In Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” two young black American teens nearing the age of adulthood in a time where their race was neglected and looked down upon struggle to understand the lessons of their youth as they each experience firsthand the consequences that follow each and every action. Their tales share similar challenges and backgrounds, but what really ties these two young men together are the decisions they make and how they follow through. While one child leaves responsibility behind, the other gives in to what he sees as a hard truth carved in stone, these stories share the struggle of conquering the transition into adulthood but also convey a very similar message; we must plant our feet in the ground at one point if we are to ever gain the respect we so desire.
In “Battle Royal,” the nameless Narrator is haunted by his grandfather’s dying words, when he tells his son “keep up the good fight…our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days…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… (389).” The Narrator absorbs these words and carries them with him as he works his way through school and eventually gives a speech at his high school graduation, a speech on the importance of humility in the modern world. But as he carries on the legacy bestowed upon him by his grandfather, so to must he carry the guilt as he recalls his grandfather’s naming of this lifestyle as “treachery” to the colored people (389).
In “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” the young boy Dave falls into a trap of similar circumstances as he carries with him the pokes, prods, and criticisms of his peers, eager to exert power over them through any means possible in order to gain some respect as he begins to plot: “Them [black men] can’t understand nothing. One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy.” (1401). Both of these young men feel driven by their inability to control their lives, but find inspiration through alternative measures, with Dave it is a gun and with the Nameless Narrator, a speech rooted from his grandfather’s wisdom.
When observing the actions and reactions of the men, they both seem to share the fallacy of taking the easy road out. With Dave, the gun is a way to force respect, showing us that he is really still just a boy at heart who has yet to learn that respect must be earned. He finalizes his youth by escaping his penance and leaving behind his responsibilities. Instead of learning to become a man by owning up to his mistakes, he flees from them and leaves his family behind to pay for what he has done.
The Nameless Narrator from “Battle Royal” on the other hand wants to obtain his place on high by delivering his speech to the respected people of the town, but must first survive the “last man standing” smoker that he was tricked into participating in with nine other black men. These black men fight not for power or greed, but for the respect of their white peers. They assault the Narrator whose speech is centered on giving a lesson in humility, beating into him the true meaning of his grandfather’s dying words. When he is finally given the chance to speak in front of the men, they award him with a free ride to college and a suitcase to keep him in line. They support him not for his educational prowess, but for understanding that he must submit to the white dominancy, and support him in teaching the members of his race how to respect higher authority. In doing this, he too becomes a traitor and spy against his people, the black men and women who are trying to establish an independent foothold in society.
Both of these stories seem to follow a similar theme as the boys struggle in their longstanding quests to prove themselves. With Dave, he lies throughout the story in order to achieve the gun that he desires, telling his mother “Aw, ma, Ah just stopped down the road t talk wid the boys. (1402).” After this lie, he continues to lie over and over so that he can get his chance at using the gun and becoming a respected man, even going so far as to lie to his boss before accidentally shooting his mule. His lies symbolize his youthfulness and how easily he makes mistakes, but most importantly, they make it astoundingly clear that he has long to go before he truly reaches adulthood.
In “Battle Royal,” the Narrator follows a path similar to that of Dave as he looks for acceptance in a world that seems unable to make a place for him or the men and women of his skin tone. He carries with him the dying words of his grandfather and uses them to put on a mask and consistently lie to his friends, family, and people of the town. When he gives his speech on humility, he expresses with irony the importance of helping your fellow brethren out when in need:
“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… (397).”
But the Nameless Narrator too, falls short in the end, choosing to lead his life dominated by the white men in power as he accepts their gifts and continues acting in defiance of his own people so that he can advance his personal initiative, leaving him, too, as a traitor to his race and spy for the enemy.
In conclusion, the boys from each of these stories share many problems, but nonetheless choose to follow through with selfish desires despite the consequences of their actions. While Dave chooses to escape his loyalties, the Nameless Narrator reshapes his to suit his personal growth; no matter the cost. They are heart wrenching stories that remind readers of the mistakes they made as children and the importance of those mistakes in guiding us in our future endeavors. What’s most similar about these two boys however; is that they both take the easy way out in the long haul as they push away their responsibilities and solidify their immaturity.