Invisible Man

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The Sambo Doll Symbol Icon
When Tod Clifton abandons the Brotherhood, the narrator rediscovers him selling racist Sambo dolls. The dolls’ writhing is a grotesque play on the stereotype of African sensuality, and the dolls represent the servility of black entertainers for white masters. However, the fact that Clifton, the former protector of the Brotherhood’s ideals, sells the dolls complicates the symbol, making their meaning ambiguous. In addition, Clifton controls the dolls with an invisible string, indicating that he may have more power than meets the eye. The dolls seem to be a rebuke to the good intentions of the Brotherhood, reminding the narrator that there are many things that exist outside the Brotherhood’s tightly controlled view of the world.

The Sambo Doll Quotes in Invisible Man

The Invisible Man quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Sambo Doll. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Invisible Man published in 1995.
Chapter 20 Quotes

Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, lying outside history?...But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, the lies his keepers keep their power by.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Tod Clifton
Related Symbols: The Sambo Doll
Page Number: 439
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has witnessed a series of events that have made him seriously question his faith in the Brotherhood. Brotherhood membership in Harlem has dropped, Brother Tarp has disappeared, and the narrator has encountered Tod Clifton on the street selling racist Sambo dolls. In this passage, the narrator ponders Clifton's choice to leave the Brotherhood and "plunge into nothingness... outside history." His role in the Brotherhood has provided the narrator with a sense of purpose and importance, and as a result he sees the outside world as a "void of faceless faces and soundless voices." This image directly links to the condition of invisibility that the narrator eventually comes to realize is his inevitable fate.

Although he doesn't see it yet, eventually the narrator appreciates the freedom that comes with anonymity, and views the sense of identity given to him by the Brotherhood as false because it requires him to surrender his own autonomy. Furthermore, by telling his own story in his own terms, the narrator places himself within history in a way that reflects his authentic experience, as opposed to submitting to the "lies" authority figures use to stay in power. 

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The Sambo Doll Symbol Timeline in Invisible Man

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Sambo Doll appears in Invisible Man. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 20
Race and Racism Theme Icon
At the center of the crowd the narrator sees a dancing doll of cardboard and tissue paper. The doll is designed to be a “Sambo,” a kind... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Icon
...while his sales pitch continues. The narrator feels deeply betrayed, and spits on the Sambo doll. (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Icon
...boy. A policeman is coming to break up the show. Clifton picks up the Sambo dolls and tries to lead the crowd around the corner in order to continue the show.... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Icon
Looking at the doll, the narrator wonders how Clifton fell so far so quickly. He then recalls Clifton’s words... (full context)
Chapter 21
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
The narrator examines the Sambo doll again and is filled with deep loathing. He wonders how the doll works, and quickly... (full context)
Chapter 22
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
...the funeral was wrong because Clifton had betrayed the organization by deciding to sell Sambo dolls. The narrator replies that Clifton had many contradictions, but was not really a traitor. He... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
The narrator tries to explain to the committee that the Sambo dolls aren’t important, and that the black community in Harlem needs an opportunity to express their... (full context)
Chapter 25
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
...Mary’s coin bank inside of it. He puts all of his papers, including Clifton’s Sambo doll, into the brief case. (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Icon
As the narrator searches through the basement, he burns Clifton’s Sambo doll for light. Next, he takes out the anonymous note and begins to burn it. As... (full context)