Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 20-21

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 20-21 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapters 20–21 | Summary



Chapter 20

The narrator returns to Harlem to rejoin the Brotherhood there. He visits a favorite bar of Brother Maceo's and recognizes some of the other patrons as men the Brotherhood once aided. He greets them by saying, "Good evening, Brothers" and is surprised that the men seem offended. The bartender informs him that the Brotherhood has been focusing on national issues rather than local, resulting in many needy locals feeling abandoned. Many of the Brothers, like Brother Maceo, have left the city. Returning to his old office, the narrator is annoyed that there is no one there and that no information has been left for him regarding the planning meeting. Brother Tarp has left, taking all his belongings and the Frederick Douglass poster with him. No one calls, but the narrator hurries to headquarters anyway. When he arrives, however, it's obvious that the leaders excluded him on purpose.

Angered, the narrator decides to buy a new pair of shoes. Leaving the store, he comes across a young man selling paper Sambo dolls. He is shocked to see that the young man is actually Tod Clifton. The narrator is so horrified to see Clifton hawking racist dolls that he spits on him. Clifton makes eye contact with the narrator but doesn't react to seeing him there. Suddenly, a lookout whistles as a police officer approaches. Clifton quickly gathers up his Sambo dolls and scurries away. The narrator follows, snatching up a Sambo doll Clifton missed. The officer catches up with Clifton, and the two get into an argument. Clifton strikes the officer, who pulls out his gun and shoots Clifton dead.

Leaving the scene of Clifton's murder, the narrator struggles to understand why Clifton left the Brotherhood, why he would sell the Sambo dolls, and why he would strike the officer. He realizes that the Brotherhood had been using Clifton, just as they were using him, and that Clifton found his own way to escape.

Chapter 21

The narrator returns to the district offices. His head is still reeling from what he's seen, and he struggles to break the news. When he does announce it, the young Brotherhood members are grief-stricken. Overwhelmed with guilt that he witnessed Clifton die, the narrator decides to organize a public funeral to mourn him. He tries numerous times to contact headquarters, but no one will return his calls. On his own, the narrator brings Clifton's death to public attention through posters, contacts with preachers, and newspaper articles. He organizes a protest march before Clifton's funeral, with black banners that read: "Brother Tod Clifton. Our hope shot down."

During the march the narrator feels emotional when he hears old slave spirituals being sung. He realizes he hasn't planned a speech, so when he is called to give the eulogy, he speaks from his heart. He repeats the details of Clifton's death, saying Tod Clifton's name over and over. He urges the audience to forget about Clifton and go home. The eulogy isn't political, even though the narrator knows he could have used the platform to advance Brotherhood philosophies.


Together these two chapters function as the climax of the novel and a major turning point in the narrator's growth. As soon as the narrator returns to Harlem, it's clear that things are changing and he isn't part of the movement. The Brotherhood is hiding things from him and excluding him from meetings, which leaves the narrator feeling blindsided. When he realizes the Brotherhood has taken advantage of him, he thinks, "I'd been asleep, dreaming." Once again, just as the narrator creates an identity for himself—this time as a community leader—and is no longer invisible, the rug is pulled from under him, and he must scramble to find where he belongs. It's interesting to note that during the funeral march, the narrator becomes emotional when he hears old slave spirituals being sung. They have taken on new meaning for him, and they resonate deeply. He feels connected with the songs, and he feels how the collective slave history ties him with every black man in the audience, including Tod Clifton. This is a stark difference from the narrator's disgusted reactions to slave history at other points in the novel, which highlights his personal growth. He is slowly realizing the impossibility of escaping his past to completely rewrite his identity.

Seeing Tod Clifton selling the Sambo dolls is shocking. Sambo is a racist stereotype of an ignorant slave, happy to be subservient to his master. Clifton elevates the stereotype by putting the puppet on strings, like a marionette, to accentuate Sambo's inability to think or move on his own. At first the narrator is outraged that Clifton would denigrate his people by selling the doll, perpetuating a stereotype just to make money. After Clifton is killed and the narrator has time to reflect, however, he realizes that he and Clifton were nothing more than dancing Sambos for the Brotherhood, whose ideologies and practices they followed without question. The narrator did everything the Brotherhood asked of him—changing his name, moving into a new apartment, leaving Harlem, and more—and was excluded and forgotten in return. The Brotherhood has even abandoned its original mission of helping disenfranchised locals, which inadvertently makes the narrator an enemy of the people he had tried to serve. Clifton realized this long before the narrator, which is likely why he disappeared. No longer able to define himself as a leader and with nowhere to turn, Clifton self-destructed. Clifton was well versed in race relations and knew that striking an officer would be a death sentence. The narrator realizes that Clifton wasn't running away from the officer; he was purposefully running toward his own death.

By placing the discarded Sambo doll in his briefcase—the symbol for slavery's "baggage"—alongside Brother Tarp's chain, the narrator acknowledges the doll's power as a symbol for black suppression. Just as his grandfather suggested, the narrator, like every other black man, must carry the Sambo stereotype with him. Before the funeral the narrator realizes that Clifton's selling of the dolls was ironic—a way to use the stereotype to his advantage—reclaiming the stereotype in order to define it. Clifton's act was similar to the use of the word "nigger" among African Americans: by using the word within their community, they strip it of its intended meaning and reclaim it.

Throughout both chapters, the narrator struggles with the idea of history and legacy, wondering how an unknown black man like Clifton would be remembered, rather than lost to invisibility, especially when the white man has all the power to record history. The reader is reminded of the attack scene in the prologue, when the narrator is reported as a mugger instead of an attacker. The narrator feels overwhelmed with his responsibility to record Clifton's death honestly because he had been there to witness it. During the eulogy the narrator repeats Tod Clifton's name over and over, rescuing him from invisibility and forcing the audience to see him as an individual. He cannot bring himself to turn Clifton's legacy into a political abstraction. He cannot simply be a martyr, another black man killed by a white officer. He has to be something more. In his death, at least, Clifton can be an individual.

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