The Black Ball 

young boy for the black ball

Ralph Ellison

While narrated in the first person by an African-American caretaker, it is perhaps his son who is the central character of the story. Mother is never mentioned; John seems to be bringing the boy up on his own, while working hard, up at six to do his ‘mopping… sweeping and dusting… and emptying the trash’ before returning to give breakfast to his son. The list of present participles indicates the ongoing routine of unskilled work, but there is also a sense of pride in the narrative, pride in both his work and his son. 

A Question of Race 

The concern with race is very soon apparent, with the boy’s question, ‘Daddy, am I black?’ The rest of the story explores the implications of that question, particularly for the boy and his future. John’s answers are careful and neutral; he interprets ‘black’ purely as colour, answering ‘you’re brown’, taking racial division out of the response, especially when he dismisses talk of colour superiority with ‘American is better than both’. 

The Union Man 

John’s apparent lack of concern with race is revealed as an act for his son in the encounter with the union activist as he polishes the brass later. This section is largely written in dialogue, but retaining John’s narrative perspective, so throughout the reader sees his suspicion and hostility towards the man, distrusting his apparently pleasant manner. While the man greets John and admires his work, John is making judgements, separating himself from the man – ‘When they did have something to say to us, they always became familiar.’ He dismisses white people as a general type, using the impersonal pronoun ‘they’, but this seems to be born out of experience. He is aware of the history between ‘my kind and his’. John lies to the man, gives non-committal answers and ‘turned [his] back to him’. Unlike the colloquial drawl of the man, John’s speech is formal. It is only when the man refers to American race history that there is a change; he comments that John is unaccustomed to a ‘Fellow like me offering a fellow like you something besides a rope.’ This sudden, direct reference to African-Americans being lynched by white Americans shocks John; he stops and sees the man’s smile. ‘In spite of myself’, he says, ‘I had to smile.’ A barrier has been broken and it is noticeable that John’s previous formal ‘No thank you’ changes to ‘No thanks’.

There is still a barrier, though, as John challenges the man: ‘What ever caused you to give a damn about a Negro anyway?’ There is the anger of years of oppression in John’s question, but the man’s answer is shocking and provides another insight into the violent racial history of the United States. For giving an alibi for an African-American accused of the rape of white woman, the man has had his arms burnt ‘with a gasoline torch’. The accused man, though, was ‘lynched’ and had his house ‘burned down’. By truthfully insisting on the man’s innocence, they are guilty of making ‘a white woman out a lie.’ This is similar to Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published 23 years later. Both texts explore the violence meted out to African-Americans in the name of ‘justice’ and of course this is the context for John’s initial distrust of the man who questions him on the steps of the building. Some of the language used in the dialogue is now taboo, yet here it is used by John himself and the union man, who is clearly in sympathy with John and is working against racial discrimination. This was the language casually used at the time, sometimes without direct ill-intent (as seen throughout Huck’s narration in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn), but of course it always marked out African-Americans as ‘other’ on the grounds of race, and recognition of this led to the change of attitude towards such language. 

The segregation between races is observed later by John from his window and is a poignant example of the division enforced by both sides. A group of children from ‘the quarters’ where John and his son live are playing – John narrates the scene lyrically, with ‘little fellows in bright sunsuits’, ‘a flock of pigeons’ and ‘the wind which blew’ the children’s ‘cries over to where I stood’. But when another child tries to join them, the attendant nurse sends him away, separating the children. At the end of the paragraph John reveals that the child was ‘the little son of the white gardener’. Even innocent playing children are segregated. 

The Black Ball 

The way that segregation determines lives becomes clearer and John has greater consciousness of it since his conversation with the union man. Interestingly, he is reading Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate, recently published, about an attempted workers’ revolution in China. It is the simple innocence of John’s son which brings it to the surface, with his aspirations to ‘drive a truck’ when older; he sees this as a possibility because he saw that ‘a colored man drove the truck today’. His aspirations are limited by what he can see is possible, by the precedents of other people of his race. That innocence is also central to the episode with his ball, significantly taken in an act of bullying by a white boy who has thrown it through the window into the office of John’s boss. It is on a much less significant scale, but like the story of the union man, there is no time to listen to excuses; guilt is assumed and reprimand is swift. Segregation is enforced – ‘You know he’s got no business around here in front, don’t you?’ Using the phrase which gives the story its title, Berry warns John that he is ‘going to find’ himself ‘behind the black ball.’ The phrase comes from billiards and is a position from which it is impossible to make a successful shot, but it also carries connotations of ‘black-balling’, voting against someone to deny them a position or oust them from one they hold. The threat to John is clear, despite his and his son’s innocence. 

That symbol becomes the focus of the end of the story, again dependent on the innocence of John’s son, who believes that Berry ‘can’t see very good’ because ‘Anybody can see my ball is white.’ And in a striking exchange with ironic subtext, when his son asks, ‘Will I play with the black ball?’ John replies ‘In time, son… In time.’ The little boy’s freewheeling innocence cannot last for ever. As John muses, ‘He was learning the rules of the game already, but he didn’t know it.’ John’s quiet satisfaction at the beginning of the story has shifted; he has become more alert to the injustice of his position. He pessimism about his son’s future is tempered by the union card in his pocket and the last words are ones of greater optimism – ‘Maybe there was a color other than white on the old ball.’ 


Narrative methods to consider:
  • First person narration
  • Dialogue
  • Structure
  • Symbolism