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Is This The Most Degrading Scene In Literature?

I’m not sure that a novel has ever opened with the intensity of Invisible Man.

Not long after the opening lines of the novel, Ellison takes us into one of the most emotionally disturbing scenes in literature. Even if you never read Invisible Man, the “Battle Royal” scene is worth a read. This particular scene was published separately by Ellison long before Invisible Man came together as a novel.

A group of white men blindfold a bunch of young black men and force them to fight each other in boxing style battle royal match. It’s nuts. When the match is finally over, the white men take the blindfolds off and lead the black men to their “payment.” They’ve scattered a bunch of coins on a rug that has an electric current running through it. You can imagine what happens next.

Finally, after being bloodied and electrified, the black, unnamed narrator is given the opportunity to present a speech to the white crowd, one he had prepared for and had thought was supposed to be the purpose of the gathering. As he quotes a Booker T. Washington speech from the stage, he’s jeered and cursed by the white men. It’s an ugly, yet powerful, scene.

Some quotes from this scene that stand out to me:

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 naïve. 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.

And this description of the actual fight:

The smoke was agonizing and there were no rounds, no bells at three-minute intervals to relieve our exhaustion. The room spun around me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from nose to mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest.

And this description of the horrific “coin scene” following the battle royal:

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 the others. The men roared above us as we struggled.

Wow. I’d be surprised if there has ever been a more racially-charged scene in literature.

The white men laughing, forcing these young black boys to degrade themselves with the fight, then degrade themselves further by crawling on their hands and knees to scoop up fake coins, unbeknownst to them, on an electrified rug.

Unbelievable. But a beautifully written scene by Ellison.

I think I’ll be highly recommending Invisible Man when I am finished.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. It’s all a bit grim for the fact that you you all this kind of stiff happened, and still happens to a lesser extent. As you say, definitely a powerful bit of literature.


    October 9, 2012
  2. “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.” – The book in one line.


    October 9, 2012
  3. After reading this, I’m not sure I could handle the intensity of the rest of the book!


    October 9, 2012
  4. Teresa #

    What a horrendous scene and yet he balanced it so well with his calm narrative. I didn’t think I could handle reading this either, but that is Ellison’s gift – to keep the reader in a safe place.


    October 9, 2012
    • Yes. “Calm narrative” is a great way to describe it.


      October 9, 2012
  5. Woah! A must read for me… will get it soon.


    October 9, 2012
  6. Mabel #

    I read this scene in a college class. I still need to read the rest of the book. Definitely powerful.


    October 9, 2012
    • That scene just sets it up. The rest of the novel is outstanding.


      October 11, 2012
  7. I definitely need to read this book! It sounds like one of those novels that teach you how a part of the world actually is, a part that I at least will never know personally. I love when literature does that.


    October 14, 2012
  8. This is brutal. Did stuff like this actually happen? There wasn’t any law against it?


    October 25, 2012
    • I’m guessing stuff like this did happen. And even if they had laws, the culture was so dominated by white people at this point that a lot of people probably just chose not to get involved.


      October 25, 2012
  9. Stephen #

    Look up from your armchair. It’s still happening.


    February 2, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Book #48: Invisible Man | 101 Books
  2. 2017 Battle Royale: Chris & Soulja’s Fight For The Future | The Black Freq Sheets

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