Speechless the Magazine

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A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.

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Inside a Battle Royal

from Ralph Ellison’s American Classic Invisible Man

 (The protagonist—whose name we never learn—has arrived at a hotel ballroom where “the town’s leading white citizens” had invited him to reprise the oration he presented on his high school graduation day, a speech extolling the virtue of humbleness.  The narrator reports that upon arrival “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”.)

 

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 become 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 mid-section and I went over again, feeling as though the smoke had become a knife jabbed into my guts.  Pushed this way and that by the legs milling around, 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 blows. 

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 from group to group….

Taking a fake fall, I saw a boy going down heavily beside me as though he 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? . . .

Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994
(Photo: Random House)