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Ellison’s Battle Royal Essay

“But the blindfold was as tight as a thick skin, puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, “Oh no you don’t, black bastard! Leave that alone!” This passage clearly captures the themes of control and racial injustice in the story Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison. The analysis of the two themes, considering the different scenes in the story, will illustrate the key ideas that Ellison intended to convey through the story.


African-Americans encountered both blatant and subtle control by the whites. The control had been going on for as long as the narrator can remember. “All my life I had been looking for something, everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was” (Ellison 15). The narrator had own expectations, desires and dreams. However, the control imposed on the different aspects of his life led him on a different path. The narrator’s grandparents were slaves. They were submissive to whites and taught their children and grandchildren to do so.

Any African-American who challenged the status quo was labeled a troublemaker by not only the whites but also fellow blacks. The unspoken rule was that a good African-American was the one who did whatever the white man wanted. Such a person would receive abundant praises from the white men for his good conduct. He was a role model for other African-Americans. However, the narrator, unlike most other blacks, found the idea of meekness puzzling and uncomfortable. His grandfather regarded meekness as a dangerous thing. On his deathbed, the old man encouraged his children and grandchildren to undermine the tactics used by the white folks to keep the blacks submissive.

The blindfold and ropes symbolize the restraints in African-American lives. The blindfold was tight, thick and comprised of many layers. One needed great effort to remove the blindfold. The white man used deception and intimidation to prevent blacks from seeking social equality. “Blindfolded, I could no longer control my emotions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man” (22). This passage illustrates that whites had total control over African-Americans. Cognitive and physical impairment make a baby or drunken man defenseless. Similarly, the overt and covert control strategies used by whites against blacks made the latter helpless. The narrator and other blacks had no rights and dignity in the eyes of the whites. They were just an end to a means.

Racial Injustice

 African-Americans in Battle Royal face social and economic injustices. The narrator’s grandparents were slaves. They worked hard for the whites without compensation. Although the narrator is not a salve, the whites still treat him like chattel. Only blacks fought in the battle royal, an entertainment for whites. “I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin. Get going in there! Let me at that big nigger!” (21). The fight happened in a hotel where renowned white citizens of the town had gathered.

The organizers of the fight blindfolded each fighter to make the fight more interesting. They did not care that the blindfolds would lead to serious injuries for the fighters. After all, blacks were inferior beings that the whites could abuse in whichever way they desired. The narrator, knocked down and unwilling to proceed with the fight, was quickly pulled to his feet and forced to continue fighting. Nobody cared about his wellbeing as long as the whites were entertained.

Whites viewed blacks as inferior. “The laughter hung smoke-like in the sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room,” (        Ellison 31). This scene occurred after the narrator substituted the phrase social responsibility with social equality. Whites and blacks had different social statuses. Therefore, the whites were puzzled and angry at the narrator’s idea of social equality. One man in the front row went a step further to ensure that the narrator realized that the idea of social equality was a mistake. Blacks and whites had different schools.

A black person, regardless of his intelligence and capabilities, could only attend a college for Negros. However, the colleges faced the problem of underfunding and understaffing (Wooten 94). Consequently, smart black kids often received and poorer education in comparison to their white counterparts. Segregated education limited the employment opportunities for blacks in a country where the majority of employers were whites. Educated blacks often took low-paying jobs with the better-paying jobs reserved for whites.


Control and racial injustice are dominant themes in Ellison’s Battle Royal. Whites segregated blacks in all aspects of life and used different strategies to control their thoughts, actions and decisions. Only the meek African-Americans were good in the eyes of whites. Whites quickly reminded any black person who had the idea of social equality of his place in society. The analysis of the two themes helps the reader to develop an in-depth understanding of the setting and meaning of the story. Ellison’s story captures an important moment in the history of African-Americans in the U.S.

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