Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Undiscovered Continent

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The Undiscovered Continent

The American beliefs of the 150s were much different from those held today. Racism was at its highest, the civil rights movement was just emerging, and Ralph Ellison made a statement about race relations with his 15 fiction novel Invisible Man. The first chapter of the novel depicts a young black man that faces ridicule and humiliation in order to improve himself. “Battle Royal” makes a powerful statement about American race relations during the time. Ellison uses symbolism to make his statement. Symbolism in Ellison’s “Battle Royal” contributes to the story’s themes of an America that suppresses and objectifies certain members of its society.

The narrator is a powerful speaker, and because of this gift, he is invited to speak at a town meeting that includes influential members of white society. He believes he is brought to the meeting to give a speech but upon arrival, he “discover(s) it was on the occasion of the smoker” (Ellison ). He is also told that a battle royal was going to take place and that he is to participate. Of course, “the battle royal came first” (). The smokers’ meeting provides a subdued but commanding symbol for Ellison’s story. The homogenous and elite group disillusions a young black man into coming to speak at their meeting, which demonstrates their desire to place him on display as something different and strange from them. The group places no value on the boy’s time or dignity. The group literally beats him down and displays his place in society. They make him fight like an animal and take all human qualities from him. This group demonstrates the belief system that existed in America during the early fifties. The society is segregated and is afraid to be accepting of differences. A few groups make decisions and create the value system. The smoker’s club symbolizes these elitist within 150s America.

During the meeting, Ellison introduces a female stripper who dons an American flag tattoo. This character is also dominant symbol within the story. She not only supports the themes of objectivity and suppression, but also introduces the idea that another part of society outside of race experiences this suppression. She does not speak but only dances, which makes her an object for the men to gawk. She is in the scene only for the visual pleasure she provides and exhibits no human qualities other than her body parts. Ellison demonstrates this dehumanization well with his description of her body “Her breasts were firm and round as the domes of East Indian temples, and I stood so close as to see the fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples” (4). The author describes her body with such detail that each part almost becomes separated from the girl. Each body part is an object; therefore, she is an object. This symbol, which ironically wears an American flag, continues to demonstrate the 150s society that dehumanizes and objectifies certain sections of the society.

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As the story continues and the battle royal resolves, the teacher, who invites him to participates, hands him a leather satchel that contains a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. The teacher hands him the briefcase “I was so moved that I could hardly express my thanks. A rope of bloody saliva forming a shape like an undiscovered continent drooled upon the leather” (8). This drop of blood provides another powerful symbol in Ellison’s story. He describes the continent as undiscovered. The journey the young black man was about to take could lead to undiscovered territory. The journey could take the boy to a land where everyone is treated equally and has the same opportunities. The student could find a place where people are not objectivities and are not forced to participate in dehumanizing activities such as the battle royal. This land, just as the undiscovered continent of blood, is uncharted and unexplored but is possible. Ellison’s symbol makes this compelling statement.

Ellison’s “Battle Royal” makes an eye-opening statement about not only American society in the 150s, but also today’s society. Although great advancement has been made in race relations, the battle is not over. Everyday stories of race wars and hate crimes top headlines, which demonstrates the battle is never ending. The narrator faces a physical and brutal battle that would not likely occur in today’s society, but minority groups fight the same battle daily through affirmative action cases and other race issues. Ellison uses symbols throughout his story to demonstrate these problems that plague society. His symbols demonstrate how individuals are objectified and dehumanized. They also demonstrate how society segregates itself into groups that look to exert some power. His symbols also give hope that a nation can change. The 150s undiscovered continent of blood is no longer undiscovered, but is still being explored today.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. New York Random House, 15. p. 1-10

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