Wallace Stevens -- the Idea Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

One of Wright's major works was Black Boy and one of the most poignant sections of that book was Chapter 12 in which Wright described the experiences of two southern black boys exploited by the "five dollar fight." Working for an optician in Memphis, Tennessee, the protagonist (Richard) hopes that his experiences with white people in Memphis will be better than in the small town of Jackson, Mississippi "The people of Memphis had an air of relative urbanity that took some of the sharpness off the attitude of whites toward Negroes & #8230;"

However, Richard finds that white people are just as exploitative and abusive of blacks in the big city as in small towns. Some of the white men where Richard works pay another black boy a quarter at a time to let them kick him in his rear end and even when white men seem to be nice to Richard, it is somewhat obvious to him that they are patronizing him for their own amusement. Other times, they go out of their way to use him and other blacks like him for their own amusement, such as when Mr. Olin tells Richard of another young black boy named Harrison who hates him because he (Richard) supposedly insulted him and wants to kill him. The men continue frightening Richard for several days and advise him to protect himself against Harrison with a knife.

Richard eventually confronts Harrison at which point they both realize that Mr. Olin and his cronies have been telling Harrison the same thing about Richard for their amusement and also because they want to see the two boys fight each other. When the men offer the boys five dollars to fight each other, Richard is reluctant but Harrison convinces him to do it for the money. They earn the money fighting each other but the experience leaves both boys ashamed of allowing themselves to be exploited and deeply resentful of white society.


Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson by his father who died when Ellison was only three years old. Only much later did Ellison find out that his father had expressed the hope that his son would become a writer or a poet. Like Richard Wright, Ellison wrote extensively about white racism in its various forms in different parts of the country. During World War II, Ellison served in the merchant marine braving German U-boat infested waters in the effort to keep essential war supplies moving between the U.S. And Britain.

It was Wright who actually encouraged Ellison to pursue fiction writing and the two writers maintained a long friendship. Ellison was a scholar in his own right who lectured in Europe and later taught Russian and American literature at Bard College, Rutgers University, and Yale University after returning to the United States. Also much like the works of Wright, those of Ellison were embraced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Ellison's most famous and influential work was The Invisible Man for which he was awarded the National Book Award in 1953. One of the most dramatic sections of the work was the section that was originally an essay entitled Battle Royal, a reference to a ritual of exploitation and embarrassment conducted by white men in which young black men and boys were encouraged to fight one another for their amusement, recalling the similar stories of Richard Wright in A Five Dollar Fight.

In Battle Royal, Ellison describes a protagonist who proclaims "I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed." That is a reference to the very early lesson that his grandfather imparted to him on his deathbed in which he had told him, "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."

During the boxing match in which the boys are blindfolded, the (unnamed)

protagonist discovers the meaning of his grandfather's words that had only scared him until then. His blindfold slips just enough for him to protect himself against the other fighters but he realizes not to give away his advantage by fighting too well. This is a metaphor for a life strategy where it was necessary for a young, educated, and talented black man to conceal his abilities in order not to provoke white resentment: "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."

This work also fits the description of a classic initiation story in which the protagonist comes of age, which also has a dual meaning in light of his age and transition to working life after his high school graduation and his sudden realization about his grandfather's advice and his new strategy for coping with epidemic white racism in American society. The title of the novel is also apparently a dual reference to the protagonists search for an identity in life and also to the fact that a black man of his generation was largely ignored and "invisible" to white society except perhaps in the most…

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