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The Rope-A-Dope: An Analysis of the Essay "Battle Royal" By Ralph Ellison
Rope-a-dope is a precarious boxing strategy first introduced in a Heavyweight Championship matchup between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaire on October 30, 1974. This boxing match is best known as the "Rumble in the Jungle" because of the fiery action among the two great heavyweight fighters of that era. As told on his official website www.ali.com, Ali was the better "technical fighter" while Foreman "the bruiser" packed an unyielding harder punch. During the first round of the bout, Ali scored several technical hits but Foreman remained unfazed. Throughout the next three rounds, Ali changed his strategy, frequently lying against the ropes, allowing a determined Foreman to exhaust himself by throwing repeated ineffective punches to Ali's protective arms. Confusing the commentators and the judges, Ali laid on Foreman repeatedly forcing him to hold up his weight while continuing to thrust pin-point blows. By round five, Foreman was exhausted while Ali had taken every opportunity to land several choice blows to Foreman's face and head when the big fighter let his guard down. Finally, in the eighth round, Foreman's punches were too futile and Ali knocked him out. Twenty-two years prior to the use of this strategy by Ali, Ralph Ellison mastered a similar literary version. Ellison's royal fight is evident when in "The Battle Royal" the narrator says, "It took me a long time and much boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man (1)! " Here, he shares his belief that African Americans have to battle for an equal playing field when Caucasians are born in an equal arena.
If we clear away the conceptions of his essay "Battle Royal" and begin to examine the references with an eye to the subtext, a largely unrecognized place for the essay emerges within a more sociological and materialist reading of the African American plight in the post Emancipation Proclamation era. Christopher Butler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) states that "1914 was the beginning of "The Modernist Period" in literature where the majority of widely published works came from a select group of predominantly white male writers. At the same time, Alain Locke's The New Negro recorded the how and why a renaissance of black art was establishing itself in Harlem. Two men key in paving the way for the breakthrough for black writers during the "Harlem Renaissance" were Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. The book Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad describes how Ellison wanted to be a "Renaissance Man" at an early age which explains his move to Harlem upon leaving Tuskegee Institute without a degree. Ellison's goal was to become a great music composer. After several odd jobs, ironically, Ralph Ellison's high school music teacher from Oklahoma (Hazel Harrison) would later introduce him to Alain Locke, the "New Negro Thinker," who would lead Ellison to his writing career a few years later through networks to Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. It was Richard Wright who noticed Ellison's writing talent and mentored him.
In "Battle Royal," Ellison shows us how essential his personal life and the perspective of the era had been by crafting a work of fiction voicing not only to African American's quest for self-esteem but also to the human circumstance and desired equality of all men. Ralph Ellison wrote "Battle Royal" in a stage of concentrated American social unrest. The main character in essay "Battle Royal" is a recently graduated student who is to deliver a speech to a whiskey-laced crowd of prominent white men. "They were all there-bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors (6)." The spectrum represented by the white men is a symbol that every vocation of protecting and serving our society presents a battle for African Americans. The main event is the black males reluctantly staged in a brutal fight for the entertainment of the white men. This is a free-for-all battle that involves ten combatants sealed in morale conflict for the purpose of financial gain. Therefore, the blacks are competing for the money of the whites who won't offer any of the civil liberties that an equal race deserves. Placing the narrator in the fight allows him to be objectified and disrespected which adds a first person account of this story. The narrator's unyielding fortitude to deliver his speech is the central theme of the essay. The sub-textual emphasis of the black man's humility explains why Ellison diligently admired Booker T. Washington. Ellison even makes a direct reference to Booker T. Washington and the title of his novel Invisible Man in the story when, after he stresses the importance of the narrator's speech, he writes "In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T Washington (5)." Humility and the importance of social responsibility are both objectives contrary to the dual nature of the grandfather's curse. However, the narrator's dream involving his grandfather proves that the actual worth of the curse has nothing to do with its impact on him. In fact, in reference to the value of "keep up the good fight (3)" as said by the dying grandfather, the narrator in the last line of the essay "First I had to finish college.) (107)" Which means that there are bigger fish to fry in his future battles.
Social conflict and upheaval because of the disenfranchisement of the African American had become commonplace especially, during the late 19th and early 20th century. Degrading titles gained universal acceptance such as boy, nigger, coon, and Negro before the civil rights movement. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., attacks the notion "that the dominant mode of Afro-American literature is, or should be, a kind of social realism, evaluated primarily as a reflection of the "Black Experience." Instead, Gates insists that critics turn to the language of the text and bring to their work the close, methodical analysis of language made possible by modern literary theory." There were contrasting ideological approaches offered to blacks as to how to get ahead economically and socially. The two most vocal black activists at the turn of the twentieth century trying to impress upon all African Americans were W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Dudley Randall's poem:
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois
"It seems to me," said Booker T.,
"It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land,
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?"
"I don't agree," said W.E.B.
"If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I'll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook,
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain."
"It seems to me," said Booker T.,
"That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house."
"I don't agree," said W.E.B.
"For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws,
They'll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope's as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you've got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I'll be a man."
"It seems to me," said Booker T.--
"I don't agree,"
This poem accurately describes the dissimilarity in approaches of the two leaders towards the advancement of black people after reconstruction.
Fast-forwarding to 2011, if we clear away the conceptions of this essay that I am writing and begin to examine the references with an eye to the subtext, a largely unrecognized place emerges within a more sociological and materialist reading of the current African American plight. For the first time in the storied and hypocritical history of The United States of America, we have an African American President. The grass-roots monetary record shattering campaign of Barack Obama in 2007 set a new bar for allowing anyone and everyone interested to get involved in having a voice in making American cultural history. As Lee Corso says, "not so fast my friend." The exact humiliating fight portrayed in "Battle Royal" is being engaged today by President Obama. Certain fascist people (many being white) are questioning the very legitimacy of the leader of the free world. Disguising racism by challenging your birth certificate, religion, friends, family, and education doesn't make the actions (that no other American President has ever faced) any less than what they areâ€¦degrading. "The idea that when a black person accomplishes something great there must be something wrong and the stress of feeling constantly called into question, constantly under surveillance, has emotional and physical consequences for us," said Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University's Center for African American Studies. There is no joy in accepting partial equality. If Dr. Martin Luther King was witnessing the visible character punches being thrown at Barack Obama today, he would tell him to persevere so that one day he will be "judged by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin." Now, I see why Ralph Ellison was not sold on the fundamental new awareness of the so called modernism authors opening the door of tolerance in America as wide as they regarded. Undoubtedly, Ellison's no-nonsense serious fiction about blacks added a new dimension, a new voice, if you will, to modern American writing.