The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison
In The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison we have the theme of struggle, equality, hope and connection. Narrated in the first person by a man called John the reader realises after reading the story that Ellison may be exploring the theme of struggle. John seems to struggle through life. He is conscious of the fact that he is not treated as an equal to others but he still has some hope in his life. Something that is noticeable by the fact that John tells his son that being American is better than being brown or white. It is as though John is attempting to instill into his son a sense of identity that is not dictated by the colour of a person’s skin. That a person can be free in America though it might be important to remember that the setting of the story is during the time of segregation. When African-Americans where refused the same rights as white people. The fact that John is attempting to educate himself may also be important as it suggests that John wants to better himself. That he still believes he can be somebody other than a janitor. In many ways John may attempting to achieve the American dream. However due to the fact that he is an African-American. This may be an impossibility.
If anything John is reliant on the help of others to improve his situation. Even if he does continue to study. This help may come in the form of the Union man who talks to John outside the building while he is polishing the brass. The man seems to have John’s interests at heart and is offering John the opportunity for equality. There is also a symbolic connection between John and the Union man. John has cut his hand and needs to apply iodine while the Union man had his hands burned by others for helping his African-American friend. It is possible that Ellison is using the symbolism of both men’s hands to not only connect each man to the other but to also suggest that both men are equal. Something that the reader suspects John is aware of when he looks at his hand on the lawn. Berry is also an interesting character as he is the opposite of the Union man. Whereas the Union man wishes to be inclusive. Berry lets John and his son know their place or at least what he perceives to be their place. Something the reader notices with the incident of the ball going through Berry’s window.
John’s initial engagement with the Union man is also interesting as despite some derogatory remarks from the Union man. John does not lose his temper rather he remains calm throughout the conversation with the Union man. Something that may have been difficult for John due to the remarks being made (remark about rope). However the conversation between John and the Union man does give the reader an insight into just how difficult circumstances may have been for African-Americans at the time the story was written. The title of the story may also be symbolically significant as Ellison could be using the title to suggest or place an emphasis on the exclusion of African-Americans within society. It is also ironic that John’s son doesn’t really understand what the phrase ‘black ball’ means. Though it appears to apply to both him and John its significance is lost on him. This could be important as Ellison may be attempting to highlight the possibility of hope for John’ son. That things in the future may not be the same for him as they are for John.
The end of the story is interesting as Ellison closes the story with a sense of hope. By having John look again at the Union man’s card the reader feels as though things might improve for John (and his son). He may not necessarily be in the same position now that there is a possibility of having some support behind him. Though it may be important to remember that in reality very little if anything has changed for John. At present he is still treated unfairly by Berry. His son is still the victim of racism as were millions of African-Americans. Hope is one thing but what is really needed is action and John may be on the right road. Though the road will be long. Just as John is struggling at present he will also struggle in the future to be treated as an equal by others. He might be successful with the union. However society will take longer to change its opinion on African-Americans. Though as mentioned John may be on the right road. It just might take him longer than he thinks.