The early Americana bank which the narrator of Invisible Man discovers one morning in his room at Mary's house is a reflection of the narrator's state throughout much of the novel. The offensively exaggerated Negro figure provokes an instant hatred in the narrator due to the tolerance it suggests. However, the narrator becomes personally offended by the object because of the similarities it holds to himself. While smashing the pipes with the bank, he yells out to his neighbors who are banging on the pipes, "Get rid of your cottonpatch ways! Act civilized!" (320). Thus he associates the hatred he feels for the bank figure with his neighbors who are acting no less civilized than he is. He is not aware of his own "cottonpatch ways" it appears.
In describing the bank, the narrator states that it is the kind of bank that flips coins from its hand into a large grinning mouth. In order to put money in the bank, one must feed the smiling, hungry Negro. At a point in the narrator's life where he has no money and has decided to join the Brotherhood out of a debt he owes, the bank's symbolism is simply too close to reality for him and he tries to destroy the self-mocking figure. He notes, "In my hand its expression seemed more of a strangulation than a grin. It was choking, filled to the throat with coins" (319).
The quotation is especially interesting in light of the coins thrown at the battle royal earlier in the novel. The boys are made to grab for coins thrown on an electrified carpet. Like circus animals, they are electrically shocked every time they reach for the shiny gold in order to entertain the white audience. The narrator attempts to avoid the shocks but cannot help grabbing for the coins like the rest of the boys. The boys, in a sense, are being fed money by the men for amusement and are choked by racism. Furthermore, the narrator hungrily eats up the degradation they feed him. Even though the coins turn out to be artificial, he does not mind because of the scholarship the white men give him. In effect, he smiles like the bank when given the award, and runs out. As the text states, "My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor. I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile" (32). He accepts subordinate and degrading treatment in order to gain a few coins and praise.
As the story progresses he becomes further and further choked by the artifice and pretense of the society in which he participates and accommodates -- at the factory, in the hospital, and with the Brotherhood. Seeing a figure like the bank so glaringly representing his own strangulation causes him to attack its smiling face. The figure breaks into many fragmented pieces that he tries to rid himself of when he leaves Mary's house. Yet each time he tries to lose the bank someone refuses to let him and returns it to him against his will. The broken image thus remains in his brief case along with the other remnants of his past, such as his high school diploma. He cannot shed his past and his acceptance of his subordination simply by dropping it on the sidewalk. Instead, the narrator brings it into his new apartment where he resides during his period with the Brotherhood. His role as a tool of the Brotherhood enhances his position as the fragmented smiling Negro and creates a parallel to Clifton's Sambo doll. The narrator is first unable to see the strings that yank the Sambo around, causing him to dance. As the narrator describes, "A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper–which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down" (431).
Not surprisingly, the narrator only can dispose of the bank at the very end, underground, when he exorcises the materials of his past that he has gathered in his briefcase (568). Until this moment, the bank weighs him down, as the looters notice during the riot (539). He is not fully aware why until he can break the strings and face his own invisibility.