A short take on how students at a college in Georgia respond to Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal."
Episode by Jennifer Colatosti.
Read by Kassandra Timm.
Jennifer Colatosti is Associate Professor and Interim Associate Chair of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and since 2018 has co-organized the literary festival Revival: Lost Southern Voices.
Students and scholars of American literature are likely no stranger to analyzing Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. But one needn't devote their life to studying literature in order to understand Ellison’s depiction of American racism. Students in a first-year composition class at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College read just the first chapter, originally published as the short story “Battle Royal.” They found plenty to connect with.
You’re listening to Remarkable Receptions—a podcast about popular and critical responses to African American novels.
In class discussions of “Battle Royal,” students focused most on the violence that the narrator and his peers are forced to engage. One student noted that the description of the fight made it seem “outrageous,” even unrealistic, but the class agreed that the underlying goal of the fight was for the white men in the audience to exert and maintain control over the young Black men.
The students connected the description of the narrator and his peers being “clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat” to slave auctions. They noted the jeers and threats from the audience and concluded that the young men are scared into competing against each other at any cost rather than challenge white supremacy.
Students talked about the significance of the men being blindfolded as they fought; they discussed what the story shows about captivity, humiliation, and control. They focused on the electrified rug on which the young men are forced to collect coins which turn out to be fake.
One student later observed in an essay that “for African Americans to make money, they have to endure a lot of pain and suffering from the whites [who] control the poor Black economy.” Another chose to return to “Battle Royal” for their final research essay, focusing on the continuum of socially sanctioned violence against Black Americans from enslavement to Jim Crow to police shootings.
This class was comprised mostly of young Black American students who came of age in the South. Their reception of Ellison’s 1947 story speaks to the timelessness of his social critique. First-year composition students writing and talking about a complex novel like upper-level literature majors – remarkable.
This episode was written by Jennifer Colatosti. The episode was edited by Elizabeth Cali and Howard Rambsy.
This podcast, Remarkable Receptions, is part of the Black Literature Network, a joint project from African American literary studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas. The project was made possible by the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. For more information, visit blacklitnetwork.org.