. . . the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro . . . stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth.

This passage, from Chapter 15, describes the coin bank that the narrator finds at Mary’s just before he leaves to join the Brotherhood. Ellison uses the coin bank as a symbol for the harmful racial stereotypes that the narrator has tried in vain to escape. The figure represents the servile, obsequious slave, eager to provide self-effacing amusement to white people, performing petlike tricks for them. Moreover, the bank establishes a black man as an object, a decoration and a trivial toy to be played with and used by white people. After the narrator leaves Mary’s, he finds himself frustratingly unable to get rid of this insulting coin bank. The bank thus illustrates another aspect of stereotype—its stubborn permanence, its horrible tendency to follow a person throughout his or her life.