Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison
This library solution addresses 2 main inquiries relating to Ralph Ellison's 'Battle Royale.' The text in question is attached.
1. What does the narrator's grandfather mean by his statement: "Our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction."?
2. Why does Ellison makes numerous references to the circus? List some of those references and speculate as to why he continually returned to this metaphor.
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- Battle Royal.doc
The solution provides an analysis of this piece of writing, answering the two questions and providing insight into Ellison's thoughts while he was writing.
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Extracted Content from Question Files:
- Battle Royal.doc
by Ralph Ellison
It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for
something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their
answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was
naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I,
and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful 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!
And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having
been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for
having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.
About eighty-five years ago they were told they were free, united with others of our
country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate
like the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their
place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. But my grandfather is the
one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he
who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "Son, after
I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I
have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my
gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to
overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction,
let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." They thought the old man had
gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were
rushed from the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it
sputtered on the wick like the old man's breathing. "Learn it to the younguns," he
whispered fiercely; then he died.
But my folks were more alarmed over his last words than over his dying. It was as though
he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety. I was warned emphatically to
forget what he had said and, indeed, this is the first time it has been mentioned outside
the family circle. It had a tremendous effect upon me, however. I could never be sure of
what he meant. Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet
on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his
meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in
the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my
grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his
advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised
by the most lily-white men in town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct—
just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined
it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was
doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had
understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been
sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they
were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day
they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act
any other way because they didn't like that at all. The old man's words were like a curse.
On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the
secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this—how could I,
remembering my grandfather?—I only believed that it worked.) It was a great success.
Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the speech at a gathering of the town's
leading white citizens. It was a triumph for the whole community.
It was in the main ballroom of the leading hotel. When I got there I discovered that it was
on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was to be there anyway I might as
well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the
entertainment. The battle royal came first.
All of the town's big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the buffet foods,
drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars. It was a large room with a high
ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring.
The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor. I had some
misgivings over the battle royal, by the way. Not from a distaste for fighting but because
I didn't care too much for the other fellows who were to take part. They were tough guys
who seemed to have no grandfather's curse worrying their minds. No one could mistake
their toughness. And besides, I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from
the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential
Booker T. Washington. But the other fellows didn't care too much for me either, and
there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn't like the manner in
which we were all crowded together in the servants' elevator. Nor did they like my being
there. In fact, as the warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator we had words over
the fact that I, by taking part in the fight, had knocked one of their friends out of a night's
We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get
into our fighting togs. Each of us was issued a pair of boxing gloves and ushered out into
the big mirrored hall, which we entered looking cautiously about us and whispering, lest
we might accidentally be heard above the noise of the room. It was foggy with cigar
smoke. And already the whiskey was taking effect. I was shocked to see some of the most
important men of the town quite tipsy. They were all there—bankers, lawyers, judges,
doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors.
Something we could not see was going on up front. A clarinet was vibrating sensuously
and the men were standing up and moving eagerly forward. We were a small tight group,
clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat:
while up front the big shots were becoming increasingly excited over something we still
could not see. Suddenly I heard the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell,
"Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!"
We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even more strongly of
tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place. I almost wet my pants. A sea of
faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a
magnificent blonde—stark naked. There was dead silence. I felt a blast of cold air chill
me. I tried to back away, but they were behind me and around me. Some of the boys
stood with lowered heads, trembling. I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth
chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted
and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have
looked. The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered
and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue,
the color of a baboon's butt. I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly
over 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. I wanted at one and the same
time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my
eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and
destroy her, to love her and to murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where
below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V. I
had a notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.
And then she began to dance, a slow sensuous movement; the smoke of a hundred cigars
clinging to her like the thinnest of veils. She seemed like a fair bird-girl girdled in veils
calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea. I was transported.
Then I became aware of the clarinet playing and the big shots yelling at us. Some
threatened us if we looked and others if we did not. On my right I saw one boy faint. And
now a man grabbed a silver pitcher from a table and stepped close as he dashed ice water
upon him and stood him up and forced two of us to support him as his head hung and
moans issued from his thick bluish lips. Another boy began to plead to go home. He was
the largest of the group, wearing dark red fighting trunks much too small to conceal the
erection which projected from him as though in answer to the insinuating low-registered
moaning of the clarinet. He tried to hide himself with his boxing gloves.
And all the while the blonde continued dancing, smiling faintly at the big shots who
watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at our fear. I noticed a certain merchant
who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and drooling. He was a large man who wore
diamond studs in a shirtfront which swelled with the ample paunch underneath, and each
time the blonde swayed her undulating hips he ran his hand through the thin hair of his
bald head and, with his arms upheld, his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda,
wound his belly in a slow and obscene grind. This creature was completely hypnotized.
The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression
on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink
into her soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around
the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished
floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and
howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor,
and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling
lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I
saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts
seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more
sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom
with the rest of the boys.
Some were still crying and in hysteria. But as we tried to leave we were stopped and
ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told. All ten of us
climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of
white cloth. One of the men seemed to feel a bit sympathetic and tried to cheer us up as
we stood with our backs against the ropes. Some of us tried to grin. "See that boy over
there?" one of the men said. "I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right
in the belly. If you don't get him, I'm going to get you. I don't like his looks." Each of us
was told the same. The blindfolds were put on. Yet even then I had been going over my
speech. In my mind each word was as bright as a flame. I felt the cloth pressed into place,
and frowned so that it would be loosened when I relaxed.
But now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness, it was as though I
had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could
hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin.
"Get going in there!"
"Let me at that big nigger!"
I strained to pick up the school superintendent's voice, as though to squeeze some
security out of that slightly more familiar sound.
"Let me at those black sonsabitches!" someone yelled.
"No, Jackson, no!" another voice yelled. "Here, somebody, help me hold Jack."
"I want to get at that ginger-colored nigger. Tear him limb from limb," the first voice
I stood against the ropes trembling. For in those days I was what they called ginger-
colored, and he sounded as though he might crunch me between his teeth like a crisp
Quite a struggle was going on. Chairs were being kicked about and I could hear voices
grunting as with terrific effort. I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before.
But the blindfold was as tight as a thick skin, puckering scab and when I raised my
gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, “Oh, no you don't, black
bastard! Leave that alone!"
"Ring the bell before Jackson kills him a coon!" someone boomed in the sudden silence.
And I heard the bell clang and the sound of the feet scuffling forward.
A glove smacked against my head. I pivoted, striking out stiffly as someone went past,
and felt the jar ripple along the length of my arm to my shoulder. Then it seemed as
though all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once. Blows pounded me from all sides
while I struck out as best I could. So many blows landed upon me that I wondered if I
were not the only blindfolded fighter in the ring, or if the man called Jackson hadn't
succeeded in getting me after all.
Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about
like a baby or a drunken man. The smoke had become thicker and with each new blow it
seemed to sear and further restrict my lungs. 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. A glove landed in my
midsection and I went over again, feeling as though the smoke had be- come a knife
jabbed into my guts. Pushed this way and that by the legs milling around me, I finally
pulled erect and discovered that I could see the black, sweat- washed forms weaving in
the smoky, blue atmosphere like drunken dancers weaving to the rapid drum-like thuds of
Everyone fought hysterically. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody
else. No group fought together for long. Two, three, four, fought one, then turned to fight
each other, were themselves attacked. Blows landed below the belt and in the kidney,
with the gloves open as well as closed, and with my eye partly opened now there was not
so much terror. I moved carefully, avoiding blows, although not too many to attract
attention, fighting group to group. The boys groped about like blind, cautious crabs
crouching to protect their midsections, their heads pulled in short against their shoulders,
their arms stretched nervously before them, with their fists testing the smoke-filled air
like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails. In one comer I glimpsed a boy violently
punching the air and heard him scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post.
For a second I saw him bent over holding his hand, then going down as a blow caught his
unprotected head. I played one group against the other, slip- ping in and throwing a
punch then stepping out of range while pushing the others into the melee to take the
blows blindly aimed at me. The smoke was agonizing and there were no rounds, no bells
at three minute intervals to relieve our exhaustion. The room spun round me, a swirl of
lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from both nose
and mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest.
The men kept yelling, "Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!"
"Uppercut him! Kill him! Kill that big boy!"
Taking a fake fall, I saw a boy going down heavily beside me as though we were felled
by a single blow, saw a sneaker-clad foot shoot into his groin as the two who had
knocked him down stumbled upon him. I rolled out of range, feeling a twinge of nausea.
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?
I was fighting automatically when suddenly I noticed that one after another of the boys
was leaving the ring. I was surprised, filled with panic, as though I had been left alone
with an unknown danger. Then I understood. The boys had arranged it among
themselves. It was the custom for the two men left in the ring to slug it out for the
winner's prize. I discovered this too late. When the bell sounded two men in tuxedoes
leaped into the ring and removed the blindfold. I found myself facing Tatlock, the biggest
of the gang. I felt sick at my stomach. Hardly had the bell stopped ringing in my ears than
it clanged again and I saw him moving swiftly toward me. Thinking of nothing else to do
I hit him smash on the nose. He kept coming, bringing the rank sharp violence of stale
sweat. His face was a black blank of a face, only his eyes alive—with hate of me and
aglow with a feverish terror from what had happened to us all. I became anxious. I
wanted to deliver my speech and he came at me as though he meant to beat it out of me. I
smashed him again and again, taking his blows as they came. Then on a sudden impulse I
struck him lightly and we clinched. I whispered, "Fake like I knocked you out, you can
have the prize."
"I'll break your behind," he whispered hoarsely.
"For me, sonafabitch!”
They were yelling for us to break it up and Tatlock spun me half around with a blow, and
as a joggled camera sweeps in a reeling scene, I saw the howling red faces crouching
tense beneath the cloud of blue-gray smoke. For a moment the world wavered, unraveled,
flowed, then my head cleared and Tatlock bounced before me. That fluttering shadow
before my eyes was his jabbing left hand. Then falling forward, my head against his
damp shoulder, I whispered.
"I'll make it five dollars more."
"Go to hell!"
But his muscles relaxed a trifle beneath my pressure and I breathed, "Seven?"
"Give it to your ma," he said, ripping me beneath the heart.
And while I still held him I butted him and moved away. I felt myself bombarded with
punches. I fought back with hopeless desperation. I wanted to deliver my speech more
than anything else in the world, because I felt that only these men could judge truly my
ability, and now this stupid clown was ruining my chances. I began fighting carefully
now, moving in to punch him and out again with my greater speed. A lucky blow to his
chin and I had him going too—until I heard a loud voice yell, "I got my money on the big
Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the
voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for
humility, for nonresistance? A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye
popping like a jack-in-the-box and settled my dilemma. The room went red as I fell. It
was a dream fall, my body languid and fastidious as to where to land, until the floor
became impatient and smashed up to meet me. A moment later I came to. An hypnotic
voice said FIVE emphatically. And I lay there, hazily watching a dark red spot of my
own blood shaping itself into a butterfly, glistening and soaking into the soiled gray
world of the canvas.
When the voice drawled TEN I was lifted up and dragged to a chair. I sat dazed. My eye
pained and swelled with each throb of my pounding heart and I wondered if now I would
be allowed to speak. I was wringing wet, my mouth still bleeding. We were grouped
along the wall now. The other boys ignored me as they congratulated Tatlock and
speculated as to how much they would be paid. One boy whimpered over his smashed
hand. Looking up front, I saw attendants in white jackets rolling the Portable ring away
and placing a small square rug in the vacant space surrounded by chain. Perhaps, I
thought, I will stand on the mg to deliver my speech.
Then the M.C. called to us. "Come on up here boys and get your money."
We ran forward to where the men laughed and talked in their chairs, waiting. Everyone
seemed friendly now.
"There it is on the rug," the man said. I saw the mg covered with coins of all dimensions
and a few crumpled bills. But what excited me, scattered here and there, were the gold
"Boys, it's all yours," the man said. "You get all you grab."
"That's right, Sambo," a blond man said, winking at me confidentially.
I trembled with excitement, forgetting my pain. I would get the gold and the bills. I
thought. I would use both hands. I would throw my body against the boys nearest me to
block them from the gold.
"Get down around the rug now," the man commanded, "and don't anyone touch it until I
give the signal."
"This ought to be good," I heard.
As told, we got around the square rug on our knees. Slowly the man raised his freckled
hand as we followed it upward with our eyes.
I heard, "These niggers look like they're about to pray!"
Then, "Ready", the man said. "Go!"
I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending
a surprised shriek to join those 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 others. The men roared above us as
"Pick it up, goddamnit, pick it up!" someone called like a bass-voiced parrot. "Go on, get
I crawled rapidly around the floor, picking up the coins, trying to avoid the coppers and
to get greenbacks and the gold. Ignoring the shock by laughing, as I brushed the coins off
quickly, I discovered that I could contain the electricity—a contradiction but it works.
Then the men began to push us onto the rug. Laughing embarrassedly, we struggled out
of their hands and kept after the coins. We were all wet and slippery and hard to hold.
Suddenly I saw a boy lifted into the air, glistening with sweat like a circus seat, and
dropped, his wet back landing flush upon the charged rug, heard him yell and saw him
literally dance upon his back, his elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his
muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by many flies. When be finally rolled
off, his face was gray and no one stopped him when he ran from the floor amid booming
"Get the money," the M.C. called. "That's good hard American cash!"
And we snatched and grabbed, snatched and grabbed. I was careful not to come too close
to the rug now, and when I felt the hot whiskey breath descend upon me like a cloud of
foul air I reached out and grabbed the leg of a chair. It was occupied and I held on
"Leggo, nigger! Leggo!"
The huge face wavered down to mine as he tried to push me free. But my body was
slippery and he was too drunk. It was Mr. Colcord, who owned a chain of movie houses
and "entertainment palaces." Each time he grabbed me I slipped out of his hands. It
became a real struggle. I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising
myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea
that I found myself actually carrying it out. I tried not to be obvious, yet when I grabbed
his leg, trying to tumble him out of the chair, he raised up roaring with laughter, and,
looking at me with soberness dead in the eye, kicked me viciously in the chest. The chair
leg flew out of my hand and I felt myself going and rolled. It was as though I had rolled
through a bed of hot coals. 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 finger, tips, 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."
I was limp as a dish rag. My back felt as though it had been beaten with wires.
When we had dressed the M.C. came in and gave us each five dollars, except Tatiock,
who got ten for being the last in the ring. Then he told us to leave. I was not to get a
chance to deliver my speech, I thought. I was going out into the dim alley in despair
when I was stopped and told to go back. I returned to the ballroom, where the men were
pushing back their chairs and gathering in small groups to talk.
The M.C. knocked on a table for quiet. "Gentlemen," he said, "we almost forgot an
important part of the program. A most serious part, gentlemen. This boy was brought
here to deliver a speech which he made at his graduation yesterday . . ."
"I'm told that he is the smartest boy we've got out there in Greenwood. I'm told that he
knows more big words than a pocket-sized dictionary."
Much applause and laughter.
"So now, gentlemen, I want you to give him your attention."
There was still laughter as I faced them, my mouth dry, my eyes throbbing. I began
slowly, but evidently my throat was tense, because they began shouting.
"We of the younger generation extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator," I
shouted, "who first spoke these flaming words of wisdom: 'A ship lost at sea for many
days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen
a signal: "Water, water; we die of thirst!" The answer from the friendly vessel came back:
"Cast down your bucket where you are." The captain of the distressed vessel, at last
heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh sparkling water
from the mouth of the Amazon River.' And like him I say, and in his words, 'To those of
my race who depend upon bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who
underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white
man, who is his next-door neighbor, I would say: "Cast down your bucket where you
are"—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by
whom we are surrounded . . .' "
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.
(What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in
the rightness of things!) I spoke even louder in spite of the pain. But still they talked and
still they laughed, as though deaf with cotton in dirty ears. So I spoke with greater
emotional emphasis. I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated. The
speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word.
All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered. Nor was that all.
Whenever I uttered a word of three or more syllables a group of voices would yell for me
to repeat it. I used the phrase "social responsibility" and they yelled:
"What's the word you say, boy?"
"Social responsibility," I said.
"Social . . ."
". . . responsibility."
The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt, distracted by having to gulp
down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in
newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.
"Social . . ."
"What?" they yelled.
". . . equality—.”
The laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds
of displeasure filled the room. The M.C. rushed forward. They shouted hostile phrases at
me. But I did not understand.
A small dry mustached man in the front row blared out, “Say that slowly, son!
"What you just said!"
"Social responsibility, sir,” I said.
"You weren't being smart, were you boy?" he said, not unkindly.
"You sure that about 'equality' was a mistake?"
"Oh, yes, Sir," I said. "I was swallowing blood."
"Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by
you, but you've got to know your place at all times. All right, now, go on with your
I was afraid. I wanted to leave but I wanted also to speak and I was afraid they'd snatch
"T'hank you, Sir," I said, beginning where I had left off, and having them ignore me as
Yet when I finished there was a thunderous applause. I was surprised to see the
superintendent come forth with a package wrapped in white tissue paper, and, gesturing
for quiet, address the men.
"Gentlemen, you see that I did not overpraise the boy. He makes a good speech and some
day he'll lead his people in the proper paths. And I don't have to tell you that this is
important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy, and so to encourage him in
the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in
the form of this . . ."
He paused, removing the tissue paper and revealing a gleaming calfskin briefcase.
". . . in the form of this first-class article from Shad Whitmore's shop."
"Boy," he said, addressing me, "take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of
office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important
papers that will help shape the destiny of your people."
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 and I wiped it quickly
away. I felt an importance that I had never dreamed.
"Open it and see what's inside," I was told.
My fingers a-tremble, I complied, smelling fresh leather and finding an official-looking
document inside. It was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. My eyes filled
with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor.
I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered the gold pieces I had scrambled
for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile.
When I reached home everyone was excited. Next day the neighbors came to
congratulate me. I even felt safe from grandfather, whose deathbed curse usually spoiled
my triumphs. I stood beneath his photograph with my briefcase in hand and smiled
triumphantly into his stolid black peasant's face. It was a face that fascinated me. The
eyes seemed to follow everywhere I went.
That night I dreamed I was at a circus with him and that he refused to laugh at the clowns
no matter what they did. Then later he told me to open my briefcase and read what was
inside and I did, finding an official envelope stamped with the state seal: and inside the
envelope I found another and another, endlessly, and I thought I would fall of weariness.
"Them's years," he said. "Now open that one." And I did and in it I found an engraved
stamp containing a short message in letters of gold. "Read it," my grandfather said. "Out
"To Whom It May Concern," I intoned. "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running."
I awoke with the old man's laughter ringing in my ears.
(It was a dream I was to remember and dream again for many years after. But at the time
I had no insight into its meaning. First I had to attend college.)