In 1952, Ralph Ellison published “Invisible Man,” a classic, highly acclaimed novel. The first chapter, “Battle Royal,” tells of a black boy in his senior year of high school. He is invited to deliver his high school graduation speech in front of “the town’s leading white citizens.” He feels honored, and wants to do his best.
Things change when he and nine other black boys arrive at the hotel ballroom.
Suddenly I heard the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell, “Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!”
The boys are blindfolded in a boxing ring to fight each other while prominent white folks smoke cigars and yell slurs and laugh.
My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor. Streaks of blue light filled the black world behind the blindfold. I lay prone, pretending that I was knocked out, but felt myself seized by hands and yanked to my feet. “Get going, black boy! Mix it up!” My arms were like lead, my head smarting from blows. I managed to feel my way to the ropes and held on, trying to catch my breath.
The fighting doesn’t last long, but it’s brutal.
It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared through the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion. It’ll all be over in a flash, I thought as I rolled clear. It’ll all be over in a flash.
But not yet, the men on the other side were waiting, red faces swollen as though from apoplexy as they bent forward in their chairs. Seeing their fingers coming toward me I rolled away as a fumbled football rolls off the receiver’s fingertips, back into the coals. That time I luckily sent the rug sliding out of place and heard the coins ringing against the floor and the boys scuffling to pick them up and the M.C. calling, “All right, boys, that’s all. Go get dressed and get your money.”
When the boys return, they are told to get the coins and bills lying on the floor.
I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me. I tried frantically to remove my hand but could not let go. A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified. The hair bristled up on my head as I shook myself free. My muscles jumped, my nerves jangled, writhed. But I saw that this was not stopping the other boys. Laughing in fear and embarrassment, some were holding back and scooping up the coins knocked off by the painful contortions of the others. The men roared above us as we struggled.
The boy is then told to give his speech.
I spoke automatically and with such fervor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me. I coughed, wanting to stop and go to one of the tall brass, sand-filled spittoons to relieve myself, but a few of the men, especially the superintendent, were listening and I was afraid. So I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all, and continued.
My source for the “Battle Royal” quotes is here.
Last year, in Idaho, a 17-year-old black young man, a senior in a rural, predominately white high school in Idaho. participated in a preseason football camp. He was the only black player on the team. According to news reports, players and coaches organized fist fights to help players “toughen up.” One night, the young man and a white teammate, John R. K. Howard, were assigned to fight.
The young man was placed in the middle of a circle wearing boxing gloves to face John Howard, who was bare fisted. John Howard is much bigger and stronger than the young man, who had never worn boxing gloves nor ever participated in boxing.
Howard knocked down the young man several times before finally knocking him unconscious.
The beating of the young man was accompanied by catcalls, taunts, and racial epithets from the football players/students in full view of coaches who not only failed to prevent the abuse but actively promoted it.
On October 23, 2015, allegedly, according to news reports, after football practice, the young man was offered a hug by a teammate. As the young man wrapped his arms around his teammate, another teammate shoved a coat hanger in the young man’s rectum. John Howard kicked the coat hanger several times.
The above information is from this news article.
A Dietrich High School football team practice
Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is a work of fiction, told by an unnamed narrator, a stark story that is full of violence, violation of trust, racism, and both power and powerlessness. It’s hard to read, because the high school boy is honored to be asked to deliver his speech to the important folks in the town, is then humiliated and degraded, is abused by the surprise of an electrified rug, and then is told to deliver his speech, swallowing saliva, blood, and dignity.
When I first heard about the Dietrich football team rape, I didn’t want to learn more. The young man in Idaho (unnamed in news reports) was adopted, when he was four years old, by white parents. I am the white adoptive mother of two black daughters and two black sons. The young man, this black adoptee, has been so wrongly and horrifically isolated, abused, and traumatized. I have much more to say and write from my perspective in the adoption community.
For now, for today, I cannot shake “Battle Royal” from my head, nor this young man’s experience from my heart.