University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
"King of The Bingo Game" and the False Perception of Power
"King of The Bingo Game" and the False Perception of Power
In Ralph Ellison's King of the Bingo Game, the nameless main character is placed in a situation where he is the sole influence of what happens next. More specifically, the main character has his finger on a button that is causing a wheel to constantly spin until his finger is taken off. When he realizes this, he begins to spiral into a frenzy. As the narrator describes, "he was running the show, by God! They had to react to him, for he was their luck. This is me, he thought. Let the bastards yell" (Ellison 61). During this frenzy, the main character forgets his own name and creates an alias under the name, "The-man-who-pressed-the-button-who-held-the-prize-who-was-the-King-of-Bingo" (Ellison 62). The protagonist is given a sense of power and dominance over the people who are watching him, the audience. He gives himself the "King of Bingo" name as a way of giving himself satisfaction as an African American among an urban, black crowd. However, the name that he gives himself is only a display of his foolishness. He is, in fact, not in any position of power because of the rules of this version of bingo, the aggressiveness of the audience, and the defenselessness the protagonist suffers at the hands of the police.
The rules that are used in the bingo game itself are littered with demands that are stacked against the main protagonist. When describing the layout of the bingo game, the narrator describes the functionality of the wheel, which is projected on a tiny screen. Being written in 1944, a time before technology, it's easy to assume that the wheel was projected through physical film, meaning that the results are potentially predetermined either for or against the protagonist. By having a non-physical wheel, the authenticity is taken away from the game, leaving a theoretical bias among who gets the "winning game." To get a "winning game," the person who stops the wheel has to have the number land on double zero. A double zero is the absolute lowest number one can receive and, when receiving the absolute lowest number, provides the implication of losing. If someone lands on the double zero, they win the jackpot of $36.90, which roughly translates to $589 in 2022. Unfortunately, 589 dollars is not a hefty jackpot at all. In fact, even though the protagonist ends up winning the jackpot in the end, it's not nearly enough to completely help him financially, which leaves him in a state of poverty and struggling to meet his desires. The biggest thing that the "King of the Bingo Game" is chasing after, is a few extra bucks that are not going to help him live an urban life, similar to the African Americans in the audience. The protagonist pours too much effort into something that is not going to help him, which exposes his foolishness to the reader and shows that he is not much of a "ruler" like he says he is. It's a common theme in this story that the protagonist has desires and aspirations that all fall apart in the conclusion, resulting in contradictions in his "King of the Bingo Game" title. For example, the protagonist wants to be accepted by the United States as a whole, participating in the economy, social life, and in civic power.
The aggressiveness of the audience members toward the "King of Bingo" causes a further contradiction in his feeling of "power." Throughout the story, the protagonist wants to be able to relate to the audience because of their lives in an urban landscape. At first, the audience seems to only be rude in a minor way to the protagonist by calling him things like "fool" and demanding that he get up on the stage. However, when the protagonist obtains the ability to press the button and refuses to do so, the audience begins getting rowdier. When the protagonist starts to become an inconvenience to the audience and negatively affects their experience of watching the bingo game, they start to complain. "Hurry up and bingo, you jerk," (Ellison 62) says one of the unsatisfied audience members when the protagonist refuses to follow the accepted rules. However, the protagonist's attitude toward the audience switches to a more condescending demeanor. "They didn't even know their own names, they were all poor nameless bastards" (Ellison 62). Because of his attitude change, the protagonist falls into a metaphorical trap that the audience laid out. Due to the dominant class status of the audience, their influence on the forces surrounding the protagonist, like the police, is sent out to stop the protagonist because of his "rule-breaking" behavior. The audience is painting the protagonist as the villain because not only does he know that he is breaking the rules, but he is also of a different race than the white people who created this "bingo show." The audience looks to the white police officers to solve this problem which leads to the downfall of the protagonist's time on the bingo game and the reveal of his belief in luck.
With influence from the audience, the police interfere with and detain the protagonist, showing a clear dominance in power over the so-called, "King of Bingo." As the police chase after the protagonist and ultimately assault him, the audience encourages the higher power by laughing at the "King of Bingo" and applauding when the intervening takes place. At the conclusion of the story, the protagonist watches as the wheel falls on the double zero, the winning jackpot number. When he tries to prove to the police and the audience that he's a winner, he is assaulted and is left with his thoughts alone. The narrator describes his feeling by saying, "he knew even as it slipped out of him that his luck had run out on the stage" (Ellison 63). The police officers in King of the Bingo Game are white, which contrasts with the African Americans in both the contestant's chair and the audience. The white police officers represent the influence that primarily white, higher-class institutions, like the police itself, have over everyone. The audience confides in the police when the protagonist does not follow through with the rules of bingo. When the police pursue the problem, the audience encourages them because they know that they will bring the man to justice. However, the protagonist was not doing anything inherently wrong, leading to a punishment that seems too extreme for something as simplistic as not letting go of the button. It is here where the feeling of satisfaction is removed from the protagonist because he never gets his chance to win. Yet, the protagonist is clueless to the fact that he never had a chance in the first place due to his race. The protagonist is under the impression that one day, he will live like the rural African Americans or white people and that he was just experiencing bad luck. He struggles to realize that the odds are completely stacked against him because of overpowering white institutions that look at people like him with distaste.
The powerlessness of the protagonist in King of the Bingo Game can very easily be tied to the continued, modern-day problems of racism. Especially when the story was published during a time when police brutality was an uncoined term to the American public. The influence of white people in this story leaves the main character, an African American man, in a tough situation. The protagonist has the desire to be accepted among the masses of people of his own race, but the people who are not a part of the same class or race are the things that are holding him back the most. Yet, the protagonist continues to give in to these white institutions because he does not have any other choice. If the protagonist wants to become accepted among the population of the United States, he needs to assimilate to the overwhelming influence of the white people, who are above the social ladder than African Americans. By being forced to give into higher-class, white institutions, the protagonist is rendered powerless. Furthermore, in this story, the character undergoes an act of police brutality as he is assaulted for an action that does not warrant that kind of punishment. This act of police violence that the protagonist undergoes shows an aspect of the social-political landscape that the average person would not even be aware of, which, in a way, predicts the main topic of political discussion in modern-day racism.