hard. (244) He was praised by the most lily-white men of the town, and was considered an example of desirable conduct. (244) Throughout the story, the protagonist looked for approval from the white men. He constantly worried about how they perceived him: Ane yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me? (248) He entertained the white men by ghting other blacks in the battle royal. He scrambled for coins on an electrically charged rug, also for the whites amusement. The totality of his identity, both cultural and psychological, was under the control of the leading white men. A major part of his absorbed identity was to show humility and be mindful of his place at

Karpe 2 all times: On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very esence of progress. (244) His adherence to humility was symbolized by how he kept his head down during the battle royal boxing ght, and tried to avoid directly engaging anybody. Near the end of the match, when a voice shouted out about betting on his rival, the protagonist wondered: Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance? (249) The whites made sure to force this upon him: Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you better know your place at all times. (252) The protagonist believed that by gaining the approval of the whites through showing humility and obedience to them, he could become successful. He visualized himself as a potential Booker T. Washington. A blonde nude with an American ag on her belly, who entertained the gathering of leading white men symbolized this American dream that he had. Also symbolically, the white men there were able to touch her and tried to obtain her, while the blacks were forced to watch the American dream dangled in front of them, just out of their reach. When he delivered a speech to the white men and was awarded a brief-case with a sholarship to the state college for Negros (253), he saw this as proof of the American dream, and that his hard work and humility was paying off. The black community reinforced this: When I reached home everyone was excited. Next day the neighbors came to congratulate me. (253) All this time though, the protagonist had reservations and nagging doubts about his identity. This was due to his grandfathers last words: Son, after Im gone I want you to keep up the good ght. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemys country ever since I gave up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with

Karpe 3 your head in the lions mouth. I want you to overcome em with your yeses, undermine em with grins, agree em to death and destruction, let em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open. (244) His grandfather wanted him to suck up to the whites, but always remember that he is trying to undermine the hierarchy they have set up. The protagonist did not understand this, and wondered what exactly his grandfather had meant. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. (244) He got another message form his grandfather when he repeatedly had dreamt of being told by his grandfather to open his briefcase, and nding inside it stacks of state documents awarded to him, and an engraving saying To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running. (253) The protagonist was also unable to understand this dream and its signicance regarding the elusiveness of the American dream. The protagonist had been trying to ask others to dene his identity for him. After going to college, he would realize that to others he was an invisible man. (243) Only then would he get insight into his grandfathers words, and realize that he alone coould nd his identity for himself. Battle Royal effectively narrates that racism in the post-slavery South was pervasive and took complete control of the identity of black people, turning them into invisible men. Only through many experiences and introspection could a black person such as the protagonist in Battle Royal break free of this total control and nd his own identity.

Works Cited Hemingway, Ernest. Soldiers Home The Beford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2009. 243-253. Print.