The White Paint And The Sambo
The white paint and the Sambo doll are symbols in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that emphasizes the futility of finding one’s identity in a world that forces their perspectives onto him.
After following Dr. Bledsoe’s wild goose chase to look for a job, the narrator finds himself at the Liberty Paint Plant, which is a factory that prides itself on making pure, “Optic White” paint (Ellison 217). The narrator is put to work as he begins mixing a black substance into a brown bucket that eventually turns into a brilliant white paint. However, the paint itself symbolizes the relationship between blacks and whites in society. In order to make the white paint, one requires 10 exact drops of the “dead black” liquid or else the mixture fails to become the pure white the factory demands (201).
The factory (as well as the rest of society) depends on the efforts of both black and white men to manufacture white paint, but they suppress black efforts to gain equality with the overpowering bleakness of the white paint. It is only when the narrator accidentally uses remover on the boards and reveals the “brilliant white diffused with gray” that his boss Kimbro panics and tries to get the narrator to cover up the boards with the white paint (205). The removal of the white paint layer is representative to how America masked years of mistreatment and segregation of blacks behind the shining ideals about freedom and opportunity, leaving people like the narrator to chafe under the identities they are forced to fit into without exception.
On the other hand, the Sambo doll symbolizes the controlling power of forced identities as well as the dampening of individualism by the white paint. After the narrator is thrust into a battle royale among his classmates, they are rewarded with another competition to pick up money from a rug. One of the white spectators mocks the boys, saying “[t]hat’s right, Sambo” when the M.C. assures them that the money is there for the boys to take (26). However, the rug is revealed to be electrified, causing a boy to spasm and “dance upon his back” after being thrown directly onto the rug (27).
The Sambo doll is a caricature of a black slave that entertains their master and carries out their bidding. The man that nicknamed the boys Sambo refers to how the boys are only acting on the spectator’s will, as they first fought in a battle royale and then scramble for fake money like animals. Later in the novel, the narrator spies Clifton on the street selling cardboard Sambo dolls dancing in a “infuriatingly sensuous motion” as Clifton sang out his wares (431). When the narrator discovers later that the dolls are controlled by a string in the back, it emphasizes how blacks are at the mercy of white men despite their efforts to prove otherwise. Since the Brotherhood had already been limited in their protests and meetings, Clifton’s decision to sell Sambo dolls is much more effective, since the Sambo dolls are physically being controlled by Clifton’s movements, just as how narrator has been manipulated like a puppet by the white figures in his life such as Mr. Norton and the spectators from his high school graduation.
With white paint from the Liberty Paint Plant demonstrating the function of blacks as tools for the fame and glory of white people and the Sambo dolls symbolizing white dominance through manipulation, the narrator is unable to define himself beyond what the world has portrayed as a black man. These symbols emphasize how one cannot become an individual without throwing away the masks that the world has provided, but to do so would mean changing systemic racism and discrimination within a lifetime.
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