William Edward Bughardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was the first black person to earn a doctorate in America and would go on to be a professor of sociology at Atlanta University. In 1909 he founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, what Du Bois is most remembered for is his writing examining the position of black people in America during the Jim Crow Era. In The Soul of Black Folks (1903), Du Bois writes:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
What Du Bois describes here is the psychological impact of racism on black Americans: to live and be part of a country that treats them with contempt. To be black in America is to have two identities: yourself and that which is imposed on you by a society that rejects you. As Du Bois understood racism from a sociologist’s point of view, America does not allow a person to be both black and American. With Du Bois’s lens of being black in America, I want to turn to Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” an excerpt from his masterpiece The Invisible Man.
“…our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days”
The excerpt you read opens with Ellison’s narrator, who is left nameless throughout the novel, recounting his grandfather’s dying words. His grandfather, having been born a slave, claims black people must live with their “head in the lion’s mouth” and that the only means of survival is “to undermine ’em with grins.” The narrator’s parents are perplexed by these words, and they hang over the narrator as a “curse.”
The narrator tells the story of having been invited to give his valedictorian speech to a group of leading white men at an evening event. Contrary to the narrator’s expectations, the event turns out to a drunken, violent gathering. When arriving at the hotel, the narrator finds that he is forced to participate in a battle royal, where a group of young black men are blind-folded and set upon each other. As they enter the hall, the narrator is taken back to see these pillars of the white community drunk, gluttoning themselves, and smoking cigars. The narrator witnesses a stripper performing for these white men, who are barely stopped from raping her. Following the stripper’s escape, the narrator and the other young black men are thrown into a box ring and threats of violence a hurled at them. The fight concludes with the the group of young black men forced to scramble for money on an electrified rug.
Throughout the violence and humiliation suffered, the narrator continues to worry about giving his speech: “The harder we fought the more threatening the men became. And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?” Ellison emphasizes here the absurdity of the narrator’s wanting to win the respect of these “leading citizens.” Finally, the narrator delivers his speech, with a swollen eye and a mouth full of blood. The narrator speaks about casting buckets down, citing Booker T. Washington who advocates that the way for the white South and black people to coexist was for the former to see the latter as source of labor. Many criticized Washington for arguing black people to become subservient to whites. As a reward for his speech, the narrator is given a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.
While the narrator and his family prize the scholarship, his dream of his grandfather taking him to the circus undermines it. Here the scholarship is revealed to be a short message:
“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned, “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
The danger of the education will received is that it will be another form of control, just as the Battle Royal had been.