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Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Chapters 20–21

Chapters 18–19

Chapters 22–23

Summary: Chapter 20

The narrator visits a bar, one of his old Harlem haunts. He recognizes two men who have attended some of his speeches and addresses them as “brother.” They react with hostility. He learns that many of the jobs that the Brotherhood procured for Harlem residents have disappeared. These men themselves have left the organization. Some men accuse the narrator of getting “white fever” when he moved to lecture downtown. He returns to his old office to look for Brother Tarp but fails to find anyone in the building. He discovers that Harlem membership in the Brotherhood has declined due to a change in the Brotherhood’s emphasis from local issues to national and international concerns.

The narrator waits to be called to the strategy meeting that Brother Jack mentioned, but the call never comes. He hurries to headquarters anyway and finds the meeting already in progress. The narrator realizes that the other members intended to exclude him all along. Furious, he leaves the building and goes to shop for shoes. He spots Tod Clifton peddling “Sambo” dolls in the street. (The American stereotype of “Sambo” dates back to the time of slavery, denoting a docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy slave.) Clifton sings out a jingle while the dolls dance in a loose-limbed motion. The narrator feels betrayed. Clifton sees some white police officers coming toward him and sweeps up his Sambo dolls, hastening around the corner. Apparently Clifton knows that he is not allowed to sell his dolls on the street. Clifton bids the audience that had gathered to watch his display to follow him. The narrator spots one of the dolls left behind and begins to crush it with his foot. Seeing one of the policemen nearby, however, he picks up the doll and puts it in his briefcase. He begins walking away, but as he comes around another corner he sees a huge crowd gathered. Clifton stands in the midst of it, flanked by policemen. The narrator then sees Clifton strike one of the officers, and the officer draws his gun and shoots Clifton dead.

Summary: Chapter 21

The narrator returns to Harlem in a stunned daze, haunted by the memory of Clifton’s death and of the black doll. Once he reaches his office, he tries to make the doll dance. He finally realizes that Clifton was manipulating it with a black string attached to its back. He stares at the doll until someone knocks at his door. A group of weeping young Brotherhood members asks him if Clifton is dead. The narrator confirms the story. He then tries to call the headquarters for instructions but receives no answer. He rallies the members in his building to stage a funeral march for Clifton and sends some women to claim the body from the morgue. He notifies the community churches of the funeral and publicizes Clifton’s untimely, unnecessary death. When the march takes place two days later, the community is stirred and angry. Hundreds of former members of the Brotherhood show up to march. The narrator delivers a sobering speech to the audience. Once the speech is over, the narrator senses a heavy tension in the crowd. He hopes that members of the Brotherhood will harness that tension and recover their influence in the Harlem community.

Analysis: Chapters 20–21

These chapters focus sharply on the ideas of belonging and betrayal. While the narrator believes that he serves the interest of black Americans by joining with the Brotherhood, the former members of the Harlem branch shun him when he attempts to strike up a friendly conversation. They see his continued membership in the Brotherhood as a betrayal of the black community. On the other hand, the narrator himself feels betrayed in these chapters, first when he discovers Clifton selling the Sambo dolls and later when he learns that the Brotherhood has deliberately excluded him from their strategy meeting.

The men that the narrator encounters in the bar have left the Brotherhood in anger at the organization’s gradual abandonment of the Harlem community. They thus distance themselves from the group’s treachery, but, in the process, they lose their political voice. Clifton, too, has left the Brotherhood, again perhaps on principle; unlike these men, however, he does not fall silent but rather commits a worse treachery against his community. Not only do his puppets perpetuate stereotypes of blacks, but he also conforms to the represented stereotype by trying to please his audience in a servile way.

Nevertheless, Clifton’s peddling of the dolls exhibits a more complex attitude toward race relations than a simple acceptance of stereotypes: he seems to offer a veiled commentary on the racial stereotype of the grinning, “yes”-saying “good slave” as he urges his listeners to stretch the doll by the neck and not worry about breaking it. Clifton intends to mock those who fulfill the stereotypical slave-master relationship with his assertion that the “good slave” lives for the sunshine of the white spectator’s smile. On the other hand, he seems to sneer at those who think that they can escape the effects of this degrading stereotype. Clifton himself suffers the penalty for not confining himself to the “good slave” role. Though he defies white authority by rising up against the police officer, his deviation from his “proper” place leads immediately to his death. In the end, Clifton’s selling of the dolls, whether undertaken as a last resort to fit into society or as a veiled act of defiance, proves much more dangerous than the other former Brotherhood members’ retreat into silence.

The narrator’s encounter with Clifton contains powerful symbolism. Although Clifton’s Sambo dolls appear to move of their own accord, they actually move only when pulled from above by their strings. The text thus implies that black Americans continue to live like marionettes, their motions determined by white puppeteers. The stereotypes and expectations of a racist society compel them to behave only in certain ways, move according to certain patterns, never allowing them to act according to their own will. As Clifton pulls one of the doll’s strings, he subtly ridicules the Brotherhood’s ideology—“He’ll kill your depression and your dispossession.” The jingle-like quality of this assertion, which derives from the rhyme of “depression” and “dispossession,” mocks the Brotherhood’s aims and focuses the puppet metaphor on the Brotherhood. The narrator now realizes that the organization has used him as a tool.

Although the narrator now begins to understand that he cannot fight the white power structure by working within it, he remains unsure of how to assert himself effectively. He must find a way to operate outside of the white establishment without drifting into silence, settling into a stereotype, or provoking his own murder. The racism rampant in the current social structure keeps black Americans constantly on the outside while preempting any consolidation among the exiles, turning blacks against blacks. In such a society, the narrator is kept constantly running.

As the committee has excluded the narrator from its decision-making process, the narrator consciously chooses to act individually in regard to Clifton’s funeral. During his eulogy, the narrator attributes Clifton’s death specifically to racism; he doesn’t speak in vague terms of general oppression, as is the tendency of Brother Jack. Moreover, the narrator repeatedly utters Clifton’s name, emphasizing Clifton’s own individual identity, which the Brotherhood attempted to strip from him. In doing so, the narrator hopes to engrave the memory of Clifton into the minds of the black community and thus impede his descent into invisibility.

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