Oppression and The Plight of Blacks in "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

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About this sample


Words: 1007 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Words: 1007|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Man in the Mirror

In a highly racial and divided society, the appeal of being part of a group where the goal is to look beyond race and come together as one working class seems like the second chance to achieve the American Dream the narrator hopes for. Once joining the Brotherhood, the narrator confronts the reality of him still having to face the same hurdles and biases as he did in white society. This representation comes in the form of perfect and emblematic follower of the Brotherhood: Tod Clifton. According to Kerry McSweeney, Clifton represents the potential of black America. As a handsome and “well-built” man, he is the poster of the ideals of the Brotherhood, and like leader Brother Jack, is blind to the realities of black America. Unfortunately, Clifton’s epiphany of the struggles and plight of African-Americans costs him his life. However even in death, Clifton remains a symbol to the narrator of the plight of black America and oppression.

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From the beginning, Tod Clifton is marked and set apart from the other members of the Brotherhood with his scar and “Afro-Anglo-Saxon” heritage (Ellison 1980, 363). Upon first meeting Clifton, the protagonist assumes he is a rival as Clifton is to assist the narrator with making his speeches focus more on scientific Communist ideals and less about race under Brother Jack’s orders. This introduction serves to show Clifton as a blind and loyal follower of the Brotherhood and a foil for the narrator. With both being African-American men, there would be a hope for them to come together. However, the Brotherhood does not take it upon themselves to discuss or acknowledge race. Yet Clifton often has to prove he is of African-American descent. As the antithesis of Black Nationalist Ras the Extorter, Ras denounces Clifton for being part of the Brotherhood as a sign of betraying his heritage:

“You my brother, mahn…. how the hell you call these white men brother? … Brother’s the same color. We sons of Mama Africa, you done forget? … [The white men] sell you out…. Why you go over to the enslaver? … What they do to you, black mahn? Give you them stinking women?” (Ellison 1980, 370-372)

Given this comment, the narrator comes face-to-face with black racism toward those who might have been seen as sellouts to those with Ras’s ideology. The notion of a “black brute” is a concept the narrator is confronted with again upon meeting Sybil, a wife of one of the Brother’s, who engages him to play a black savage in her rape fantasy. Given how these two instances mirror white stereotyping of black men as sexual fiends, Tod Clifton serves as the first and introductory sufferer of the prejudices still plaguing the African-American race.

Tod Clifton as a character represents the journey the protagonist goes through while in the Brotherhood. Visible to the Brotherhood as he is African-American and a dedicated follower of the cause, he is also at the mercy of the Brotherhood for protection, a hope that fails him in the end. Like the narrator, Clifton wants to improve race relations. The both of them believe that conciliatory objectives can improve “race” relations, but both men ultimately become the means of destroying Harlem’s counterculture. This causes the narrator to conclude, “the end was the beginning”, offering dietetically at least, no solution to racial invisibility. (Gibson 2010, 356).

In actuality, Tod Clifton is a visible man, but is “invisible” due to him being a “self-imprisoned captive of his own capacities to see and be seen in stereotyped images.” His selling of Sambo dolls—an offensive stereotype of a lazy, passive slave—on the street seems to both perpetrate and mock the African-Americans as being modern slaves in white society (Rovit 1970, 58-59). He eventually leaves the Brotherhood having become disillusioned with the group and hoping to find a way to support himself in white society. The narrator reasons, “…there’s nothing like isolating a man to make him think.” (Ellison 1980, 469) The reason behind the selling of the dolls could be seen as Clifton realizing that he was Sambo to the Brotherhood—manipulated and made to be complicit to do their bidding, confirming Ras’s earlier assertion of Clifton being blind to the Brotherhood’s true ideals. However, Clifton selling the dolls unveils complex attitude toward race relations than simple acceptance of stereotypes: mocking those who fulfill the stereotypical slave-master relationship while sneering at those who think that they can escape the effects of the degrading label. Though he defies white authority by rising up against the police, his departure from his “proper” place leads to his death. In the end, Clifton’s selling of the dolls, as a last resort to fit into society or as a act of defiance, proves more dangerous than the other former Brotherhood members’ retreat into silence and invisibility (McSweeney 1988, 102).

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Sadly, both the narrator and Clifton end up reduced to an Uncle Tom. The narrator has the ability to connect with his audience when one of Ras’s men knocks him down and calls him an Uncle Tom. When Clifton and Ras trade punches until Ras knocks him down and pulls a knife on him, Ras sobs “red angry tears” as he stands over Clifton, scolding and praising Clifton, whom he calls “the real black mahn” (Diller 2014, 502). Clifton had the ability to connect with members of the Brotherhood, but once he left and subsequently killed, he was reduced to a symbol of a fallen angel only to then be called a traitor for the Sambo dolls he sold. Neither the narrator nor Tod Clifton could advance beyond their status as African-American men; it soon became a choice of leaving and being labeled a traitor or to die at the hands of white society. Their world is quite literally in a live or die mentality, and it is now up to the narrator about whether or not he returns and fights, or fail and suffer the same fate as Tod Clifton.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Oppression and the Plight of Blacks in “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“Oppression and the Plight of Blacks in “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison.” GradesFixer, 12 Mar. 2019,
Oppression and the Plight of Blacks in “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
Oppression and the Plight of Blacks in “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Mar 12 [cited 2024 Feb 25]. Available from:
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