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In the novel Invisible Man, an important bit of symbolism is a paper doll, called a Sambo doll, that was popular in the middle of the last century. It was often a paper doll made up with exaggerated features of back people. In the novel, black street sellers would attach the doll to a string and include a stereotypical song and dance performance as a way to sell the dolls to passersby. Of course, the passersby were white people who bought the dolls because it appealed to their racism.
Obviously, the black people selling the dolls were profiting from the promotion of what the writer saw as a negative stereotype. One interpretation is that the reason black stereotypes persisted was that some blacks profited from them. The black people selling the dolls made money from the suffering of their own people. They were willing to degrade themselves and their people to make a few dollars. These selfish acts were a part of the problem facing blacks in America.
It was not cut and dried for the narrator. He could see that the black men profiting from these stereotypes were simply adapting to reality. They made money for themselves and their family, which by extension benefitted the community. Black stereotypes, in effect, created a moral dilemma for back people. On the one hand, they kept black people down relative to white people. On the other hand, profiting from these stereotypes allowed black people to prosper despite their condition.
Later on the novel, the narrator tries to burn one of the Sambo dolls for heat and finds it difficult to do, symbolizing the difficulty of overcoming the stereotype. He is eventually able to burn the doll. In the process he realizes that it may be difficult to overcome the cultural framing that the Sambo doll symbolized, but it is possible if one accepts the reality of his condition. The individual can only transcend his condition by creating and maintaining his own individual identity.
Invisible Man was written seventy years ago, but the problem facing black people described by Ralph Ellison has not changed. You see it in this interview of Jared Taylor on the Young Turks channel. Dr. Rashad Richey is playing a stereotypical black character, which has been lampooned for generations. He gets to make a nice living doing it, but like the characters selling Sambo dolls in the novel, he is profiting from the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of black people.
An extreme example of this is the Kanye West story. His career has been built around selling the stereotypical black cultural items, things like sneakers and expensive lifestyle items, to an audience primarily of white suburban youth. His own struggle with this reality seems to have broken him. His most recent interviews suggest he is a man rolling around in a struggle with own personal Sambo doll, one that he created and that looks striking like Kanye West, despite the name change.
This moral dilemma applies to anyone who exists outside the moral consensus and this Kanye West stuff is an example of it. Nick Fuentes has signed onto what he used to mock just a few years ago. He was the guy in the so-called optics war who insisted that presentation was important. He mocked the alt-right people for praising Hitler and throwing Roman salutes. He is now flying around with a guy who praises Hitler and makes the alt-right sound philosemitic.
Fuentes, faced with the dilemma described in the novel Invisible Man, the choice between playing the stereotypical role for money and attention or rejecting that role in order to create and maintain an individual identity, has chosen the former. Like so many before him, Fuentes is volunteering to play the role of cartoon Nazi that the system he claims to oppose needs in order to perpetuate itself. Like the character in the novel, he is perpetuating a stereotype for profit.
The counter from his fans is that these publicity stunts get attention and therefore expose people to this material. It brings attention and resources into the community that lies outside the moral consensus, which helps the community. In this case, by signing onto the Kanye West circus, Fuentes raises his profile, which he then uses to promote the ideas and opinions of his followers. Like the character selling Sambo dolls in the novel, Fuentes is degrading himself to support his community.
Here is where the comparison breaks down. Black people in the middle of the last century faced genuine economic hardship. A man trading his dignity to feed his kids is making a rational choice. Similarly, refusing to trade his dignity, even if it means his family suffers, is also a rational choice. That is the moral dilemma. Both choices are rationally defensible. Playing the cartoon Nazi for the mass media, on the other hand, lacks rational support.
The reason is the argument in favor of “getting the word out at all cost” has been proven false over and over for generations. George Lincoln Rockwell got the word out by dressing up as Hitler. David Duke was the preppy Klansman and got a whirl on the big stage in the 1980’s. Most recently, the alt-right was front page news for a while and nothing came of it. No minds were changed. It was just another version of the white Sambo act for the benefit of the people in charge.
Like the narrator in the novel, the only way forward is to step outside the moral framework and create a new and independent identity. In the political context, this means a stand alone argument in favor of some alternative future. There is the list of complaints about the current system, every cause has a bill of indictment, but it is followed by a plausible alternative. There is a vision of a future independent of the current moral framework, not just opposed to it.
Blacks in the middle of the last century were faced with a choice. They could find a way to live within the system or find a way to live outside the system. The choice was the former, which has often required a sublimation to the same sorts of stereotypes that allegedly motivated the civil rights movement. Agreeing to be one of the forty-two black people living in the white nationalist enclave of Brattleboro Vermont is no different than selling those paper Sambo dolls on the street corner.
In this age, white people are faced with a similar dilemma. One can simply play the role of suburban peasant until that is no longer permitted. One can play the white Sambo role pretending it is something other than theater. Alternatively, one can seek to live outside the world of racial coercion, looking to a world free of racial coercion. That is a genuinely break from the past and present. It leaves the Sambos and the enablers to the dustbin of history.
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