More so than any other black male in the Harlem episode of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), seems programmed for success in mainstream America. He is personable (Ras the Destroyer sees in him an ancient prince), intelligent, handsome (the narrator tells us that he had that “velvet-over-stone, granite-over-bone” look), and charismatic (he leads the black youths of Harlem); and he has managed to bridge the gap between his black world, Harlem, and the mainstream by working for the Brotherhood (an organization that represents the Communist Party in the novel). Yet this progressive Black male is shot down on the street like a common criminal–by a white officer who does not see Todd Clifton, the promising Black youth.
In the novel, Todd Clifton is a foil for the narrator to demonstrate the narrator's lack of vision and insight. From the structure of the novel it is obvious that long before the narrator realizes the duplicity of the Brotherhood, Clifton does, and, as a result, leaves the organization. In a brutal fight with the narrator, Ras is about to cut Clifton's throat, but he is afraid that in killing Clifton he might be killing a future king, so he pleads with Clifton to leave the Brotherhood and join his nationalistic group in its liberation struggle. Immediately after the altercation, Clifton thanks the narrator for saving his life, and the narrator responds: “you didn't have to worry. He [Ras] wouldn't have killed his king.” The narrator then says Clifton “turned and looked at me as though he thought I meant it.” Although the narrator does not realize it, Ras has affected Clifton profoundly, for Todd's response to the narrator is that they will have to watch Ras because “on the inside … [Ras] is strong.” The narrator assumes that Todd is referring to Ras's infiltration of the Brotherhood. A more reasonable interpretation is that Clifton means that while outwardly Ras is disorganized and chaotic, internally he is a very strong individual who because of his inner resolve will be an extremely difficult opponent.
Both Clifton and the narrator see Ras as being “outside of history,” outside the mainstream, but Clifton admits that in order for Blacks to maintain their sanity they have to “plunge outside of history.” That Clifton has come to see the Brotherhood as a negative force is evident in his behavior. In the next brawl with Ras, instead of beating Ras's men he beats up the white boys in the Brotherhood, his own men, pretending it was accidental, and shortly thereafter leaves the party. Clifton's selling the Sambo dolls is symbolic of his own behavior in particular and Blacks in general. In the same way that he becomes the puppeteer manipulating the doll, the Brotherhood has become the puppeteer and he has been the organization's puppet.
Ralph Reckley, Sr.