The story consists of a frame in which the mature narrator remembers the advice that his dying grandfather gave to his son (the narrator’s father) and his remembrance of a cruel betrayal that confirms the grandfather’s advice.
The grandfather tells his son to “keep up the good fight,” to continue the black people’s war by guerrilla tactics, to be a traitor and spy in the enemy’s country as he himself has been. He tells his son: “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.” The narrator and his alarmed family puzzle over the old man’s last words, especially because the narrator has been praised by the town’s powerful white men for his meekness and cooperativeness. He is secretly concerned that without meaning to he is already somehow carrying out his grandfather’s advice.
The battle royal episode begins when white leaders ask the narrator to deliver a high school graduation speech on the virtues of humility to a gathering of leading white citizens, a “triumph” for the black community. The event, held in the ballroom of a leading hotel, turns out to be a “smoker,” a male-only affair involving whiskey, cigars, and smutty entertainment. The latter begins with the battle royal of the title, a free-for-all boxing match in which blindfolded combatants punch at one another wildly. Because the boxers are all high...
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