Yesterday one of my summer students stayed after to talk about Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal.” We talked for two hours, each of us leaving with assigned reading or viewing. I agreed to read some of the sources he’d used for a high school paper he’d written about the KKK. Their real purpose, he told me, had been to defend the south from carpetbaggers.  Only a few renegade branches turned to violence.  Oh? He in turn agreed to watch the film version of “Slavery by Another Name.” I would have tried for the book but it’s finals time at this engineering powerhouse and in the humanities nowadays, we take what we can get.

This student, call him Todd, hails from Virginia, where he was schooled in military academies.  What he wanted to talk about was how he couldn’t read past a certain point in the story because he just couldn’t believe leading citizens of a southern community would act the way the men in the story did.

I better summarize the story, which is also the first chapter of Ellison’s seminal novel, Invisible Man. It’s set in a small southern city in the 1940’s. An outstanding senior from the “colored” high school has been invited to give his graduation oration in which, he tells us, he “showed that humility was the secret, indeed the very essence, of progress.” He arrives to find the room crowded with intoxicated white men, “all the town’s bigshots.” Turns out it’s a smoker. His speech is to be preceded by a little entertainment for the civic leaders.  After being forced to watch a white woman prostitute strip, with the white men enjoying their distress, the teens are blindfolded and made to fight one another in a ring – the battle royal.  Bets are made. The main character gets through it with a bloodied mouth and his painfully earnest desire to deliver his speech intact.

Todd said he had to stop reading right when the white men started passing the frightened stripper around and violence seemed imminent. At first I thought he was critiquing the way the story was written, but I soon saw he was laboring under the first loss of the “terrible innocence” Cornel West speaks of.  In different ways he kept saying: if the leaders are that corrupt, then society simply can’t function. It was a strange form of denial that had in it the seeds of a burning truth. And this future chemical engineer, a senior slogging through a required humanities class, was feeling the heat.

Was society functioning then for its African-American members? I asked.  How much longer would it function in that pre-Civil-Rights-era form? And why did he assume morally corrupt people could not, did not in fact, maintain a society?  And what if the whole society is corrupt, founded on exploitation?

As we talked I saw that what most troubled him about the story was that no one at the battle royal had stopped it.  Or at least walked out. We agreed that perhaps some hadwalked out, or opted not to attend. But what did that mean, in the end? I paraphrased a King quote and have since gotten it entire: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Todd searched desperately to find one good white man in the story. We read aloud, debating the meanings of specific words, “fear” for example. He argued that the school superintendent, who quiets the crowd so the boy can, swallowing blood (he dare not use the spittoon), give his speech at last, is that one good man.  Todd felt by giving the main character an award, the superintendent was helping him help his own people. “Within the confines of Booker T. Washington’s limits,” I said. Oops, no knowledge of that. (We’ll be meeting again.)  “And why not a leader of all the people, a lawyer or the mayor? They give him an award because they think, and he still thinks, he’ll never ask for equality. That’s the dangerous word. That’s the word that could get him killed and he knows it.”

He couldn’t leave the story; he still argued it couldn’t be based on experience. He finally conceded that he could maybe buy the mistreatment of the woman: things get out of hand.  As for the boxing match?  Well people do enjoy watching boxing, so he could sort of see….  “But the whole thing with the electrified rug?  Just couldn’t happen, maybe with the town’s low-life, but not the upstanding gentlemen.  Never.”    Aha, class showing.

More summary needed: After the battle, the sweat- and blood-soaked are encouraged to scramble for tossed coins and bills. But the money is tossed onto an electrified rug.  More entertainment for the town leaders, more pain and humiliation for our main character, more moral torment for my Virginian.

“You don’t believe something like that ever happened?”

“I don’t believe no one stopped it.”

Consider a white boy raised on math and science and educated in a mostly-white, historically segregationist military academy where he studied the pseudo-history of the KKK but not George Washington Carver’s career and beliefs. He’s never heard of Emmet Till or Trayvon Martin.  How to begin to shed his terrible innocence but through reading fiction, with its ability to recreate and deepen experience.  But it’s no easy thing to be dropped, via Ellison’s literary brilliance,  right into the perspective of a smart black teenager in 1940’s America.  The very authenticity and resonance of the narrative is what’s caused the story to be so heavily anthologized, taught and discussed.

In my office doorway Todd stood talking still.  He asked if I knew that the beautiful Shenandoah Valley had been burned to the ground three times by Sherman’s scorched earth campaign. I did not.

“It was. He said ‘even a crow traveling this valley shall have to carry its own provisions.’”

I had hiked that valley. No place but my home Catskills had ever struck me as so beautiful. I imagined him growing up there, his schools teaching about “the war of aggression,” elders lamenting a time when it was said “The United States of Americaare…” rather than is.  I tried to open to his perspective. I thought he had earned it. And anyway I really wanted him to read or at least watch Slavery by Another Name.  Because I don’t think he realized, but he was sure trying to, what it takes for the good men and women to stand up and say stop.  And the high price they, and we, pay because they don’t.

I’ll let you know what he sends me to read about the KKK.