Boehner’s Monkey and Ellison’s Sambo

John Boehner and friend

John Boehner and friend


What commotion the GOP is experiencing in the House of Representatives! First Speaker John Boehner resigns, perhaps out of frustration with the fractious rightwing Freedom Caucus, and then his appointed successor withdraws after determining that he too would not be able to deal with what has been called “the shutdown caucus.” It remains to be seen if Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan will accept Washington’s second most powerful job and, in the event that he does, if he will do any better.

Opinion is divided over whether Boehner was a weak Speaker who allowed right-wingers to get out of control or a victim of circumstance. During his leadership, we regularly saw legislators threatening to shut down the government (one time they succeeded) and default on the nation’s debt if they didn’t get their way. While Boehner is generally diplomatic, a toy in his office may have revealed how he really felt about his relationship with the Freedom Caucus.

The toy is a little monkey that claps together the cymbals it is holding whenever one winds it up. It has no autonomy but performs at the behest of another. The monkey reminds me of a similar toy in Ralph Allison’s Invisible Man, sold on the street by Tod Clifton.

Clifton is initially Invisible Man’s lieutenant as they work for “the Brotherhood” in Harlem. Because the party officials don’t acknowledge the individual personhood of Tod and IM, especially their black identities, Clifton comes to feel like a mere puppet. Disillusioned, he breaks with the Brotherhood and begins selling actual puppets.

IM is appalled but comes to understand. Here’s Clifton’s sales pitch:

What makes him happy, what makes him dance,
This Sambo, this jambo, this high-stepping joy boy?
He’s more than a toy, ladies and gentlemen, he’s Sambo, the dancing doll, the twentieth-century miracle.
Look at that rumba, that suzy-q, he’s Sambo-Boogie,
Sambo-Woogie, you don’t have to feed him, he sleeps collapsed, he’ll kill your depression
And your dispossession, he lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile
And only twenty-five cents, the brotherly two bits of a dollar because he wants me to eat.
It gives him pleasure to see me eat.
You simply take him and shake him . . . and he does the rest.

Clifton is acting out his feelings of humiliation. Then, in one last display of manhood,he lashes out at a cop that is pushing him. I’ll write about his death tomorrow in a post on recent developments in the lawsuit concerning Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot by a Cleveland police officer.

I don’t know if Boehner will lash out after he leaves Congress, but he certainly felt taken and shaken until he couldn’t bear it any longer. I find it significant that, after announcing his decision, he sang Uncle Remus’s “Zippity Doo Dah” from Song of the South. Like Sambo, Disney’s Remus is another figure of debased masculinity.

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