Sambo or Black Revolutionary: The Narrator’s Imposed Hybrid Identity

Sambo Puppet IMG

The caricatured black marionette pictured above is a solid representation of what Ellison was referring to in his inclusion of the Sambo puppets that Ras the Exhorter resorts to peddling on the street in the novel Invisible Man.

The inclusion by Ellison of a number of African stereotypical caricatures throughout the novel from the caricatured bank, to the Sambo puppet is a deliberate attempt to provoke thoughts about the certainty of the narrator’s identity. Indeed a unique and chaotic hybrid identity is imposed upon the narrator from the beginning of the text all the way until the end, when he finally decides to embrace an identity of his own and shed the puppet master’s strings. In this sense, I would argue that the presence of this Sambo puppet towards the end of the text is a personification of the narrator himself.

Earlier on in the novel, the narrator finds himself on the street purchasing a baked yam from a vendor, all the while suffering through an internal monologue embodying his own torn feelings about his identity. Here he stands, attempting to embody the new Booker T. Washington, attempting to  become the next great black revolutionary to lead his people to equality, and yet he finds himself unable to resist the things he perceives to be shameful stereotypes and, in his own words, “field-niggerism,” (Ellison 265). It is this Jim Crow era mentality so prevalent within the narrators world that he cannot seem to escape without forcing himself to embrace a black revolutionary attitude that shape his perception and distaste of the world around him, and more than likely cause him to retreat to his hovel for an extended period of time in the epilogue.

In regard to the Sambo puppet specifically, I would argue that the reason that the narrator becomes so upset by the sight of the Sambo doll is not only because of Ras the Exhorter’s betrayal of the Brotherhood cause, but also because he sees a disturbing parallel to himself in this dancing Sambo doll, bowing to the will of others and playing the role of a simpleminded pawn. Even in trying to escape this “field-niggerism” by playing the role of the next great black revolutionary and rejecting even the simplest joys in his life, such as the yams, for fear of becoming a stereotype, he remains the dancing Sambo at the hands of the other players in this great power grabbing game in Harlem. In this case, the puppet master who controls him is, of course, Brother Jack. Brother Jack is the great, white puppet master at the reigns of this organization and has no qualms about admitting  his desire to control the masses that are the organization’s followers. ” Listen to them,” he said. “Just waiting to be told what to do!” (Ellison 348). Even while the narrator is cognizant of Brother Jack’s seemingly malevolent and manipulative intentions, he falls prey to them himself.

Overall, in all of the chaos and the identities forced upon him, the narrator remains confused and perturbed, yet all the while makes his transition into quite the confused, hybrid individual; the Sambo Revolutionary. A puppet.