The Black Ball | Summary and Analysis

Summary of The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison


The Black Ball | Summary

The story starts with the narrator, John- a black man living with his son in the American Southwest side. As he works, his son asks him “Am I black?”, as that’s what one of his friends had told him. John replies that he is not black, but brown- and either way, it is most important to be American. He then carries on with his job, taking extra time to polish the brass because of how important it is to his manager, Berry. While doing his work, he notices a “fellow” watching him, slowly approaching him to start a conversation.

The stranger, a man heading a local labor union, asks about John’s job, immediately putting him on edge. He’s worried his job might be stolen, and continues to answer curtly, attempting to hide his annoyance. The Union man then offers John a position at his union- John is incredulous, for unions do not usually recruit African-Americans. This stirs The Union man, who reveals his hands to show scars all over them. He tells John about his black friend who had been wrongly accused of raping a woman- despite the fact that the friend and The Union man were shopping together fifty miles away at the time. The friend was lynched and his house was burnt down, and The Union man’s hands were injured when the mob set it on fire with gasoline for siding with a black man over a white woman. He then hands John a card, telling him the meeting will start at 8pm sharp, and just as swiftly, he disappears.



That evening, when John goes back home, his son eagerly shows him his toy truck and talks about wanting to be a truck driver. But John is not able to concentrate, his mind filled with thoughts. He sits on the sofa and looks out the window, watching the children play while the nurse watches over them. One of the children, Jackie, is the gardener’s son who had earlier told John’s boy that he is “too black“. The nurse forbids the other children from playing with Jackie, so he pulls his toy back into the garage, quietly stealing a flower from the bush. John’s son joins him at the window, too, asking if he can go out to play with his ball.


John allows his son, telling him to keep away from the other kids, not go out and not ask too many questions. However, after some time when he goes out to water the lawn, John cannot find him. He searches everywhere to no avail- but just as he sits down, defeated, his son’s crying face appears in front of him, telling him that a big white boy took his black ball and threw it up into a window. Unfortunately, that window is the manager’s- Mr. Berry’s. Mr. Berry refuses to hear any explanation and shouts at both father and son for the damage of his plant, saying  “One more time and you’ll find yourself behind the black ball.”



They two walk home in silence. The evergreen cuts John’s hands. His son is still crying, but after washing his face and steeling himself, he asks his father what Mr. Berry meant by “black ball” since his ball is more white than black. He did not understand the larger meaning in the adult’s words. He innocently asks his father whether he will ever play with a black ball, and John thinks that he already is, that he is already learning the unpleasant rules of the game. When his hand stings from the cut, he remembers The Union man’s fried hands. He feels in his pocket for the business card and thinks there may be some hope after all.


The Black Ball | Analysis

Ellison approaches the theme of racism and struggle in The Black Ball through an interaction-based first-person narrative. The inclusion of the four-year-old son especially brings to light just how cruelly persisting and unjust the society is. It goes on to demonstrate the generational nature of racial discrimination is highlighted in the story.  Even an innocent child is subject to unfair treatment as though it is normal, at an age so young that he cannot even understand it.

Ellison blends dialogue and description, and uses situations and conversation to emphasize key elements in the piece.  The title “Black Ball” is materialized through the son’s toy, creating an interesting metaphor-to-object representation.


Further, the importance given to the son’s viewpoint is a very clever addition, as it showcases the different perspectives of the same situation- how an inquisitive child understands his world as compared to how his weathered, unfortunately accustomed father deals with it. It presents a ray of hope, but at the same time a tinge of sadness is registered as we realize that the son’s bright naivety will soon fade as he experiences more and more prejudice


In the very beginning, the son asks, “Daddy, am I black?” because another child had pointed it out to him. This highlights just how prevalent the issue of color is in the society, with children as young as four years old having such discussions. When John replies, “But American is better than both, son.” he is subtly enforcing in his son the understanding that color does not decide a person’s character. In the end, they are all from the same country. He does not want his son to grow up basing his identity on his color, but rather to form an identity as a good citizen. This is in reference to the stereotypes about African-Americans, and the way they are feared by the white people. John wants his son to know that the stereotypes do not make his character.

While working, John mentions that he has to be careful because “two fellows had already been dismissed because whites wanted their jobs.” This makes it clear that no black man’s position was stable– the white men were always given the first preference, African-Americans never knew when they might lose their job.



John mentions that Mr. Berry, his employer, hates “that educated” worker – implying that John is working towards rising against the society’s discrimination. When a strange “fellow” walks up to him to start a conversation, John’s first expectation is that he wants the job- and he fears it, too, because the man is white. When the man offers him a position in his union, John responds with anger and frustration. It is only when the man shows his scarred hands and narrates the story behind it that John becomes more receptive to his idea.

The Union man’s burned hands are a very symbolic part of the story. And his recollection of the incident with his friend is heart-breaking, because an innocent man had been blamed for no fault of his. This goes to show that African-American community have been excluded from society– if someone supports them, that person will be ostracized as well.

It is also interesting to note that despite this experience, the Union man does make quite a few insensitive remarks towards John :

 “Fellow like me offering a fellow like you something besides a rope.


This highlights how ingrained such views are in the society, to the point where these words come naturally in conversation.


Ellison writes a beautifully illustrative paragraph later in the story where John in watching the kids play from the window of his room. It shows children playing together in a group- something John’s own son cannot do. When his son asks whether he can take his ball to play outside, John says “Don’t ask questions and stay away from other kids.” The reason for this is because it lowers the risk of the young boy being blamed for something he did not do. If he stays away, there won’t be trouble for him. The readers will feel a sense of sorrow here that a child must live with such conditions due to the misconceptions and cruel discrimination of society.

When John finally finds his son, he realizes that he has experienced the injustice of the world. The fellow, the Union man, told the story of how his friend was blamed for a crime didn’t commit. John’s son, though on a far smaller scale, is also blamed for something he didn’t do– something a white boy had done.  This represents the society’s outlook and treatment towards African-Americans, where different people of different ages face the same discriminatory conduct.

This instance also presents the idea of apportioning blame to the marginalized groups and finding scapegoats for the fault/crimes committed by powerful ones, as can be seen throughout history. Not only is the boy blamed for the fault of a white bully, his father is threatened with being fired by another white bully. Thus, two different generations face the same racial discrimination in the same incident of the story.

When Mr. Berry uses the term “Black ball” on John and his son, the son, in his innocence, does not understand it. He relates it to the physical toy ball and wonders why one would call it black when it is more of a white one. John thinks thus:

 “He was learning the rules of the game already, but he didn’t know it. Indeed, poor little rascal, he would play until he grew sick of playing. But I’d begin telling him the rules later.”

This alludes to his son already facing racism and discrimination for the first time, with many more to come in the future.


The Black Ball | Themes


The Black Ball engages with the themes of identity, racism, discrimination, hope and the struggle for equality.

One witnesses the theme of racism early on in the story when the four-year old kid grapples with the issue of color and race. He has been verbally bullied because of his color. Later on, he will be physically bullied when the white boy throws his ball inside the window of Berry’s office who says this to his father:

Well, if I ever see him around here again, you’re going to find yourself behind the black ball. Now get him on round to the back and then come up here and clean up this mess he’s made.`

This racism has been so ingrained in society that it has been internalized by the oppressed themselves. This is what John tells his son as he tries to explain him Mr. Berry’s warning:

 `He meant, son, that if your ball landed in his office again, Daddy would go after it behind the old black ball.”

Though the ball is more of a white color, as reminded by his son, John unwittingly uses the same language used by his white employer.

The fact that Mr. Berry doesn’t like the “damned educated nigger” reflects not only the prevalent discrimination but also the hostility towards possible modes (education in this case) by which people of color may better their station in life.

The superficial aspect of one’s color by which a person is judged is also seen in Mr. Berry’s interaction not only with John but with his work itself:

I gave special attention to that brass because for Berry, the manager, the luster of these brass panels and door handles was the measure of all my industry.


The theme of struggle for equality is brought out in John’s constant striving to better his position and ensure a brighter future for his son. This is matched with the Union man’s struggle to ensure a fairer and more equitable working condition for the laborers. Thus, one witnesses the struggle for equality in both the social fault lines of color and class, as well as an individual’s personal and public life.

The intensity of prejudice that is spawned by such unequal treatment meted out to people by an unjust society is seen in both the perpetrators of racism as well as those affected by it. John has been subject to such a great deal of racism in his life that he cannot but be suspicious of the intention of the Union man. An aspect of this may be seen in the following exchange:

When they did have something to say to us, they always became familiar.

Not used to anything like that, are you?`

`Not used to what?`

A little more from this guy and I would see red.

`Fellow like me offering a fellow like you something besides a rope.`


The theme of relationships has been portrayed in The Black Ball in both personal and public lives of the character. The intimacy of the father-son duo lends a greater depth to the intensity of discriminatory practices that these two individuals face. John is a responsible father who takes care of his son, loves him and is alarmed when he goes missing, although momentarily. Similarly, his relationship with Mrs. Johnson (who is good to his boy) and the newly forged relationship with the Union man which rests on a common cause goes on to show that one needs support of well-wishers to sustain oneself in a wholesome manner.

Contrary to this, his relationship with his employer is of a transactional nature which only aggravates the racial divide between the two.


The Back Ball | Title of the Story

The Black Ball has a title that succinctly captures the central idea of the entire story. Not only does it stand for the ball that John’s son plays with, which despite being more of a white ball is used as a racial slur by Berry, it also refers to the game of racism that the kid is unknowingly a part of. The fact that his son’s ball is such a crucial component of the story further corroborates the aptness of the title

The Back Ball | Literary Devices

Ellison makes ample use of various literary devices to craft the story. The ball that John’s child pays with is symbolic of his childhood and identity which is first used by a white bully and is then given a racial label by Mr Berry.

Use of symbolism may also be witnessed in the idea of the Hand. While it is true that the “fried hands” of the Union man represents solidarity and that John is reminded of him when his own hand gets cut towards the end, an even more symbolic event takes places when these two characters meet. One must remember that their encounter represents an encounter of not one but two social identities – that of color, and equally important, that of class.

The Union man has burned hands in support of his black friend who was wrongly accused. John got a cut on his hands as he took his son home after the son was falsely blamed. It burned when he put iodine on it. These scarred hands are symbolic of the struggle for equality, physical wounds that represent unfair racial treatment. It may also act as a link between them- The Union man and John- presenting a new ray of hope, and reminding John that despite what society says, they are both equals. This hope is amplified when John reaches for the card in his pocket, suggesting that he will attend the union meeting that night. We may say that it is witnessing his son’s incident that was his deciding factor to bring hope for his future and his son’s, and cast a vote to for free and more equal life.

“Hands” was also a term used for workers working under big firms and employers. The idea of the Union wherein the “hands” could unite and fight for better conditions is also seen in the story. The hope lies in the marginalized sections of the society coming together and reinforcing their cause. The Union man needs Jack as much as Jack needs him. Thus, the status quo of class and color may be challenged when these two join hands in fighting for the just cause.

       Foreshadowing has been employed by Ellison in many instances of the story. One such instance is when Mr. Berry gazes into the brass before entering his office:

He stood gazing into the brass like the wicked queen into her looking glass in the story which the boy liked so well.

This line foreshadows the event when the same Berry, like the wicked queen of the story which the boy liked so well, will label his identity with a racial slur.

When John’s son is looking for his lost ball before going out to play, John’s words ironically foreshadow what will unfold towards the end of the story:

But he couldn’t find the ball; I would have to find it for him.

This line becomes significant when one compares it to what he has to say in the end:

Indeed, poor little rascal, he would play until he grew sick of playing. But I’d begin telling him the rules later.”

Here, we see the physical ball and the endless game of racial discrimination come together in an instance where the literal and the figurative fuse into one another.

   The Black Ball is thus an intimate account of what racism does to people, how is shapes one’s interactions with the world outside, how relationships are impacted by the same, and how one may pose a challenge to it. It also represents a moment when two social forces of class and color meet which, if they work together for the betterment of their members, may provide a challenge to the status-quo and may change the rules of the game. Therein lies the hope – not in the tone of one’s skin but in the strength of one’s character, the justness of one’s cause and the determination to fight back attain the same.


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