Monday, April 22, 2013

Adrian Matejka's, Ralph Ellison's, and Quentin Tarantino's Battle Royals

source: Micah
Adrian Matejka's upcoming book The Big Smoke, which focuses on boxer Jack Johnson, opens with a poem entitled "Battle Royal," where Matejka, writing from the perspective of Johnson, describes how white men "rounded up the skinniest / of us, had us strip to trousers, then / blindfolded us before the fight." The troubling nature of those arranged fights in Matejka's poem calls to mind a famous scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), where a group of black boys are also blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of white men.

Five years before the publication of Ellison's novel, many readers were introduced to that disturbing ritual as his short story "Invisible Man" appeared in the October 1947 issue of Horizon. Over the years, as editors began to repeatedly reprint the piece in anthologies, the title of Ellison's story was changed to "Battle Royal" to avoid confusion with the novel's title, Invisible Man.

Although not technically a battle royal, Richard Wright describes a similar disturbing experience in his autobiography Black Boy (1945), where a young Richard is prompted to fight one of his co-workers, another black boy, for the delight of white men. Wright and the other boy had initially planned to pretend to fight, but once the group of white men further instigated, the boys' plans no longer mattered. "We fought four hard rounds, stabbing, slugging, grunting, spitting, cursing, crying, bleeding," wrote Wright. "The shame and anger we felt for having allowed ourselves to be duped crept into our blows and blood ran into our eyes, half blinding us."

The scenes that Wright, Ellison, and Matejka describe where black males are forced or prompted to fight each other for the delight of white men also correspond to the much-discussed "Mandingo fighting" in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012). A villainous character in the film bets on and arranges bouts where enslaved black men must fight each other, sometimes to the death, at the bidding of their owners. Commentators often noted that Tarantino likely borrowed the idea of "Mandingo fighting" from the film Mandingo (1975) as a point of reference, and that film in turn was based on Kyle Onstott's novel Mandingo (1957).

Gordon Parks presents a battle royal scene in his novel The Learning Tree (1963). In addition, in James Brown's autobiography The Godfather of Soul (1997) he also describes fighting in battle royals. "In a battle royal they blindfold you, tie one hand behind your back, put a boxing glove on your free hand, and shove you into a ring with five other kids in the same condition. You swing at anything that moves," explained Brown. He goes on to note that, "I'd be out there stumbling around, swinging around, swinging wild, and hearing people laughing. I didn't know I was being exploited."

Having an awareness of those descriptions by various writers gives Matejka's poem and Johnson's early participation in battle royals more weight. Matejka's volume and those portrayals of black men fighting each other to entertain white people highlight a history black male exploitation.

A Notebook on Adrian Matejka    
Coverage of Django Unchained 
The Bizarre Origins of the Battle Royal - Part Two by John S. Nash
1933 newspaper clipping about battle royal

No comments: