King of the Bingo Game by Ralph Ellison, 1944

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by Ralph Ellison, 1944

Ralph Ellison's career in American letters depends almost exclusively on two major texts: Invisible Man, which has been heralded as a masterpiece of the modern novel and a benchmark of African American literature; and Shadow and Act, celebrated as a perceptive collection of personal essays and criticism informing both Ellison's own writing and that of his peers. Another collection of nonfiction, Going to the Territory, was published in 1986. In addition, he wrote numerous short stories, many of which, like "King of the Bingo Game," published in Tomorrow in November 1944, have been widely anthologized even though not collected in a single volume. Nevertheless, Ellison's relatively meager output has been questioned and even criticized by those who expected much more from him, given his obvious talent and the excellence of what he did produce. This is not to say that Ellison somehow fell short in his full potential as a writer, for he imbued virtually everything he wrote with the rich complexity of his own vision of the modern African American experience, a fully complete vision even in the ambiguity and ambivalence of its fictional expression. "King of the Bingo Game," for example, represents in microcosm the whole of Ellison's work, especially in its stylistic and thematic anticipation of the key motifs he would develop later in Invisible Man: the counterpoints of North/South, black/white, dream/reality, isolation/integration, agency/bondage, identity/invisibility, and life/death.

Like Invisible Man, "King of the Bingo Game" features a displaced southerner seeking his fortune in the North, ostensibly the land of freedom and opportunity, but the protagonist finds himself estranged from even his fellow African Americans: "Folks down South stuck together that way; they didn't have to know you. But up here it was different." The Bingo King's hunger, both literal and figurative, cannot be appeased in an urban setting because of its alien notion of community and hospitality. Instead of being welcomed, he is set apart as a stranger, a country hick from "Rock' Mont, North Car'lina."

Although the Bingo Game pretends to be color-blind ("Any-body can win the jackpot as long as they get the lucky number, right?"), it actually functions as one of the white culture's racial controls. Much like state lotteries, it sells lower-class African Americans on the hope of dreams, even against the odds of achieving them. It subtly diverts African Americans from signifi-cant social change by enticing them as paying customers to theaters with the possibility of winning a measly $36.90. A white man runs the game and collects the entrance fees, and he is backed up by the police, who finally give the Bingo King "what all the winners received"—a kick in the head.

There are two dreams in the story, each emblematic of the other, and they serve as counterpoints to the reality that finally intrudes on them. The first is represented by the film's depiction of a bound and beaten woman held captive by an unnamed agent but awaiting rescue at the hands of the hero. The second involves the Bingo King's plan to rescue Laura by winning enough money to pay a doctor to cure her. A third dream, the runaway train, foreshadows the inevitability of the protagonist's fate and underlines his own need of rescue.

The tension between the Bingo King's yearning for membership in the African American community and his feelings of isolation among them at the theater create a conflict of pride and shame for him: "All the Negroes down there were just ashamed because he was black like them…. Most of the time he was ashamed of what Negroes did himself." His winning a chance at the bingo wheel isolates him further from the rest of the audience and sets him apart as, ironically, "one of the chosen people." His stalling tactics make him the focus of their anger and frustration as they displace their real complaints against the larger cultural racism.

As long as the bingo wheel of fate keeps spinning, the Bingo King can exist in a powerful free space between possibility and finality, set against the question of self-determinism and the ongoing pressure of time: "He felt vaguely that his whole life was determined by the bingo wheel…. Didn't they know that although he controlled the wheel, it also controlled him?" He cannot release his hold on the button that controls the wheel because it represents life, both his own and Laura's, and also because he wants to defer fate's final spin on his existence.

Ironically, at the height of the Bingo King's power he experiences both an assertion and a loss of selfhood. He achieves "a sense of himself that he had never known before," but he then immediately realizes that he has forgotten his own name, "given him by the white man who had owned his grandfather." He screams the question "Who am I?" at the crowd, but they cannot respond because of their own loss of identity. They are invisible in white culture even when they take center stage.

With his renaming of himself as the Bingo King, the protagonist experiences a rebirth of sorts, although the new name reflects as much bondage as the old one did. With the bingo wheel finally coming to rest on the double zero jackpot number, he has a fleeting glimpse of the possibility of Laura's rebirth. In reality, however, the double zero signifies death for both of them as the curtain is rung down on the bingo game and their lives.

—Phillip A. Snyder