‘Squid Game’ Recalls ‘Battle Royals’ Held to Entertain White People
- Segregation-era white audiences in the US could see brutal shows known as battle royals.
- In the shows, Black men and boys were forced to fight in mass brawls, often while blindfolded.
- Battle royals featured at Fourth of July celebrations, boxing events, military shows, and carnivals.
“Squid Game” took the world by storm in 2021, becoming Netflix’s top show and a global phenomenon. The South Korean hit imagines a dystopia where desperate, cash-strapped people fight each other in a series of reinvented children’s games for the enjoyment of the rich and powerful, until the last contestant standing wins a life-changing cash prize.
generation has “Squid Game,” in the segregation era, white audiences across the US had brutal live shows called “battle royals.” And while, unlike the games in “Squid Game,” they weren’t designed to be fatal, they were a brutal, racist spinoff in the history of combat for entertainment that took place as recently as the 1950s.
The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan has documented the battle royals. They involved groups of young Black men and boys who were made to fight one another in a boxing ring, often blindfolded, for the pleasure of a white audience. They had to attack one another in a melee until one man was left standing; he’d win a prize of a few dollars.
They were common at Fourth of July celebrations, boxing events, carnivals, and country fairs in the US in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Jim Crow Museum’s website includes numerous newspaper accounts and battle-royal promotional bills.
On September 27, 1950, the Lubbock Evening Journal in Texas reported that a Saturday night of entertainment had started with a “negro battle royal.”
The museum said the US military hosted many of these shows, where the participants were often enlisted men. The end of an Armistice Day celebration in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 1930, for example, involved a battle royal; the local newspaper reported that the “rough and tumble affair” involving 10 people “turned out to be as advertised and kept the fans in a constant uproar.”
The opening chapter of Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel “Invisible Man” (based on a short story by Ellison titled “Battle Royal”) described a battle royal in chilling detail.
“Everyone fought hysterically,” Ellison wrote in the short story. “It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long. Two, three, four, fought one, then turned to fight each other, were themselves attacked.”
Franklin Hughes, a multimedia specialist at the museum, said he believes that the account in “Invisible Man” — and its place in America’s literary canon — is a vital record.
It’s a story of “this intellectual young man who wants to present a speech to these influential white folks to win a scholarship to an all-Black university, so he goes to this event,” Hughes said. “He thinks he’s going to have the opportunity to do that.
“But they put him in a ring and make them fight each other, these other Black kids, and the winner could then present themselves and their work. Then he is talking with the taste of blood in his mouth as he’s presenting this intellectual argument to these people, just so that he can get an education.”
According to the wrestling-news website Cageside Seats, battle royals were popularized in 18th-century England as bare-knuckle bouts involving several fighters and later exported to the American colonies.
During slavery in the US, a version of the battle royal was known as a “free for all” contest. The book “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States” describes the contests as recreation for enslaved people, involving participants with a 10-pound bag stuffed with cotton and rags beating their opponents until they were out of the fight.
After the Civil War, the battle royal was given its grotesque racist twist. According to Cageside Seats, the New York State Athletic Commission banned them in 1911, describing them as “revolting spectacles.” But in several states they continued for decades, eventually dying out in the South with the rise of the civil-rights movement.
Hughes said these events would often target Black children going to carnivals with their friends, who’d be forced to fight against each other.
The soul superstar James Brown, who grew up in extreme poverty in South Carolina in the 1930s and ’40s, recalled his experience in “The Godfather of Soul: An Autobiography.” The museum’s website includes a passage:
“Because of my reputation the other kids always pointed me out to the white men who came around to recruit scrappy black boys to be in the battle royals they put on at Bell Auditorium. 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 other kids in the same condition. You swing at anything that moves, and whoever’s left standing at the end is the winner. It sounds brutal, but a battle royal is really comedy. I’d be out there stumbling around, swinging wild, and hearing the people laughing. I didn’t know I was being exploited.”
Hughes said the battle royal’s legacy of manufactured disunity and violent humiliation still reverberates through Black America.
“These would lead to internalized racism, or internalized bias, where you don’t like yourself, you don’t like your culture, your community,” he said.
“It’s within the whole list of things that happened, particularly during the Jim Crow era, which is still undermining a lot of communities today.”