Chapter 15 of Invisible Man opens with the narrator being rudely awakened by the clanging of pipes in Mary’s apartment. In a rage to try to get the “ignorant fool” doing the banging to knock it off, the narrator looks around for something to bang back with. He spots something on the floor that, incredibly, he’s never noticed before: “the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into a grinning mouth” (319). The narrator has never seen this particular bank in this particular spot before (in the room he’s occupied for months now!), but he’s clearly familiar with the genre. He casually identifies it, with a trace of irony or bitterness, as a “piece of early Americana” and implores his reader, too, to recognize this “kind of bank.” It’s a type, and he assumes his reader has seen them before.
The narrator is shocked and confused that Mary Rambo would keep such a “self-mocking image” (319) in her home (even if it’s somehow been invisible to him up to now), but such items were a fairly commonplace category of knick-knack or bric-a-brac decorating respectable, middle-class (mainly white) homes throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To our eyes, they are a jarring reminder of how commonplace and generally unquestioned such poisonous racial stereotypes used to be (although we can see a direct descendant in the grinning caricature of a Native American, “Chief Wahoo,” on the Cleveland Indians’ hats and uniforms). It’s a powerful symbol for Ellison to deploy at this point in the novel, where the narrator feels like he’s about to become visible as a spokesman for Brother Jack’s organization. The bank doesn’t represent what the narrator is—it’s a stark, visible embodiment of a racist caricature being imposed on him and anyone who looks like him. Can we doubt that having such items on mantles and shelves in white homes contributed in no small way to the perpetuation of racism?
There’s still a market for these things, apparently—a subcategory of the antique market. Type “Black Americana Bank” or “Jolly N Bank” into eBay and see what you can turn up. I found the following image among a dozen or so “Jolly Nigger Banks” (yes, this was their common commercial name, although euphemisms and abbreviation abound on eBay, as they probably have a policy about racist language) recently available for auction:
According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, the more extremely racist the caricature, the higher price such “Americana” will fetch. I’ll point you to the Jim Crow Museum’s website as a valuable resource on this shameful corner of early American popular culture—see especially the section on “Caricatures and Stereotypes,” for a detailed taxonomy of the range of recurring images and stock characters. The museum’s motto is “Using Objects of Intolerance to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice,” and while the images contained on the site inspire unease (as does the casual preponderance of the N-word as part of daily commercial discourse), this is a crucial part of American cultural history that must be preserved in order to understand why racism has endured so strongly in this country. The dehumanization, infantilization, demonization, and marginalization of black people was taking place in the realm of everyday objects—children’s toys, games, piggy banks, and food products. When the narrator of Invisible Man talks about how people never actually see him because of the accumulation of crap in their own minds, these sorts of things, by virtue of their commonplace everydayness, have played a big role in distorting their vision.