The Symbolism Of Sambo Dolls In Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

December 8, 2020 by Essay Writer

Ralph Ellison’s novel titled Invisible Man is abundant in themes and symbols about the twentieth-century African American experience. It highlights the narrator’s downfall from his embrace of racism during his time in college to his dissatisfaction with the way he is being treated, but he comes to an understanding of his purpose as a so-called “invisible man.” Ellison’s novel describes the accounts of the narrator, who is an African American male, through his journey to his understanding of himself, alongside with themes and symbols to show what inspires the narrator to do what he does. An important symbol in the novel is the Sambo doll, which is a doll that depicts African American stereotypes. This symbol pertains to the theme of race and identity developed through the events of the novel.

As shown in chapter twenty, while the narrator is walking down a street, he hears the voice of Tom Clifton, he notices that Clifton is playing with a Sambo doll by making it sing and dance. The narrator feels betrayed because Clifton is selling a Sambo doll, which is an offensive doll that portrays stereotypes of African Americans because he is making money off these derogatory toys. These dolls represent the stereotype of an African American street performer, who dances and sing as entertainment for white people. The doll is controlled by Clifton, which symbolizes that the stereotypes put on African Americans are made by people on the outside and do not correctly depict someone’s identity. The stereotype made by the doll, in conjunction with the fact that it is controlled like a puppet, leads the reader to believe that the white people convey this degrading stereotype of African Americans to make them feel as if they do not belong.

Clifton accepted and profited off of the stereotype and it allowed the doll to represent racism and gave the doll value, because Clifton, an African American male, made light of racism for personal gain and money. The narrator criticizes Clifton and his actions by stating, “Yes, the dolls were obscene and his act a betrayal. But he was only a salesman, not the inventor, and it was necessary that we make it known that the meaning of his death was greater than the incident or the object that caused it.” (Ellison 346) Although Clifton made money from his actions and being racist, the narrator believed that it was not his fault and he was not the source of racism because it was the doing of the greater society that permitted this to occur. Clifton was ultimately a victim and only sold the dolls to make money to support himself.

This sense of individual gain and victimization is consistent with the hardships and opinions of the narrator on individual identity. When the narrator burns the doll for light while attempting to hide underground, the narrator shows that while external forces can manipulate and control a stereotype, an individual is strong enough to dismantle its hold on his identity. This act of rebellion is the enlightenment that can come from taking control of the tyrannical rules of society. The narrator states, “Clifton’s doll, but it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else.” (Ellison 440) When the narrator finds it difficult to burn the doll, it represents the difficulty for an individual to get rid of stereotypes and prejudices. This supports the narrator’s opinion on how to achieve self-understanding or personal enlightenment. Ultimately the narrator can liberate himself from racism by taking the lead and destroying it by himself.

The Sambo doll is a powerful portrayal of America’s deeply embedded recognition and benefit of racism, and as well as the individual’s role and ability to overcome it. Clifton selling the dolls demonstrates how someone can be submissive to societal expectations that fundamentally serve no one, and his self- exploitation shows that values can be compromised for financial benefit. The demolition of the doll shows the individual’s absolute authority to overcome these societal expectations and is the perfect encapsulation of the themes of identity and individuality shown in the novel.


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