University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
The Illusion of Power in a Powerless Institution
The Illusion of Power in a Powerless Institution
Life for people of color has always been difficult, but when things seem to go their way, is it luck or the perception of luck? This question has been argued among some of the world's greatest philosophers and authors. In pieces written by black authors and debates including black authors, the question can be answered. In Ralph Ellison's King of the Bingo Game the illusion of power is evident when the "king" wins the bingo game. On Dick Cavette's television show, James Baldwin and Paul Weiss debate this illusion of power, giving us even further insight on the topic. The power that the "king" has is an illusion; he is truly powerless in an institution where he is put at a disadvantage because of the color of his skin.
Control is the key in the "king's" belief that luck is real. The bingo game is rigged, but the "king" fails to see the details that give it away. Firstly, one must get bingo, which is, in fact, luck. Normally after achieving bingo, you receive your winnings and move on to the next game. But in this game, there is a second part. This part involves going up on the stage and landing a double zero on the wheel of fortune. This second part is also luck, but it is only needs to be completed because the "king" is black. The idea of landing double zero to win money is ironic because zero implies no winnings. To spin the wheel the "king" uses a clicker which is a symbol of control. He repeatedly clicks the clicker to keep the wheel spinning. He does this because he is obsessed with the power that he feels in not stopping the wheel. This power eventually runs out as he is forced to stop the wheel, but when he does the wheel lands on the double zeroes. This means he won the game, but instead of receiving his thirty-seven dollars, which will not help his complicated familial situation, he is attacked and knocked out. The last thing he thought before being knocked out was, "He only felt the dull pain exploding in his skull, and he knew even as it slipped out of him that his luck had run out on the stage." (Ellison 63). Even after all the unfair disadvantages put on the "king", he still believes he had luck and it had run out. The game was intended to make someone who was discriminated against feel like he is on the same playing field because of luck, but in reality, the luck is an illusion.
The idea of control and knowledge is an illusion that covers up the real world around the "king". Just like the allegory of the cave where the prisoners are not aware of the real world that is above them, the "king" is unaware of the discriminatory institution around him. When the "king" wins the game, he is required to go onto the stage to complete the second part of the game. The narrator describes the light when he goes on stage, "and he felt that he had moved into the spell of some strange, mysterious power" (Ellison 59). The "king's" feelings when getting on the stage provide a deep insight into the meaning of the spotlight. When he goes on stage a spotlight is pointed directly in his face. The artificial aspect of the spotlight is like the fake light that is illuminating the fake silhouettes in the cave. In this case, the "king" is a prisoner in the cave, and he is falling under the influence of the jailors and the artificial life they are portraying to him. The spotlight is not only portraying something that is not true, but it is also blinding him from the truth. The "king" is never able to get out of the cave. But black author, James Baldwin, was able to escape the cave and see the wrongs in society. He believes that his experience in Paris exposed him to a new truth: "The years I lived in Paris did one thing for me. They released me from that particular social terror, which is not paranoia of my own mind, but a real social danger visible" (Baldwin 10:52-11:00). When Baldwin came back to America, he saw discrimination at a whole new level. Baldwin is an example of someone who escapes the misconceptions of the cave and comes back to spread the knowledge to the people that need it.
Some people may think these stories are about the power of the mind and being able to change, but I believe these stories portray powerlessness under an institution where nothing can be changed. In the same debate between Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Weiss people believe that when Baldwin went to Paris it was a sign of the "power" in his mind. They believe that him leaving is a way of him seeing the "light", as in the allegory of the cave. This argument would show how Baldwin had the power of the mind to leave and escape. This would be the case, but Baldwin says something crucial in the debate. He talks about how he was escaping an "institution". What this means is that no power of the mind can change how the institution treats you, but rather you have no control of the outcome. In the King of the Bingo Game people might believe the "king" is overcoming the discriminations he is facing in his life, but he is doing the opposite. He is falling for the tricks that white men played on him. The "king" believed he had finally gotten the break he needed, but he was still trapped in an institution with no escape. The name of the story, The King of the Bingo Game, can provide insight into why the "king" believes he is in control. The word "king" gives the impression of domination and control. The white men put this name on him because they are trying to make the "king" believe like he has control. In reality, he does not have any control of the environment he is in, and he pays the price by getting knocked out after attempting to gather his winnings.
The impact that black authors have had on the United States is tremendous. The hard work and courage required for them to write freely is even more tremendous. They have had to work twice as hard as white authors and still do not receive the recognition that white authors do. They have had to fight to escape the cruel grip of many institutions. This would have never been possible if others had not come back "to the cave" and told them how to escape it. Without these trailblazers, they would have remained powerless and naive.
My Greatest Skill
Personal Essay & Memoir
My Greatest Skill
A thunderous boom. An eerie quiet. A small splash. "Brady, back…" A flash of yellow, and the Labrador hits the water, swimming vigorously until he loses track of his surroundings. He turns to me and makes eye contact. I whistle forcefully while gesturing to the right with my hand. He turns and catches sight or smell of the mallard and is on it in no time. Whimpering with glee, he swims back to me, duck in the soft grip of his mouth, he obediently drops it at my feet and soaks me as he shakes off the excess marsh water. "Good boy, Brady!" Another retrieve, another bond between me and my hunting dog.
When training a dog to hunt, a lot can be learned about leadership: patience, encouragement, trust, teamwork, overcoming frustration. It's not a job for those looking to accomplish things quickly; it's more like perfecting a beautiful dance between two partners, each one relying on the other to do several complementary tasks to achieve a final goal. My old dog has taught me many new tricks.
Hunting dogs, like people, have minds of their own and need to be persuaded and encouraged - and training begins with trust. Brady trusts me completely; he trusts that I will only send him into water that is safe. Once in the water, he looks to me to guide him with whistles, verbal commands, or hand signals when he has lost track of a bird. Like all good things, this trust didn't happen overnight; it has taken years to build our bond. I've learned the same is true in my human interactions; only after I have established trust can I even begin to persuade or lead someone. I plan to put these skills to good use as House Prefect this year, leading a diverse group of boys from Pre-K to 12th grade.
Working together, Brady and I achieve more than we can alone. I can shoot a duck, but I cannot swim 100 yards into marshy waters and cattails to retrieve it. As a catcher in baseball, I share a similar relationship with each pitcher as I do with Brady. Unlike any other position on the field, the pitcher and catcher collaborate more closely than any other players. We share unspoken signals and critical eye contact to achieve our best.
Nevertheless, Brady and I have faced many frustrations together - in those rough patches, patience must prevail. During one of Brady's first hunts, he retrieved the decoy instead of the real duck. My initial reaction was disappointment; he hadn't performed as I had trained him. My patience was tested; my initial response was that I ought to discipline him, but I realized Brady needed to learn to focus when the pressure was on him to perform. Together, we waded out to the real duck. Patting Brady on the head, I let him smell it, handed it to him, and we trudged back to the blind. I learned this same lesson while volunteering at my church in a classroom for children with disabilities. Having an aunt with disabilities, I thought I understood all people with disabilities. I learned, like Brady, that decoys are different than real ducks. In the class, I was assigned to a nonverbal child. I decided to play basketball with him but soon realized, through his anxiety, that basketball was not an activity he enjoyed. I started to panic; I was uncomfortable with his adverse reaction. I pivoted to a quiet section of the room and pulled out a puzzle — he smiled, I relaxed. I'd worked through my initial frustration and patiently found a solution.
Working with Brady has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Teaching Brady how to hunt has taught me how to lead compassionately. Our next hunt is our biggest one yet - Brady is releasing me to go retrieve my dreams.