Analysis of “King of the Bingo Game” Ideas of slavery, identity, and what is acceptable behavior differ greatly in the past-Civil War North and South. Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game” depicts how traditional southern slave mentalities are in conflict even after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of the slaves, leading many, like the nameless main character to try and find a new identity and giving him a taste of power to control his life and the lives of others.
From the beginning of the story, we are shown racial inequalities.
Ellison introduces us to our character who is a broke and hungry African American economically struggling to save his lady friend’s, Laura’s, life. The protagonist “got no birth certificate to get a job” (Ellison 584). With no proof of such a document, he can’t sustain a job and has no proof of his origin and/or identity. He is unable to prove who he is, which does not allow him to exist as a normal citizen in American society.
His never deliberately receiving a name throughout the story shows the protagonist as representing a massive population of the poverty-stricken and destitute, colored African Americans.
Ellison mentions the protagonist’s name “had been given to him by the white man who had owned his grandfather a long time ago” (588), so he and the generations beforehand have been named by the dominant white male, setting the stage for a character who is lost and can’t seem to find himself because of the rules society has established for him. Ellison is trying to show the conflicted nature of “freedom” after the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The bill itself proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free.
The Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. While slaves were being freed by their masters, they had nothing to go to, no money to live off of, working as a slave is all they ever knew. Freedom is a word of uncertainty for those such as the main character, doesn’t know if he will have a job or money to eat or provide for Laura’s doctor. Even though African Americans were free they were still looked down upon by the whites, as someone who is less than them.
While this is a problem in the North as the nameless man says, “down South all id have to do is lean over and say, Lady give me a few of those peanuts… shed think nothing of it…But up here it was different” (Ellison 584), we can see the clear racial tensions in the opposing states, whereas people in the South stick together. The protagonist enlightens us to believe that “anybody can win the jackpot” (588), yet it is clearly established that the bingo hall is controlled by the white man.
Inside the bingo hall, “they had it all fixed, everything was fixed” (584) This shows the use of a double entendre, representing that the game is in some way rigged and that they, “the whites” have it all “fixed”, so that the whites will always win the game and be superior to the blacks. In a way, it is kind of like the movie before the game, no matter how many times he has seen it, it will always play out the same way. When he finally calls out “Bingo! Bingo! ” (585), we have someone from the stands hollering “Let the fool up there” (585).
The audience continually addressed the protagonist as “fool” (585, 586) “boy” (586, 587, 590) and “jerk” (587, 588), letting us believe the audience is primarily consisting of white participants who have no respect for the African American, calling him names as if he was an object. The man on stage refers to him as “boy” (586), making it safe to say he is also a white man. He asks him where he is from and begins to slowly embarrass him, cracking jokes on stage to please his fellow crowd members, for the white man knows the protagonist is somewhere he doesn’t belong.
The protagonist takes no action to respond back to the host, receiving the verbal beating, because it is what he has been accustomed to throughout his life, being seen as the inferior race. He continues to show his lack of identity, as well as his powers of assertion and articulation. Once the protagonist is given the button to control the bingo wheel he tells himself his plan “… give the wheel a short quick twirl. Just a touch of the button” (586). He held on to the button, tightening his grip, as the wheel increased in speed, it drawing “ him more and more into its power” (587).
He finally held the power of the button given to him by the white man. This was his chance to attempt to break the grossly unfair set of rules established by the dominant white society. Instead of following his plan he continued to let the wheel spin, watching the numbers as they whirled by, he then burst out “This is God! This is the really truly God! He said it aloud, ‘This is God! ’” (587). He experiences total power, he loves it. He controls the entire audience’s attention as he holds the button and feels more and more power.
The wheel spins while holding onto the button, allowing him to be master of his own destiny a feeling new, scary and addicting to the protagonist. Troy A. Urquhart, a critic, agrees and mentions “complete power lies not in control of others, but in control of the self and in hope, however slight, for success” (4). Urquhart makes a strong argument about the protagonist, expressing that he who has hope in himself can overcome any challenge and see though the toughest of times to find himself and gain the power he deserves.
Ellison makes conquering of the bingo game a beginning of a small movement for the protagonist, a start of something that could potentially help discrimination. He held on tight to the button, “although he controlled the wheel, it also controlled him” (588). The sudden and overwhelming feeling of power over his own destiny, the crowd and everyone in the bingo hall thrilled him. As he let the wheel spin, the crowd grew angry, the lights flickered and he realized that even though he held the power (the button) it can easily be taken away from him, by turning off the power switch.
That’s when something abruptly changes in him and he screams “Who am I? ” (Ellison 588). He begins to have revelations while on stage seeing that, he is no longer nameless, no longer empty inside, no longer was anybody. He let loose his grasp on the name the whites had given him and as long as he held on to the button he was “The-man-who-pressed-the-button-who-held-the-prize-who-was-the-King-of-Bingo” (588). He finds his identity in the power that he possesses in the bingo hall. For this brief moment he is the “King of the Bingo Game”, the button gives him this power.
He controls the attention of the filled bingo which consists of mostly white people, something that must have been a very unique feeling for a man in his situation. This power becomes addicting to him as he continues to hold the button, and just like any man who has come into power he wants more. He remains holding the button, he has the power of his and Laura’s fate in his hands and doesn’t want to let go. He will never let go of the power until someone takes it from him. Through his journey he had finally gained some power and a name for himself, he was a “King”, even if it was something as minimal as a bingo ame. The protagonist breaks down with the thought of his loved one, Laura, passing away and screams for her to live. Screaming and crying about the pain he holds for his loved one increases and builds up inside him as “he felt that the whole audience had somehow entered him and was stomping its feet in his stomach and he was unable to throw them out” (589). He continues to hold the button down, longing for the power of the continual spinning of the bingo wheel, since he simply “couldn’t afford to break the cord” (589).
He is so determined to show everybody “since his birth, and his mother’s birth and the birth of his father” (586), that he is the one who took the stand to attempt to break free of the society’s rules, to gain the power and respect he longs for and an identity that has long been lost. He is not ready to let loose of the button, or break the cord, which would symbolize breaking of the umbilical cord and represent the rebirth of his new identity. He is not capable of defining who he is, to give himself the identity he and his past generations deserve, consequently he leaves himself vulnerable to the dominant white male he continues to depict. King of the Bingo Game” is a story in the era of the Harlem Renaissance and after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is filled with issues of inequality and race and events that took place with what African Americans would have to deal with in being discriminated against and not having an identity of their own. Ralph Ellison conveys the issue very effectively with his nameless character’s suffering from the southern slave mentalities in the North. Trying to gain an income to save his life and the life of others, he is crippled by society’s rules and left to play a “fixed game. With the white male as the dominant race, he finds himself wanting to break away and discover his sense of identity in which he does by holding the button giving him the power of his own fate. Through continual challenges and desperation, he finds himself not able to break loose and becomes oppressed by the racial hierarchy of American slave mentality Ellison, Ralph. “King of the Bingo Game. ” New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1944. 584-590. Urquhart, Troy. “ellison’s King of the Bingo Game. ” Explicator 217. 4
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