Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth

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By: Elsa Korinke, Christian Paz, and Maddie Wright

Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

alph Waldo Ellison was born in March in 1914
in Oklahoma to Lewis, who died when Ellison
was three, and Ida. Ellison attended Frederick
Douglass School in Oklahoma City. When he
graduated high school, he attended Tuskegee
Institute in Alabama. Ellison only completed
three years at Tuskegee, majoring in music. However, Ellison went on to receive 12 honorary doctorate degrees at many universities, including Tuskegee Institute, Rutgers University, University of Michigan, and Harvard University. When he moved to New York in 1936, he met writers Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, who inspired his first attempts at fiction. Becoming a renowned novelist, he taught at several colleges and in 1970 he became a professor at New York University. He also received one of the highest French honors that a foreign writer can receive. Ellison died of cancer on April 26, 1994 in New York.

“Battle Royal” is the first chapter from Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. “It is about a young black man who moves from the South to the North and discovers what is means to be black in America.” The narrator is invited to participate in a “battle royal” with some of his schoolmates. Instead, he is publicly mocked, beaten, and humiliated for being black. At the end of the fight, he makes a speech about the importance of education.

: a person, object, or event that suggests more than its literal meaning

Conventional Symbol: symbols that are widely recognized by a society or culture; ex. Star of David, Christian cross, etc.

Literary Symbol: symbols that portray traditional, conventional, or public meanings

Watch this clip from Ralph Ellison: An American Journey documentary from PBS.

: an expression that conveys a symbolic meaning parallel to but distinct from, and more important than, the literal meaning


Our seminar will be focusing on the motif and setting of “Battle Royal,” but primarily on symbolism. Please bring in an object that YOU think symbolizes America as a whole. You may draw the object if you feel it is necessary, but preferably bring something in. Please stay away from intangible objects and things that represent the American Dream. Please write a well-developed paragraph on what your object is and why you chose it and be prepared to share your thoughts.

Please choose to answer two of the following questions. Use quotes from the text to support your arguments and commentary.

  1. What does the narrator mean when he claims that he is “an invisible man?”

  2. Why does the grandfather define the narrator’s actions and praise by whites treachery on page 227?

  3. The blonde girl who dances at the Battle Royal has a tattoo.  What is the significance of the "the small American flag tattooed upon her belly" (229)?  What does her tattoo symbolize?

  4. Why does the author compare the dancer's hair to that of a "circus Kewpie doll" (228) and the narrator's eye to that of a "jack-in-th-box" (232)?  Compare the powerlessness of a puppet or doll with that of African-Americans in 1940s society.

  5. Analyze the narrator’s dream at the end of the story. What is the symbolic significance of the circus and the endless envelopes?

  1. Why do you think the narrator used the words “social equality” in his speech? How does the reaction of the crowd influence his later behavior, and possibly his later life?

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