Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Sambo Doll and the Coin Bank
The coin bank in the shape of the grinning black man (Chapter 15) and Tod Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll (Chapter 20) serve similar purposes in the novel, each representing degrading black stereotypes and the damaging power of prejudice. The coin bank, which portrays a grinning slave who eats coins, embodies the idea of the good slave who fawns over white men for trivial rewards. This stereotype literally follows the narrator, for even after he has smashed the bank and attempted to discard the pieces, various characters return to him the paper in which the pieces are wrapped. Additionally, the statue’s hasty swallowing of coins mirrors the behavior of the black youths in the “battle royal” of Chapter 1, as they scramble to collect the coins on the electrified carpet, reinforcing the white stereotype of blacks as servile and humble.
The Sambo doll is made in the image of the Sambo slave, who, according to white stereotype, acts lazy yet obsequious. Moreover, as a dancing doll, it represents the negative stereotype of the black entertainer who laughs and sings for whites. While the coin bank illustrates the power of stereotype to follow a person in his or her every movement, the Sambo doll illustrates stereotype’s power to control a person’s movements altogether. Stereotype and prejudice, like the invisible strings by which the doll is made to move, often determine and manipulate the range of action of which a person is capable.
The Liberty Paints Plant
The Liberty Paints plant serves as a complex metaphor for American society with regard to race. Like America, it defines itself with notions of liberty and freedom but incorporates a deeply ingrained racism in its most central operations. By portraying a factory that produces paint, Ellison is able to make his statements about color literal. Thus, when the factory authorities boast of the superiority of their white paint, their statements appear as parodies of arguments about white supremacy. With the plant’s claim that its trademark “Optic White” can cover up any tint or stain, Ellison makes a pointed observation about American society’s intentions to cover up black identity with white culture, to ignore difference, and to treat darker-skinned individuals as “stains” upon white “purity.”
Optic White is made through a process that involves the mixture of a number of dark-colored chemicals, one of which appears “dead black.” Yet the dark colors disappear into the swirling mixture, and the paint emerges a gleaming white, showing no trace of its true components. The labor relations within the plant manifest a similar pattern: black workers perform all of the crucial labor, but white people sell the paint and make the highest wages, never acknowledging their reliance upon their darker-skinned counterparts. This dynamic, too, seems to mirror a larger one at work within America as a whole.
Brother Tarp’s Leg Chain
In Chapter 18, Brother Tarp gives the narrator a broken piece of an iron chain, telling him that the link belonged to the chain that once bound him for nineteen years, six months, and two days. He explains that all it took for him to be sentenced to a chain gang in the South was saying “no” to a white man, and ever since escaping to the North, he has continued to search for freedom. Although Brother Tarp struggles to define exactly what the twisted and broken chain link means to him, he admits that “it’s got a heap of signifying wrapped up in it” and hopes that it will give the narrator the same kind of luck that he felt when he broke free of the chain gang.
The broken link simultaneously serves as a reminder of the unique injustices and oppression that the Black community continues to face as well as a source of inspiration to fight for liberation. By giving the link to the narrator, Brother Tarp, an older Black man who reminds the narrator of his grandfather, is essentially passing down the strength to fight to the next generation. The narrator does not clearly see the significance of the gift at first, but over time, he begins to understand the leg chain’s symbolism and places it around his knuckles in moments of both personal and community struggle. While people like Brother Wrestrum look down upon the broken link and see it as an indicator of racial divide, Brother Tarp and the narrator look to it as a powerful symbol of their pursuit of social justice on behalf of the Black community.