In the Invisible Man, Clifton advertising the Sambo dolls comes as a shock to the readers and the narrator alike. A promising social reformer who wanted to break the racial barrier and to promote equality, he suddenly becomes a street peddler who sells the very items that contradict his beliefs and degrade his race. By marketing the dolls, Clifton creates a conflicting position in which he protests against the white authority yet seems to support the stereotypes that the whites has sent in place for him and his race.
When he states, “he lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile” or “he’ll bring you joy, he ridicules those who follow the stereotypical slave-master relationship follow his claim that a “good slave” serves for the white viewer’s amusement. (Ellison 432) The dolls signify that blacks are people’s entertainers, especially for whites. Used to bring crowd entertainment, they paralleled the way slaves were forced to dance and sing for their master’s enjoyment. But, as he derides them, he too is serving for the white viewer’s entertainment by dancing and making a fool of himself. Not only that, as Clifton pulls one of the doll’s strings, he slyly ridicules how black people used for entertaining by singing “He’ll kill your depression and your dispossession.”(Ellison 432) The jingle-like quality of this statement, which comes from the rhyme of “depression” and “dispossession,” focuses the puppet symbol on black people and accentuates their plight since those words came from the narrator’s speech.
With the “twenty-five cents” reference, Clifton suggests that blacks could be bought just like the Sambo dolls. (Ellison 433) But, by doing so, he unintentionally fulfills society’s expectations of a black man, one who sells his dignity for money and provides amusement for the white people. And, when Clifton describes about the Sambo that “he sleeps collapsed” and “you don’t have to feed him”, he describes them as if they are not human, suggesting that like the Sambo dolls, black people are not considered humans, but rather objects to be played. (Ellison 432) Clifton’s intent is to show the reader how poorly society has treated black people and emphasize the disparity between white and black races.
Even though Clifton’s Sambo dolls appear to move of their own accord, they move only when pulled from above by their strings , as it is shown,“…a broad black hand come down, its[the hands] fingers deftly lifting the doll’s head and stretching it upward, twice its length, then releasing it to dance again” (Ellison 432). The way the dolls are controlled suggests that black Americans keep on to live like puppets, their motions determined by white puppeteers. The stereotypes and expectations of a racist society compel them to act only in certain ways, progress according to certain patterns, in no way allowing them to act according to their own will.
As Clifton spiels in his advertising ditty which is Sambo is more than just a toy, he is “the twentieth century miracle”, he attempts to convey his real message of the toy which is the miracle of obvious subjugation and discrimination keeps the black population such as him running. (Ellison 432) Unfortunately, at the same time, he embodies that same “miracle” by being exactly the exact stereotypes set by white society. After his realization that he can no longer fight the white power structure by working within it, Clifton tries a desperate approach by making a mockery of the Sambo dolls, but he becomes no better than the others affected by it. By selling those dolls, he appears to be endorsing those exact expectations that society has placed upon him.