A White Compromise In the short story, “Battle Royal”, Ralph Ellison uncovers a boy’s fight to maintain his dignity in a world of racial injustice. The first person narration portrays a naive view of the boy’s values of what he believes is important in life that is only questioned by his grandpa’s firm conviction of dignity. On page 39, starting with paragraph 99, the text depicts the differences between the two segregated worlds of black and white. The text elucidates the boy’s conformity to the wishes of white man.
His acceptance of the scholarship symbolizes his acceptance of separation between the two societies as “it was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. ” Although the boy realizes that whites and blacks are restricted to societal confines that can never merge and never become equal, the boy fails to see the force exercised by the whites that lock him into this box. When he prioritizes materialistic wealth, “smelling the fresh leather” of the brief case over his own dignity, he resigns himself to the desires of society in that he blinds himself with affluence and thus becomes incapable of realizing his own visions.
This is further strengthened by the boy’s quote “I felt an importance that I had never dreamed” because it implies that he no longer needs his dignity in order to achieve a feeling of success. It provides him with self-respect and happiness that prevent him from questioning the advantages of conformity. Stripped from his pride and naively reaching for wealth he contributes to his own confinement as he goes to “attend college” in order to “shape the destiny of [his] people” and thus fulfills the plans of whites.
While the boy puts his destiny in the hands of white society, he conforms to the rules of white control. Despite the boy’s conformity to white rule, he continues to struggle in discovering his dignity. The repetition of the word “blood” serves as an important symbol for the boy’s dignity; it signifies the pride he has in his own race and binds him to his people. However, the boy remains ignorant of this tie and his “rope of bloody saliva” only forms “a shape like an undiscovered continent”.
This imagery represents the possibility of discovering his own dignity and a new world in which he is free to shape his own destiny. Yet the boy’s blindness leads him to wipe the blood “quickly away” as it had “drooled upon the leather” of his brief case, and smeared the desired promises of the white men. The juxtaposition of the line “I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile” strengthens the idea of the boy’s blind struggle for dignity.
It connotes that the “scholarship to the state college for Negroes” he had received is just as fake as the “brass pocket tokens”, thus symbolizing his reach for a false dignity. The boy’s dream in the following paragraph continues to enhance his internal struggle to find dignity by contrasting his character to that of the grandpa. Through the setting of a circus, the narrator suggests that the boy is merely a clown and compliant to any orders that he is given, while the grandpa, who “refused to laugh at the clowns no matter what they did,” sticks to the dignity of his race.
The juxtaposition of this sentence also shows that the grandpa is not humored by the naivete of the boy; instead he is rather disappointed as the boy is unable to see that he serves as entertainment to society. Unlike his wizened grandfather, the boy idealistically believes any promise given to him, “another and another, endlessly” until his dignity is consumed by the will of white men. The boy is so occupied in reaching these promises that he “would fall of weariness” before he could realize that the further he reached, the more distant he was from discovering his dignity.
While society wants to “‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running’” by undermining his dignity with the false glamour of a scholarship, the boy realizes that the whites only give him what he thinks he wants; means to attain racial equality as a return for complacency. However, what he truly desires is break free from being oppressed and gain equal status through demonstrating that his intellect and abilities are equivalent to that of the whites.
Because “at that time [he] had no insight into its meaning,” he had to compromise between what society could offer him and his dignity. Nonetheless, the authorial intrusion demonstrates that the narrator gained extensive perspective on his former naivete when telling his story; thus the reader can infer that the boy no longer sees any value in the conformation to white society. The trade-off between his dignity and false glamour is similar to the zero sum theory in that it takes power from one entity and puts it in the hands of another.
Every time the boy conforms to the wishes of white society he gives up some of his dignity, similarly when he strives to find his dignity he gives up his willingness to conform to ways of the white men. In the end, his realization depicts him choosing his dignity above all as illustrated by the last line “First I had to attend college”. Therefore, the boy’s struggle to discover his dignity is resolved through his gain of power that allows him to shape his own destiny and simultaneously break free of white oppression.
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