“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was … I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (Ellison 1211).
“At certain times I have no race, I am me” (Hurston 941).
The struggle for identity permeated the African-American community throughout the twentieth century. An American society still rife with racism and intolerance persisted long after the abolition of slavery; and in such an environment, creative forces sought to define their role within and apart from the whole. Two black writers of this era included Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, whose writings embody this societal complexity. Ellison’s 1952 “Battle Royal,” excerpted from Invisible Man, and Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” each approach the conflict with different styles. Ellison, who allegedly “insisted on being a writer rather than a spokesman for a cause or a representative figure,” creates a narrative form that utilizes strong simile and seems to possess allegorical notes (1209). By contrast, Hurston’s 1928 essay, while employing vivid metaphorical language, conveys a distinctly individualistic attitude that radiates a definitively present, if somewhat circumspect, optimism.
Hurston declares, “Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you” (941). Indeed, Hurston seems to indicate that mentality is the primary blockade preventing full understanding. She demonstrates this at the end of her essay, where she devises the metaphor of the colored paper bags filled with a mélange of contents – ostensibly establishing that we are all intrinsically similar yet unique beings (943). Misunderstanding is the only real difficulty to be surmounted. Yet Ellison highlights the ongoing subjugation through his portrayal of white men treating the black fighters and the white woman as objects of entertainment by cruel, animalistic means. The “leading white citizens” superficially assert their claims of domination by teasing the fighters with brass “gold” coins and relishing the spectacle of the struggle (1217, 1220).
Ellison’s style is personal and appropriately bias; yet what is perhaps most perturbing is the stoicism that the narrator displays. Ellison, through the grandfather’s dying words and the narrator’s speech, suggests that humility and understanding are essential to the wellbeing of society (1212). Yet even after witnessing and being victim of the atrocities, the narrator displays little suggestion of resentment or anger, as he would be entirely justified to feel; his stoicism borders upon indifference, almost acceptance. He still desires, even after the fight, even after the electrified rug incident, the chance to give his speech. Alas, as he speaks he must “[gulp] it down, blood, saliva and all,” showing no pain as the men in the audience heckle him and laugh (1219). The conclusion to “Battle Royal” contains the ultimate irony, as the narrator receives his refined briefcase and scholarship with great appreciation in spite of the disgusting nature of the men bestowing it upon him. This enthusiasm is only checked by the disillusioning dream involving the grandfather, who mocks the narrator’s lack of vengeful strength (1221).
Indeed, for Hurston, the search for identity as an African-American appears to be a primarily internal conflict, one to be handled with the attitude of adjustment. For Ellison, it is one of external conflict, suggesting that the path towards harmony necessitates an entire upheaval of behavior, a re-establishment and equal application of humane values.