The Souls of Black Folk
The Transgression of Realism from Washington’s Up from Slavery to Du Bois’ the Souls of Black Folk
The act of taking a situation as it is and having the ability to deal with it accordingly, often known as the act of realism, happens to be an idea that many people struggle to master. However, two men named William Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, refused to fall into that category of the population. Both men became known for refusing to conform to the beliefs of society and accept the suppression of black rights. In both, The Souls of Black Folk by William Du Bois, and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, the men discuss one of the most prominent problems of the twentieth century, the division of color. Both men dedicated their life’s work to accomplish what they thought would be small changes in society, that in turn ended up changing the way the whole world viewed the lines of division. That being said, although both men had differing stances about how to endorse equal rights for African Americans, they both managed to create a literary platform of their founding arguments in a way which supported and converged the ideals of realism.
Immediately following the civil war, blacks began facing acts of suffering and discrimination. The Souls of Black Folk by William Du Bois, is a piece that has forever gone down in history for being one of the most strongly influential pieces in not only American literature but America in general. Du Bois highlighted the issues of the color line, while invoking change during a time in the twentieth century when many African Americans had limited voice. Therefore, he declared that people of color should no longer accept the standing values for which they were being held to at the time. Thus, encouraging many Americans to use their voice to influence change in voting rights, civil equality, and the right to higher education. Now, judging by the cover of, Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, many are lead to believe there is in fact no correlation in relation to Du Bois’ piece, The Souls of Black Folk, seeing as they have been historically known for disagreeing on many things. However, it in fact follows rather closely to Booker T. Washington’s story of, Up From Slavery, an autobiography in which Washington details his life in a series of events ranging from his upbringing as a slave, to the peak in his career as a social activist. Upon reading and analyzing the two stories, you begin to see that although they differ in many aspects, they compare in the sense that they resonate well with the audience due to the presentation of realism.
This idea of realism, an idea in which these two pieces so strongly exemplify, was a notion to actualize the writings of the 19th century, in opposition to the romanticism era that had been so prominent pre-civil war. A realist narrator concerns himself with the “here” and “now” aspects of writing, thus explaining why both of these pieces were known to not only be so relatable but also invoke so much headway with the people. Washington became one of the first men to illustrate a strongly intended realism piece with his autobiography, Up From Slavery. His story brought realism to life like many had never seen before, especially from the works of a black, has been slave, turned educated activist. He served the public with the naked truth behind his story from slavery to success and managed to support his argument along the way. He believed that if blacks gained an economic foothold, and proved themselves useful to whites, then civil rights and social equality would eventually be given along the way. (quote needed)
In opposition to the work of Washington, with the publication of Du Bois’, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois surfaced as the new-found activist for the African American community, through which many began to depend on his leadership to make headway in the rights of the people. In his piece, he gave a voice to the feelings and thoughts of many African Americans, during a time when many had no voice. In his piece he states, “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people, — a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.” (Bois 11), therefore, claiming that although black people were granted freedom, they still didn’t have the equal rights they deserved. This which supported his idea of realism when he began to inspire blacks to stop accepting life as it is and start advocating for changes that would ultimately bring about a higher standard of living for the community as a whole. He spoke to the people about the events that were occurring during that time and sparked a new-found sense of hope in many who believed they deserved more.
At the end of the day, when comparing the literary pieces of Washington and Du Bois, the foundation of their writing arises from the same subject, the rights of the African American People. Both stories tied together in the sense that they both made monumental changes to the footprint of American literature, as we transitioned away from the romantic era and started to voice more realistic ideals. Those ideals which would have previously been hidden from the public eye, were now being brought to life through the form of realism writing in American literature. Thus changing the way we wrote forever, and opening new doors to opinion and change, post-war. Both authors stood firmly in the decision to advocate for their rights, however they did so in very different ways. Although they both brought about the use of realism and successfully voiced their opinions to the audience in a way that would have before this era of realism been suppressed, they have been historically known for believing in approaching change differently. Washington told a story of his life in which he told the American people that by working hard and slowly making adjustments to society, change was inevitable. Whereas Du Bois on the other hand, voiced his story to the public in a way that highlighted the idea that if you didn’t invoke change within yourself as a piece of society, then society would forever remain the same. Discussing voting rights in particular, in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois said, “so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North and South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds … we must unceasingly and firmly oppose [him]” (Bois). He inevitably believed in a more hands activist approach, in comparison to the literary works of Washington who was believed to be more of a peace maker than an activist when it came to realism writing.
Self-consciousness and Liberty in the Souls of Black Folk
“The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.” Who was Du Bois and what story did he write? Du Bois was the first African American to earn a phD from Harvard for this helped him to be able to write the extraordinary story the Souls of Black Folk. This story entails many central ideas. These central ideas are developed throughout the story by the use of figurative language to be allowed to take the story to an advanced level. Du Bois uses these as the main ideas to facilitate the message the story is trying to send out. The central ideas being used are self-consciousness and liberty.
Firstly being used as a central idea is self-consciousness.Du Bois employed the phrase, “If however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting place, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination. It changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, and self-respect.” Du Bois utilizes the metaphor to progress the idea about how obligatory education was to take a step towards the right direction of being true to one’self or “self-consciousness.” This needed to be accomplished to be able to find who they are and to accept themselves. Word choice impacted the way the phrase was portrayed gives the message that finding oneself is a process that keeps on going. Another textual evidence Du Bois uses to develop the central idea is,“He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white americansism, for he know that Negro blood has a message for the world.” This phrase is being used to show that African Americans try masking who they are and not showing people there true colors this reason being because they are afraid of rejection. The only way they will be able to liberate themselves is to demonstrate who they are and celebrate themselves. Du Bois uses a second central idea to develop his story.
Secondly being used as a central idea is liberty. Du Bois uses figurative language to develop the central idea liberty. ”Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humidity? Of her coarse and cruel wit with loving Javi all good humor?” These rhetorical questions being used consistently one after the other brings the strengths of African Americans while contrasting White Americans frailty. This phrase highlights the good characteristics that African Americans have. Another phrase Du Bois utilizes in his passage to advance the main idea is,” and, all in all, we black men seem the doll oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” Du Bois used this central idea throughout the story to carry out how marvelous African Americans are and that they are what an American is all about. African Americans need to stay united as brothers because they are greater ones.
To conclude, Du Bois uses rhetorical devices to develop the central idea self-consciousness and liberty. Self-consciousness to show that it was obligatory for Arican Americans believe in who they truly are to be able to progress in America and change things. Liberty is being used to show how badly African American wanted to feel free they wanted to gain freedom. Du Bois uses figurative language to give a voice to African Americans through a story and to help send the message the story is trying to provide. This story uses two great main ideas to progress all the story wants to convey.
The Ongoing Relevance of Du Bois and His Work the Souls of Black Folk
Du Bois is one of the first black African American sociologists to discuss the issue of race being a problem; he is an extremely prolific, influential and relevant being in terms of his work, he laid down the foundation to be able to discuss the issue of race on a macro scale and so openly (Moses, 1939, pg. 11). Du Bois’s work inspired many e.g. Gilroy, Martin Luther King, Hooks, amongst others. He coined the term black consciousness, and wrote heavily on the colour line, however race wasn’t the only issue he discussed, he also discussed education and folk culture.
Du Bois has numerous works published which highlight the issue of racism, his work is still relevant today in many ways. The Souls of Black Folk introduces the idea of double consciousness; the meaning to this being that it describes the awareness of having more than one social identity, it is when a black person has two different identities, one being a black negro the other being an American citizen, they are aware that they are not African-American but African and American; ‘An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings’ (Du Bois, 1903, pg. 34). He recognises how double consciousness creates a split identify, it creates tension because being aware allows one to see through the veil that white dominations try to conceal; ‘Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?’ (Du Bois, 1903, pg.34) this quote illustrates how being black felt in America at the time, but it can still be applied to today, the pain and tension the quote illustrates is very much relevant to how black people in America are still battling the veil they’re put under. For example, police brutality against black American citizens is ongoing because black people are still seen as the inferior race; ‘Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness’ (Du Bois, 1903, pg.34), this quote relates to both the injustice of violence against black men and those who are aware of their double consciousness and through this emancipate themselves from the white men through education still do not have a fair chance i.e. the assassination of Martin Luther king. Education went alongside double consciousness for Du Bois.
Du Bois argues that in order for black people to truly experience the right personhood education is key, learning and in taking knowledge is something he sees as highly beneficial, this being because once a black person is educated they’re able to free themselves from the white race because they are liberated. Although Du Bois recognised that ‘With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny’ (Du Bois, 1903, pg. 34) this meaning that although he was motivated, he wanted education, he wanted to be free others did not see it the same way as he did, instead they settled for the life they were given. This too is relevant in the twenty first century as Mary Fuller’s study on black girls and education illustrates; she found that black girls in her study had liberate themselves with education, they freed themselves from the white superiority as they saw school as a means to education and didn’t allow the labelling or stereotypes define them whereas black boys were more accustomed to feeding into the labels and stereotypes. (Deem, 2012, ch.4)
‘The problem of the twenty first century is the colour line’ Du bois argued, this being because the colour line is an intersection of racism and classism, Du Bois believed that it’s hard to be black but it’s even harder to be black and poor (Du Bois, 1903, pg. 39 ). He argued having wealth wasn’t any more helpful because once a black man is educated thought self-realization of being enslaved they go back to being enslaved only through wealth as they’re intoxicated with greed and luxury to fill the void; ‘to be free is condemned to be free’(Sartre, 1943 ch.4) this related heavily to the wealth struggle as it helps explain the consequences that come from accepting double consciousness and life through the veil. In addition, due to this, Du Bois noted that slavery hasn’t ended; a new post-modern era didn’t erase slavery instead it created a new form of enslavement, although it created the dawn of freedom elements of slavery were still there (Du Bois, 1903, pg. 112-114). He illustrated this in his work of how hard the south tried to keep slavery instilled in society; they introduced a ballot system and unfair laws that entrapped black people into debt over land and mortgages; their emancipation was exploited unfairly as Du Bois stated ‘That to leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot-to-day is to leave him, not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst’ (Du Bois, 1903, pg. 113). In literal terms slavery, still hasn’t ended; Libya is a prime example. Furthermore, Paul Gilroy a contemporary of Du Bois too argued that a new black middle class was developing, one that indulged in wealth and saw wealth as a main priority instead of politics; Gilroy argued that the never-ending racism and new forms of enslavement eroded black people’s self-worth and hope and created a culture of consumerism. (Gilroy, 2010, ch.1, pg.409)
The colour line also relates to mixing of races and the intersectional racism that occurs it; Du Bois discusses bastardy and the mixing of two generations through adultery and prostitution. He mentions how this brings in more racism, more prejudice, more ignorant thoughts, it allows white people to systematically rule racism through differentiation of dark-light skin colours (Du Bois, 1903, pg. 37). Du Bois introducing the notion of race being systemically controlled through differentiation of skin colour opened eyes i.e. Jay Z’s song ‘The story of OJ’ helps to explain the notion of how controlling racism through skin colour has convinced the black man that a light-skinned man is better because of his white privilege; Gilroy argued that the master slave relationship was used to colonise the west and introduce civilisation through white supremacist terror. (Gilroy,1993 ch.4)
Gilroy’s work stemmed from Du Bois, his influence related heavily to the folk culture/hip hop music culture. Gilroy focuses on how hip-hop culture doesn’t illustrate a pure identity instead it shows the cultural mixing. Du Bois briefly studied music and its culture to black people; he experienced and described slave songs and the terrible but passionate feelings it created. ‘a Pythinian madness, a demonic possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word’(Du Bois, 1999, pg.204). He argued that the slave songs were the music of a negro religion and were created through the culture of slavery; Gilroy argued that the slave music was seen as ‘a paradigm for the future’ it gave black people a place to stand in the musical and cultural aspect; slaves used music as an outcry, a form of expression which black people are still doing. (Abreu, 2015).
Du Bois ideas are still relevant today and still have an impact on society but his work had some major gaps; according to Bell Hooks she argued that Du bois looked at the problem between race and class but what he failed to recognise and include is the feminism movement and how there was segregation there too. Hooks was able to identify in her work ‘Ain’t I a woman’ that feminism was a female movement but there was a segregation because of colour; white women deemed themselves to be fighting for equal rights for women but dismissed the inclusion of black women in the notion of equal rights; at a movement in Akron, Ohio this was displayed when a white woman yelled for the black women not to be allowed to speak (Hooks, 2014, pg. 214). In fact, there was no sense of unity, it completely contradicted the movement and fight for equal rights. Hooks saw black feminism as more dominant, her illustration of Sojourners truth illustrates this ‘unlike most white rights women advocates Sojourner Truth could refer to her own personal life experience as evidence… to be work equal of man’ (Hooks 2014, pg. 215). Cooper was one of the first female black activist as Hooks points out in her work, Cooper discussed the assigned sex roles and questioned masculinity; she argued that masculinity doesn’t make a man different from women we just have to understand why men behave the way they do, and she argued that it was education, they were liberated In their position and that women too should escape their assigned role and participate in education; this view can be seen in heavy relation to Du Bois and his ideas of educating the youth (Hooks, 2014, pg. 255-256).
In conclusion, Du Bois is considered a highly relevant and influential being; his work influenced the likes of many that weren’t mentioned for example Rebekah, also his work lives on vicariously through many people who don’t even realise. Those who protest for black lives matter, black people who try to educate themselves to emancipation are influenced by Du Bois unknowingly. His work helped to shape a path for black people today; his critique of how sociologists treated black people also helped change sociology and the ethics of research for example Baartman and Benga.
Racial Issues in the Souls of Black Folk
The Souls of Black Folk is a book authored by W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading black intellectual and one of the movers and shakers during the Harlem Renaissance. The title, Souls of Black Folk refers to the spirituality of African Americans, their struggles, hopes as well as their identities and social experiences. Touching on Greek mythology, Christianity, and traditional African Voudoun, Du Bois manages to merge these references to spiritualize the Negro existence. This text is historically tied in to both the Harlem Renaissance (1912-1935) and the Civil Rights Movement (1958-1964) because of the emphasis on black identity, Negro consciousness, and the awareness and assertion of the Black American of his unique experience which fosters Negro pride, dignity, and a demand for equality and rights.
Without an independent personality, the Black folk are trapped as a projected image of societal impressions rather than who they really are. As far as Black identity is concerned Du Bois talks about “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois). The mainstream American stereotype of Black folk embodies the ridiculous, the frivolous, the thoughtless, and ultimately the inferior. This concept wars against innate Blackness. In the attempt to gain recognition, the Black man is compelled to assimilate himself into a mold to be accepted by a reluctant public who is humored and repulsed by him. Black folk have to stand up to misrepresentation, misconceptions, and perversions of the self and it is in striving against these elements that Negro literary and musical expression generates the desire to see social change and progress. “In its emphasis on the symbolic weight of Black folk spirituality and spiritual singing, the Souls of Black Folk stands as a singing book…the New Negro (1925) purpose is to sound a comprehensive Afro-American voice, one capable of singing in the manner of spirituals…yet adept in the ways of southern education and vocation” (Baker 1987). The universality of music and its skill in the mouths and instruments of Black musicians gave way to a music-based movement, the Harlem Renaissance, which stressed the essence of identity, unifying the voices of Black people. It is not until a genre of uniformity is conceived that black activism could take place. The New Negro, a novel which preceded the Harlem Renaissance is forged by Alain Locke. This new Negro is the neo African-American who refused the values of submission and passivity. This sentiment echoes W.E.B. Du Bois’ aspirations for Black folk who embrace one clear consciousness, instead of a dual one and who proactively pursue their goals, waging against the social divide and disproportionate dealings.
The Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement bring into view the importance of black educated authors who write from their own experiences, focusing on the injustices, discrimination, and Afrocentricity. Education is usually the predecessor to revolution and so it is with the Harlem Renaissance. Both these eras are both civil rights movement since they usher in a forum in which to convey expressions of grief and grievances. As a result, America is forced to recognize the ‘color-line’ and the plight of blacks. The Harlem Renaissance was a reactionary movement against the Jim Crow laws of the South which excluded and segregated Blacks from participating in mainstream life. The collective repression forced Blacks from all over the world to unite under the aegis of the New Negro Movement. People of African descent from America, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean joined forces therefore a Pan-African association was born. Since the publishing of Souls of Black Folk in 1903, Du Bois already characterized Black folk summing up common backgrounds, nurturing a bond among Blacks. Both the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement are filled with Black activism and violence where Blacks rise up, defend themselves, protest against ills, and fight for rights. “Dr. Du Bois’ classic and most popular book emerged as an inspirational reference and resource for the modern Civil Rights Movement…(serving as) a protest statement in prose and song and as an example of the theory and praxis of protest strategies used by African Americans during the twentieth century” (Morgan). The popularity of protest poetry, song, and speech foments greater unity and hardens the will to oppose laws which perpetuated subjugation and tacit acceptance. It is no surprise either that Black spirituality also plays an active role in the Civil Rights era since it is Black spiritual leaders who spearhead the attack against racism, segregation, and inequality.
In sum, the Souls of Black Folk, The Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement have five common denominators: W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963), who succeeded in surviving the two periods, Afro-American musicality, unity, spirituality, and education. The Souls of Black Folk paved the way for these developments to unfold and encouraged the poor masses to merge music with protest.
An Analysis of Double Consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, a Book by W. E. B. Du Bois
At the heart of W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness lies Saussure’s structuralism. At one point in time, society decided that a person with light skin would be called a white person, therefore giving the color of someone’s skin a sign, white, thus the signifying aspect being the lightness of their skin. Therefore the “other” were those with darker skin, who in America throughout much of the the 19th, 20th, and indeed 21st century were the black people. Based upon their intrinsic differences, the white society has placed a negative connotation to those with darker skin, which has resulted in blatant racism and many microaggressions that have manifested into double consciousness. The black people of America feel the otherness of their sign of blackness much more than the white people of America, who benefit fully (and oftentimes unknowingly) from the positive connotation of their sign. In this, the black people of America see the world differently as their situation requires them to. As W.E.B DuBois puts, living in America is like a prison house, “walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night” (DuBois). There is a constant uphill battle based upon the otherness of a black person’s skin and their relation to American society as a whole. Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, a short story about a Nigerian woman moving to America, is a real life tell about that examines how structuralism has led to double consciousness.
Not even 5 paragraphs into Adichie’s story, does the audience see exactly what it means to be black in America as she puts the audience in her shoes. Her time in America can almost best be summarized by her experience at the local community college in an all-white town. Here, she is “gawped at” (Adichie,) because her hair is different. The white woman want to know if it stood up or if she used a comb, they wanted to know if she had lived in a real house in Africa or ever seen a car. This creates two interesting levels of double consciousness. First, is the one that W.E.B DuBois knew so well of just being a black person in America, as seen by the white people’s microaggressions towards her hair, in which they (most likely) unawaringly point out their differences and inherent sense of superiority by pointing out that her hair is different and unlike theirs. With this the character in Adichie’s short story has to face head-on the fact that she is different because her hair is unlike theirs, which brings it back to structuralism. The character in Adichie’s story also faces another layering of double consciousness, that of being an African black woman. She faces the ignorance of white Americans who believe she wouldn’t have lived in a “real house” in Africa or have ever seen a car, because again structuralism. Long ago, America was given the name of the United States of America, which is signified as the great land of the free, an amazing country. Whereas, Africa is not America, therefore, in the eyes of many Americans it is not a great country just because it has differences. While this is undoubtedly not true, these higher education level women do not understand how Adichie’s character must feel to know that she comes from a place deemed less civilized and modern. From this, she knows she will always be viewed as lesser.
DuBois faced a different kind of double consciousness than Adichie’s character. He faced white discrimination as a black man, a much different specimen than as a black woman. While both are equally as a wrong, they definitely have different aspects to it. This can be seen even within the own black community as evident by Adichie’s character’s interaction with her “uncle,” in which he tries to force himself upon her. She doesn’t allow this to happen, to which he replies, “If you let him he would do many things for you. Smart women did it all the time. How did you think those women back home in Lagos with well-paying jobs made it? Even those in New York” (Adichie, 117). The uncle is implying that as a woman, no less a black woman, she is already disadvantaged as is, therefore the only way to become on equal playing grounds is to utilize her sexuality. Here she adds a new layer to her understanding of double consciousness. Not only does she have to see the world through the eyes of a black person, but also a black woman. She is different and mistreated because of her skin color, but also sexualized and repressed because of her sex.
After the incident with her uncle, Adichie’s character fled to connecticut and became a waitress. Here she faced much more discrimination as a person of color. The most alarming incident she mentions is that everyone thought she was Jamaican, as she snarkily comments, “because they thought every black person with a foreign accent was Jamaican” (119). However, not every encounter at the restaurant is negative like this one as she meets a man that will become her significant other for sometime. The only thing worth mentioning of this man is that he is rich and white, therefore has travelled the world, spending a considerable amount of time in Africa, which is how he initially impresses her by asking if she is Igbo or Yoruba. From there, he pursued her and finally she allotted him a date, which began an interesting relationship. When in public, Adichie’s character claims that they were an abnormality based on everyone’s reactions, whether it be old white men and women showing disgust, young white men and women showing support to showcase their open-mindedness, and even discontent or signs of solidarity from within the black community. Her relationship with this rich, white man falls into double consciousness as she is viewed through the frameworks of a black woman in an interracial relationship. The world sees her as different because it is not the normal relationship the world has signified, white with white, black with black. This is something different and some view it as negative and others view it through a forced positivity.
The rich, white man is not perfect as it is inferred through the short story that, while he does have feelings of some sort for her, he is also infatuated with her just based on the fact that she is an African woman, an exotic trophy. In some instances, he tries to pander to her by bringing her to an African shop and telling the store owner he is African. It cannot be argued that he doesn’t have good intentions, but as she points out, they are often times self-righteous. Even in her most comfortable relationship, she must view the world through the lens as a black African woman that is being romanticized based upon her ethnicity and color, thus meaning she will never fully feel comfortable in America, which is ultimately why she left without him to go back to Africa.
Double consciousness through structuralism has created a hard world many people of color in America. They are viewed as different based on arbitrary signs that were put in place years before their time. This has led to a feeling of unease and discomfort based upon this inherent prejudice for being darker skinned as the lighter skinned humans have all of the more positive connotations in America. The character in Adichie’s story “That Thing Around Your Neck” details this concept perfectly, unfortunately, as she struggles in America to find her footing as she is either ogled at or romanticized for being this different skin color. She is forced to view the world through the lens of someone else’s eyes, with a double consciousness.
The Souls of Black Folk and A Passage to India
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois illustrates the very poignant image of a color line that separates the two races in his society. He introduces the term double consciousness to explain how African-Americans view themselves, not as individuals but as a collective group; a perception made through the eyes of the society that they lived in. This perception produces what Du Bois calls a“twoness’ of American Negroes. It is this sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” (Du Bois 3). The notion of double consciousness speaks not only to African Americans but to humanity as a whole. E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India both illustrates and complicates Dubois’ notion of double consciousness. Through the racial misconceptions and cultural pretenses that plague the interactions between the British and Indians, we see an uncertainty that lies in each individual’s sense of identity. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness is also complicated in this novel because he does not leave room for those individuals who do not fit his strict black and white template. There is no gray area. Every individual can identify himself as part of one group on opposite sides of the veil. Can a human being exist in society as an individual or is one’s identity only defined by the group that they associate themselves with?
Double consciousness refers to the idea that we see ourselves through the eyes of others. Du Bois uses this term to describe the felt confusion that exists between social standards and daily experience for blacks in this country. Throughout the book, it is evident that Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness has two manifestations. The first is the power that white stereotypes have on black thought. He argues that despite having the knowledge of truth, African Americans continue to force themselves into a context of misrepresentation that is used to define their people. By submitting themselves to these paradigms, blacks allow themselves to remain the inferior race. The second demonstration of double consciousness is the racism that excluded African Americans from the mainstream of society. Blacks struggled to identify themselves and for them the internal conflict came from being African and being American simultaneously. The question of authenticity arose in Du Bois essay on “The Conservation of Races,” where he says:
No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these cross-roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American? (Du Bois 233).Though they were native to America they were not considered to be American because their roots lied in Africa. They were thought to be foreign, and separate from the rest of the population, which is how they soon began to view themselves.
A Passage to India is a realistic documentation of the attitudes that British colonists hold towards native Indians, whom they control. Through the exploration of Anglo-Indian relationships, Forster attempts to illustrate how one is viewed not by his status but by his racial or cultural background. In the novel, Dr. Aziz embodies Forster’s notion of the “muddle” of India. Dr. Aziz struggles to identify with one distinct group of individuals. While his racial and cultural background characterizes him as Indian, he does not believe that he can truly relate to this group because he is an exception. His higher education allows him to want to be more like the British, who refuses to accept him as anything other than Indian.
Throughout the novel, the British continue to look pass Aziz’s title and education and see him solely as “one of Indians,” who they describe as a group of selfish and ignorant individuals. One major example of this perception is when Dr. Aziz is accused of sexually assaulting Miss Quested. Through his vivid description of the accused crime, and the British reaction toward the situation, Forster satirizes the overreaction by the British as not only silly, but also dangerously based on sentiment rather than truth. Many of the English took the assault on Adela Quested as an assault by all Indians on English womanhood. The English viewed the isolated incident as a threat to the British Empire itself. Their account of the assault is devoid of any recognition or sympathetic understanding of Aziz’s honorable character. They simply see the situation as a revelation of the Indians’ criminal tendencies. This idea is described through McBryde theory behind the assault. “All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of the latitude 30. They are not to blame; they have not a dog’s chance—we should be like them if we settled here” (Forster 184). McBryde explains that Indians have criminal tendencies because of the climate, thus their behavior is inherent and justified.
Dr. Aziz suffers from Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness. Aziz knows that he is different but allows himself to be slave to the stereotypes that come with being Indian. He struggles to define himself as an individual in a society that sees him simply as a member of a larger group. Because he knows that he is viewed as a “typical Indian” through the eyes of the British he feels the need to prove himself as being better than his counterparts but finds it hard to do so. Aziz’s numerous acts of generosity are often perceived to be fraudulent. In chapter VIII, Aziz lends Fielding his last collar stud to replace his broken one. Though Forster makes clear that Aziz’s unpinned collar was a display of his act of generosity towards Mr. Fielding, Ronny remarks the unscrupulous look as emblematic of the Indians’ general laziness. “Aziz was exquisitely dressed, from tie-pin to spats, but he had forgotten his back collar stud, and there you have the Indian all over: inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race” (Forster 87) Despite his friendship with Aziz, Fielding is still found making generalizations about the Indians based on one incident.
Though Aziz is a character who illustrates a person’s constant struggle with double consciousness, there are many individuals in the novel that Du Bois’ theory does not account for. Dubois argues that being Black meant being deprived of a “true self-consciousness,” as blacks viewed themselves only through the generalized contempt of white America. This idea can be related to the way in which the Indians perceived themselves through the eyes of their superiors, the British. While this may be true for many individuals of the oppressed group, there are some who are truly able to achieve self-consciousness. In his argument, Du Bois fails to leave room for these self-assured individuals. In A Passage to Mr. Fielding is an example of someone who does not struggle with double consciousness, but intern is able to identify himself not through the eyes of those around him but through his own eyes.
Among the Englishmen in Chandrapore, Mr. Fielding is by far the most successful at developing and sustaining relationships with the natives. Though Mr. Fielding is well aware of his status as an English man and the power that he has over the natives, he strives to be seen as an individual who does not embody the common stereotypes made about his people. In fact, he is the exact opposite and is seen throughout the novel as a model of liberal humanism. He treats the Indians not as an inferior race but as a group of individuals that he can connect with through mutual respect, courtesy, and intelligence. Fielding is not afraid to ally himself with “the enemy.” He honors his friendship with Aziz over any alliance with members of his own race. This disruption of allegiances threatens the solidarity of the English colonial rule over India. Fielding’s alliance and loyalty to the Indians is seen when he takes the side of Aziz in the assault trial. Fielding is ridiculed when he publicly expresses his belief in Aziz’s innocence. He is seen as a traitor and is believed to have betrayed his people and his country. This betrayal is seen in Fielding’s conversation with McBryde where he proclaims his belief in Aziz’s innocence. McBryde tells him that he ought not to get himself involved in the situation despite what his conscious is telling him.
“ I feel that things are rather unsatisfactory as well as most disastrous. We are heading for the most awful smash…”
“ I say he’s innocent—”
“Innocence or guilt, why mix yourself up? What’s the good?…We shall all have to hang together, old man I’m afraid.” (Forster 189)
Whether Aziz is guilty or innocent is not the issue at hand. The true issue lies in proclaiming an Indian’s innocence. By doing so the British is doomed for corruption and upheaval by the Indians in the state.
Throughout the novel, Mr. Fielding identity is not defined by the “group” that he his associated with but through his individuality and his ability to go against what is expected of him. By being able to set himself apart from the group Fielding does not struggle with double consciousness. By staying true to his beliefs and by not questioning his position in society he is able to identify himself solely as an individual and not as a member of a larger group. As Because he allied with the Indians, Fielding was cast out of the group and was finally able to seek refuge as an individual.
W.E.B. Du Bois uses the term double consciousness to describe how one vies themselves through the eyes of another. Though E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India illustrates Du Bois notion of double consciousness through its depiction of Dr. Aziz, it also complicates it by creating a character that is truly self-conscious and aware of his identity. In his concept of double-conscious Du Bois does not leave room or account for this type of individual.
• Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bedford Books, 1997. Print.
• Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York, Harvest Books, 1965.
Education, self fulfilment and double consciousness in W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls Of Black Folk
The power of education and the power of the literary form within slave narratives has been a consistent and resounding theme. From Frederick Douglass’ Narratives In The Life Of A Slave to Harriet Beecher Stowe saying in 1879 that “[Freedmen] rushed not to the grog shop but to the school room- they cried for the spelling book as bread, and pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life”. Throughout these works we see repeatedly the value afforded to education as the tool with which slavery and subjugation could be escaped. First published in 1903 by one of few black individuals enjoying a decent standard of life (often attested to his mixed ancestry – his grandfather James Du Bois has been a white French-American), his work The Souls Of Black Folk can be read as a testament from the white community as to what African Americans at the turn of the 20th century could manage with ‘proper education’, as exemplified by his utilisation of the Sorrow Songs across this narrative.
In DuBois’ own words, though he knows little of technical music he found the Sorrow Songs “I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.” and this once more brings up the integral importance of education and it’s value within the black community following emancipation. As James D. Anderson summarises “Blacks emerged from slavery with a strong belief in the desirability of learning to read and write….it was expressed in the intensity and the frequency of their anger at slavery for keeping them illiterate.”, and DuBois was one of a host of black authors attempting to show the potential within his community should they no longer be oppressed. DuBois goes on in this except to consider being told by whites that “…know an excellent colored man in my town,”, which briefly touches on the problematic nature of the ‘Talented Tenth’ concept popularised by DuBois and his contemporaries. This is the notion that the top, educated class of blacks could go on to be leaders in their fields and culture, relegating the other 90% of his community to live under the same oppressive superiority he himself was trying to escape. It can be argued that this approach does injustice to the huge amounts of grassroots work and organisation occurring during the period and highlights the problems of the ‘education is the key to freedom’ ideology.
DuBois’ description of ‘the veil,’ has gone on to become a literary icon in terms of describing the African American experience. At a basic level, the veil describes a simple separation between white and black Americans – they are fundamentally different as described by DuBois when he states “it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil”. It also can be seen as holding deeper significance to race relations; in the same manner a bridal veil obscures the wearer while leaving them free to see beyond it, in essence giving them knowledge of both, black Americans can see the lives they desire beyond the veil while white Americans can’t truly know the horror of being behind it. Through his use of the specific symbol, DuBois’ suggests the fundamentally uneven nature of ‘separate but equal’ ideologies. In aligning himself with the blue sky above and “great wandering shadows”, Dubois suggests that through being able to see both sides of the veil (being both sides of the racial experience) has allowed him to see the faults and shortfalls of whiteness, which was previously viewed as ideal and desirable. We see this in the next lines, DuBois notes the difference in his reaction to the other black boys who “shrunk…into silent hatred of the pale world about them,”. Instead he begins to view his own African lineage as a benefit, a radical notion at a time when African Americans had recently been held as property. DuBois goes onto discuss this concept more thoroughly with the idea of double consciousness, of the warring American and Black identities.
This can be seen in DuBois’ desire to best his peers in spite of his clearly being at a disadvantage. He hoped to “beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads”. This repetition and rule of three has a strong impact upon the reader, especially in the last example as DuBois utilises a double meaning to go beyond wanting to best his peers academically to wanting to commit a violent act upon them. This seems reasonable enough given the abuses and degradation experienced by the black community, which DuBois outlines elsewhere. Beyond this, I feel the recognition of this desire and DuBois’ continued lack of violent outbursts or other aggressive tactics works in tandem with his belief that education alone is the way to equality.
Expressed most poignantly in the line “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” DuBois manages to succinctly and accurately describe the double consciousness to which he refers through the piece, to the innate conflict in being both American and Negro. From it’s founding America was seen as a meritocracy and land of equal opportunity (aka the ‘American Dream’ concept). As early as 1851 F. W. Bogen,writes that “[In America] wealth and possession of real estate confer not the least political right on its owner above what the poorest citizen has…. In such a country the talents, energy and perseverance of a person have far greater opportunity to display”. This can be seen as evidence of traits that became seen as fundamentally American – valuing hard work, self-fulfilment and personal responsibility for improving oneself and one’s situation. In direction opposition to this however there is the ‘Negro’ identity, carrying inferences of property without fundamental human rights, and a lack of ability to work towards self fulfilment and personal gain. In DuBois’ presentation, he attributes the ability to resist this oppression to the strength of character seen in black communities (their ‘dogged strength alone’), and could also be read as viewing this strength in the African American community to have come from the internal struggle of ‘warring ideals,’, placing value on a unique element of the African American experience. This concept of a value beyond blacks relation to whites is also a recurring theme within this extract, and the narrative as a whole.
When considering The Souls of Black Folk it is also of importance to discuss the treatment of black culture as in relation to white culture. In the modern age, we recognise the importance of separating European/colonial mindsets and influences on works created outside of them however we can tell through DuBois’ writing that this was not the case in 1903. He explicitly condemns “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” This critique poignantly identifies the issue with judging the value or validity of one culture through comparing it to another; it assumes one is fundamentally superior or ‘correct,’. In DuBois’ interpretation, judging African American’s through their value to white Americans is at its essence unjust, in that it denies the basic concept of self fulfilment to ex slaves. DuBois goes on to condemn not only oppressive whites but in addition the lack of self worth and value that comes from “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Here we see it is not just those at the top of the chain that wish to keep blacks pressed that are problematic, but that it is a layered and nuanced issue, as the gentle hearts looking at aspiring black intellectuals with ‘contempt and pity’ is a problem in and of itself. DuBois cannot completely move away from this structure if he hopes to be accepted as truthful, accurate and successful, however in the body of both this extract and the larger text we see his strives to be considered in and of himself, and for the African American community to be seen from its inherent value and strengths, rather than seen as a poor substitute for whites.
W.E.B. DuBois‘ notion of double consciousness is an important, but controversial, concept that has gone on to find use in not only literary circles but within the wider field of African American/Africana Studies. It was such a powerful device as it helped define the irony of black Americans being forced on the one hands to try to develop self-definitions while at the same time, being assigned hostile and negative identities imposed by the outside society through the racism of many white Americans of the era.
In many ways, the question at the crux of the novel is asked in this passage, and DuBois points out he himself has no good response,:“How does it feel to be a problem?”. The question highlights the ironic treatment of blacks in America in the early 20th century, and particularly the lack of control and support that was felt following Emancipation. A huge percentage of American population had suddenly been given rights, and therein lay the ‘problem’ DuBois speaks of – the discomfort and confusion still felt by many in the white community (as exemplified by the schoolmate turning away his visiting-card), the struggles of attempting to organise and be sustainable as a community having had no education, the desire of blacks to be seen as both different and beneficial to the US as a whole. These were issues that could be brushed off when slavery was enforced however following that, these problematic questions needed very real and tangible answers. In essence, through confronting the duality within himself, DuBois’ blackness and Americanness are being married by education and his ability to express these horrors in an accurate and evocation manner; DuBois is at last “able to penetrate to his own self-conciousness and culture.”
Anderson, James D. The Education Of Blacks In The South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Print.
Bogen, F. W. The German in America, Boston, 1851, as quoted in Ozment, Steven E, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. 2004. Print.
Brodwin, S. The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W. E. B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”. Journal of Black Studies, 2(3), 303–321. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2783720
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library, 1996. Print.
Color-Coded America: How the White “Dream” Employs Socio-Economic Limitations in African-American Culture and Beyond
In taking on the colossal notion of American culture, it would be ideal to begin with its inhabitants. The questions of what defines us and what we give value to are inherent challenges in themselves because the country is split by several subgroups: by race, by class, by creed, by ethnic group, and so on. Since this essay addresses minority culture in excess, another challenge for those groups surfaces in terms of “achieving an independent personal and group identity; gaining access to political power and economic opportunities; and finding ways to think, speak, and create that are not dominated by the ideology of the oppressor” (Tyson 423). When diving into the topic of multi-cultural literature and its voices, an even deeper challenge arises. By default, it seems that white culture has passed as universal culture due to its strong literary and political influences from the country’s very beginning. “…if colonizers acknowledged that a native culture existed, they claimed that such cultures were not worth sustaining in the face of the ‘superior’ civilization offered by the Europeans” (Tyson 424). White privilege has oppressed other identities, other values, and made our culture uniform. What’s more, stifling or covering up other histories has made it seem like whites are solely to commend for American heritage, given that history books, narratives, and biographies focused solely on white American accomplishments. Therefore, it is the belief that the white voice is the most “accurate” voice. We are still sending the message of “cultural capital,” as essayist Henry Gates calls it, and we are still directly affected by cultural imperialism: the takeover of one culture (the “non-white” culture) by another (the “white” culture) in terms of, more specifically the customs and values of the economically dominant culture. So where are the other voices, and what do they have to say about all of this?
There is a distinctive theme in African-American literature, especially pertaining to how this minority experiences economic and social limitations that inhibit their success. As we know, Americans in general have practice in internalizing their success as a form of self-identity. Essayist Leslie Hawkes explains that “the notion of fresh self-creation is a deeply American one and it is in fact a founding principle of the country” (21). Self-creation and individualism is rooted deeply in the notion of the American Dream. Critic Lois Tyson has made the connection between the discourse of the self-made man and the “success manuals” that circulated during the time the American Dream began to take shape. Around the turn of the century, success manuals were created to give young boys an idea of how to succeed through adopting certain practices and symbols of success. Gates’s essay about our nation assimilating into “white” culture, reinforcing Ivy League and activities that symbolizes the “upper crust,” echo these manuals, and it seems like this is where the problem lies. Tyson states, “The discourse of the self-made man ‘erases history’ in choosing to ignore or marginalize the enormous character flaws of many famous self-made men while simultaneously defining self-made success as a product of one’s character rather than a product of one’s environment. The discourse is permeated by the desire to escape history, to transcend the historical realities of time, place, and human limitation” (308). These success manuals, like the Dream, erase history, enabling us to deny our pasts and ignore our flaws, as well as ignore how well we conceal and continue to conceal oppression and constraint. Ironically, the American dream was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and, as we will soon find, continues to thrive on the abuses suffered by immigrants and the socioeconomic barriers against people of color. The American dream was built upon the misery and limitations of our cultures, endeavored throughout history to be concealed. This essay will explore three short stories by African-Americans about African-Americans, and its commentary will work to showcase how the concealment of the past, the employment of internalized racism, and the unattainability of wealth symbols have fixed a barrier between African-Americans and the Dream their culture holds in such esteem.
I. Retrospect In discussing American culture and its fascination with “moving up,” we must recognize how society aims to limit African-Americans from this quest by obscuring the past. Nowhere else is the theme of a concealed past more apparent than in Alice Walker’s short story, “Elethia.” The theme of forgetting and remembrance create a mood for her motif of disguised physical decay on the part of Uncle Albert and gives us a larger sense of a fictional past and an imagined history on the part of slave testimony. In “Elethia,” Uncle Albert’s corpse that decorates the window of a diner wherein no blacks are allowed is a reminder of the fake continuity with the present the civil rights movement tried to shatter.
The fake past is alive in the image of the stuffed corpse of Uncle Albert. All teeth, smiles, and servitude, in reality Albert was slave who had his teeth knocked out for his defiance against slavery. “They used to beat him severe trying to make him forget the past and grin and act like a nigger” (Walker 309). He decorates the window of an all-white restaurant. Believed to be a “dummy,” Elethia learns that the body is his actual corpse. This mirrors the undermining of the white community against the black plight: they believe in the triviality of the crimes committed—everything is an allusion, not real. Elethia and her friends steal the corpse and burn him, aiming to rid the world of its false and stereotypical images of blacks and to rectify its misrepresentations, recover the past, and preserve the truth for those after her.
The image of Uncle Albert in the window is racist; it underplays the severity of slavery and erases the past struggle and pain Uncle Albert and all slaves went through. Elethia carries the ashes of Uncle Albert in order to mourn and heal, much like one would for a family member who has passed. She is healing from the damage done to Albert’s corpse as well as the damage done to her ancestors. “Everywhere she looked, there was an Uncle Albert…. And she was careful that, no matter how compelling the hype, Uncle Alberts, in her own mind, were not permitted to exist” (309). Elethia is trying to preserve a cognitive relic, which has been painted over with sugar-coated brush strokes to lighten the plight of slaves. She realizes that all the Uncle Albert types were not permitted to be remembered because that would mean owning up to a disgraceful and shameful past.
Walker is able to find, through her themes of remembering, a vocabulary for the civil rights movement’s own personal grievances and preoccupations. “Elethia” represents the time of the civil rights movement and the tension between white and black societies. While the white community as a majority seemed to want to perpetuate black oppression, the black community rose up to end it. Elethia’s mindset during this story is much like the mindset of the black community during this movement. Elethia’s and her friend’s defiance against the older community’s acceptance of the racial stereotype employs her ability to transcend the identity chosen for her. Charles Taylor wrote in his essay “The Politics of Recognition” that the misrecognition of others can cause a group of people to “suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Non-recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (75). Uncle Albert’s image is distorted, he is imprisoned and confined behind a glass case and forced a demeaning and reduced expression of happy servitude: “His lips were intensely smiling and his false teeth shone. He carried a covered tray in one hand…and over his other arm was draped a white napkin” (Walker, 307). Elethia, much like supporters of the civil rights movement, attempted to reshape the misrepresented past and bring these social issues back in the spotlight. They are essentially working against decades of false representation, orally, psychologically, literary, and as we see here, even the physical presence of Albert is omnipotent: “Everywhere she looked there was an Uncle Albert…in her textbooks, in the newspapers, and on TV” (309). The Uncle Alberts who are “not permitted to exist” give us an idea of the invisibility of black history and culture. Not only are African-Americans unacknowledged as victims, their histories and identities are essentially erased. Through misrecognition, they are reduced and belittled.
As we now know, although boastful of its diverse society, America has had and continues to struggle with its racist attitude. Springing from this hindrance is the phenomena of internalized racism, which has succeeded in crippling the success of African-Americans. In “The Death of Horatio Alger” by LeRoi Jones and Amiri Baraka, a young African American man named Mickey engages in an altercation with his friend J.D. over a game of words that gets out of hand. Their three white friends stand by and cheer them on. Mixed in with this outer conflict is Mickey’s inner unrest over white society and his isolation from it. This work deals in large part with racial politics: exploring the racial issues of the social and psychological effects of racism. The fight scene allows us to understand Mickey’s preoccupation with white society’s ideals of beauty, his acceptance of racialism, and the stereotyping of blacks that forms his identity.
It is clear that Mickey has internalized society’s ideals of beauty: “And it is a useful memory here, because such things as these were the vague images that had even so early, helped shape me. Light freckles, sandy hair, narrow clean bodies. Though none lived where I lived” (155). He realizes those white ideals are out of his reach, and he will never “win:” “Or something a Deacon would admit was beautiful. [A white painting.] The conscience rules against ideas. The point was to be where you wanted to, and do what you wanted to. After all is ‘said and done,’ what is left but those sheepish constructions” (155). There is another layer to the fight scene here when Mickey informs us of his realization that he is beneath his white friends due to society’s petty ideals. He has bought into the notion of racialism, which critic Lois Tyson refers to as “the belief in racial superiority, inferiority, and purity based on the conviction that moral and intellectual characteristics, just like physical characteristics, are biological properties that differentiate the races” (360). Mickey’s identity is formed by white society: “We are named by all things we will never understand. Whether we can fight it or not…” (156). And he is suffering from internalized racism. “Victims of internalized racism generally feel inferior to whites, less attractive, less worthwhile, less capable, and often wish they were white or looked more white” (Tyson 362). Because Mickey shapes his narrative with his internal feelings of futile inferiority, the fight between he and his other black friend becomes a source of racial mockery and entertainment for Norman, Johnny, and Augie.
The battle scene ensues, and the three white boys laugh at the spectacle. With race lines set up, the conflict between Mickey and J.D. seems, on a larger scale, to depict the struggles and humility of African Americans attempting to define and defend themselves, and the satisfaction and insensitivity derived by white society in controlling and stifling their progress. Since the conflict initially begins between two black men, this symbolizes the difficult struggle for equality for the black culture and their efforts to overcome oppression spawning from the persecution of segregation. Mickey is clearly torn between two worlds, his own personal life and culture and the culture of white America. The battle between he and J.D. becomes something larger to Mickey than a quibble over name calling; it becomes a war between the sides: a conflict brought on by his inability to live harmoniously in a mixed culture. W.E.B. DuBois first described a phenomena many African Americans experience in The Souls of Black Folk as double consciousness or double vision, the awareness of belonging to two conflicting cultures: the African culture and the European culture imposed by white America. DuBois calls it”a peculiar sensation…. One ever feels this twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (89). Norman, Johnny, and Augie watch from the sidelines and laugh, and we have a sense of white men’s feelings of superiority and Mickey’s realization of his twoness. In addition, the white men can vicariously live out their desire to be less civilized through the fight. That the fight for them is a spectacle and a source of their entertainment represents the state in which the white men of the society enjoy keeping the black men in a state of inferiority, conflict, and oppression through manipulation.
Mickey seems to feel ashamed by buying into the stereotype. Moreover, Mickey is ashamed of his internalized feelings. “And I was conscious first of my father saying, ‘Go on Mickey, hit him. Fight back.’ And for a few seconds, under the weight of that plea for my dignity, I tried,” “…[B]ut J.D bashed me when he wanted to” (157). This last was not a literal “bashing,” but a symbolic one. J.D. had to show Mickey his own shame of his blackness. Mickey and J.D. attack their three white friends who had been watching them and cheering them on, but the final image of Mickey’s frozen hands gives us an idea that although this is progress on the part of Mickey and J.D., and they tried to strip themselves of their alienation, it only leaves them in a frozen state.
Mickey’s “frozen hands” at the end that may “[n]ever thaw” (157) speak for his position in his society as well as his conflicted identity. Since fighting with J.D., he has bought into the white stereotype of blacks and into the white stereotype of what is beautiful: “Negroes and Italians beat and shaped me, and my allegiance is there. But the triumph of romanticism was parquet floors, yellow dresses, gardens and sandy hair. I must have felt the loss and could not rise against a cardboard world of dark hair and linoleum” (156). Although he would like to fight for himself and his race, he has bought into the stereotype of the whites. This reinforces the notion of his twoness. He wants to rise up against the whites; he wants to rise up against his own people so he can be one of the “beautiful people in the white society,” but he can do neither; thus, he is frozen in between the two worlds. He cannot be of the white world (which he yearns to be) and he cannot reject his own black world Charles Taylor says, “…the withholding of recognition can be a form of oppression” (81) and Mickey is withholding the recognition of himself.
“The Death of Horatio Alger” speaks in large part for the social construction of race and identity. Because we are inherently a nation of clashing cultures, there is a conflict between race being socially rather than biologically produced. In this story, there is a struggle to find one’s identity in the midst of these warring influences as well as a struggle in debunking or feeding into society’s racism and social expectations for “inferior” races. Mickey cannot, in this time, break through the social expectations forced upon him. He cannot essentially “make a name for himself” or his race. He is frozen and limited, unable to progress normally in a society that passions progression.
During the civil rights struggles from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, African Americans became increasingly aware of the consequences to blacks as a whole when individual blacks adhered to white middle-class values. “Many African Americans engaged in unified group efforts that created a sense of community and established ethnic pride, while others associated individually with privileged whites but never became completely part of the privileged society, creating instead a divided subset of the African American community” (Champion 69). In “The Lesson,” by Toni Cade Bambara, a group of black school children embark on a field trip to F.A.O Schwartz in Manhattan that, in the end, creates this aforementioned division in the African-American community. What’s more, the contrast between the impoverished children and their new environment creates a commentary that parallels the absurdity of the presence of economic inequality and the American dream. Significantly, our narrator Sylvia does not immediately follow the other children into the store because she feels “funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody” (93). As the children enter the high society store, they quickly become aware of their limitations, and they begin to use comparisons that suggest they are becoming aware of class divisions and their inabilities to obtain these “sign-exchange-value” symbols and signifiers of wealth. Sugar asks if they can steal, while Sylvia criticizes a white lady for wearing a fur coat even though it is hot. It is also interesting to note that upon exposure to their extravagant lifestyle, Sylvia never assumes an economic structure hierarchically. Rather than respecting and admiring the privileged, she makes comments such as “White folks crazy” (89). Junebug says she has no need for a $480.00 paperweight because she does not own a desk. Flyboy claims he does not need a desk because he is homeless, a claim that disgusts Sylvia because she thinks he only makes such comments “to keep the white folks off his back and sorry for him” (148).
When Miss Moore asks if she is angry, Sylvia says she won’t give her the satisfaction of expressing her emotions. This scene demonstrates the growing tension Sylvia experiences as she becomes aware of unequal distribution of wealth. “Whereas under other circumstances, she and Sugar would laugh and talk together, representative of comradery, upon exposure to capitalistic economics, they immediately become estranged” (Champion 74). As they leave the store and board the train to home, Sylvia’s comments begin to resonate. “Me and Sugar at the back of the train watchin the tracks whizzing by large then small then getting gobbled up in the dark. I’m thinkin about this tricky toy I saw in the store. Cost $35… Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go to visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too” (150). The train tracks getting gobbled up certainly represents the spirit of capitalism, which zooms by and exploits the less privileged. Sylvia associates the image of the train track with the $35 toy and the connection made to the reader is that blacks who aspire to white middle-class values will never become a part of the privileged class, for they are destined in a racially biased society to get “gobbled up” by racist attitudes. The larger question implied, of course, is why should blacks even desire to become part of a social system that historically has oppressed them? As Hamlet would say, “Ay, there’s the rub.”
“Although Sylvia is unaware of the complicated ramifications of the lesson, readers understand that over a sequence of lessons Miss Moore will eventually teach the students the full capacity of the social problems indicative of capitalism, of which she has thus far provided only a glimpse” (75). Home, Sylvia lets Sugar run ahead of her, rejecting her proposition to race: “She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothing” (152). Sylvia seems to understand that her and Sugar’s limitations have put them at odds against each other. Tight friends at the story’s beginning, their new awareness of their confines have driven them to naturally compete and become divided, much like the fight in “Horatio Alger,” and has shifted their focus to obtaining symbols of higher class. By buying into the Dream, Sylvia and Sugar are alienated over a battle already lost, only deepening their oppression and confining themselves deeper within their places in society.
II. Prospect We have found through the experiences of the black community a vocabulary to identify how the American Dream has failed, not just for this group, but for all minorities. America’s desire to transcend history, deny the past, invent a new life and deny historical realities of socioeconomic class makes us “never grounded and there is nothing that connects [us] to the land” (Hawkes 23). “America has lived through, and is still suffering from, the consequences of attempting to blend utopian ideals with notions of materialist satisfaction. It still believes in the utopian dream but is seeing this dream through far less innocent eyes. The United States has always used symbols as a way of uniting its ideals” (Hawkes 23). We must not concentrate on the images from stores like F.A.O. Schwartz and on looking the part. Symbols alienate and isolate, like we have seen in “The Lesson,” rather than draw a nation together. Mickey’s internalized acknowledgment of the “wrongs” of his image give us a haunting insight into how well we know we lack. We must not try to distort our own image or the image of the nation, nor must we try to re-write our “wrongs” like “Elethia” has aimed to do.
Yet even still, the American Dream tells us to mimic the upper class, suggesting we create allusions of status, image, and wealth. We are all blinded by the belief in the American dream, because we were founded on rugged individualism and a quest for fulfillment, no matter the cost. We still believe in the self-made man; it is highly an American trait. But still we must ask what the difference is between those who succeed and those who do not. It goes back to images and the avoidance of the limitations society has bestowed on us, and it also ties into the difference between success and greatness. We are a nation of symbols and images that represent success. We are victims of the propaganda of magazines and television telling us if we achieve in procuring those things, we will be successful. Magazines and TV gives us an imagined and fabricated visual of America that enables us to forget our history and our past and deny our confines. But none of those things, if we achieved them, would make us “great,” and these images distort our environment and conceal our limitations, which is the fundamental obstruction. Instead of focusing on success, the American Dream must strive for greatness. We must move from effect to affect, from living to giving, from being divided to being united, not mistaking our prosperity for our identity, and most importantly, not allowing society’s ideals to define us. It is a tall order, one we may never get just right, one that may never break us from our confinement completely. But I hope we learn that what we can gain in heart and in mind we will lose in fear and isolation. I hope we know that we are not our possessions, and I hope we stop allowing others to make our decisions and we stop asking for permission. I hope we realize this soon. I hope for the very, very best.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 145-152. Print.
Baraka, Amiri & Jones, LeRoi. “The Death of Horatio Alger.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 153 157. Print.
Champion, Laurie. “’Passing It Along in the Relay’: Struggles for Economic Equality in Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘Raymond’s Run’ and ‘The Lesson.’” Short Story: Fall 2005, Vol. 13 Issue 2, 69-82. Print.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin. 1989. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Good-bye Columbus? Notes of the Culture of Criticism.” American Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter, 1991).Oxford Press. 203-217. Print.
Hawkes, Leslie. “‘And One Fine Morning’: Gatsby, Obama, and the Resurrection of Hope.” Social Alternatives. Vol. 28 No.3, 2009. 20-23. Web.
Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” English Department. National U, 4 Oct. 2011. 29 May 2012. Web.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: a user-friendly guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Elethia.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 307-309. Print.
The Danger of Passiveness in Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”
The latter years of the 19th century brought with them a time of vast change in race relations in the United States. The end of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed brought a slew of rights to the newly freed Southern slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau offered educational opportunities to African Americans and the 14th and 15th amendments had granted them equal rights of citizens and the right to vote (Lemke-Santangelo). Undoubtedly, the decade following the end of the war served as a time of hope and promise for the almost 4 million slaves freed by the 13th amendment (“American”). However, by the turn of the century, major tensions regarding the status of African Americans had already begun to arise. Supreme Court rulings showed time and again that those in power were unwilling to recognize black citizens as truly equal. Southern states had already begun to devise methods such as poll taxes and the Grandfather Clause to circumvent the 15th amendment and prevent blacks from voting (Lemke-Santangelo). Thus, the early 20th century was a time of heated tension between races, and out of this grew much literature that existed as a response to this.
During the early 20th century, many African Americans turned to writing to address the hardships that plagued them. Much of this literature expressed discontent with the widespread inequality facing African Americans in the years following the abolition of slavery, and attempted to push for better conditions and rights. In spite of the hardship and inequality however, one former slave managed to present a view of race relations that was distinctly less negative than nearly all of his contemporaries; Booker T. Washington, who was still a child at the time of slavery’s abolition (“Booker”), writes in “Up from Slavery” about his journey toward success from the toils of plantation life—a journey wrought with both hardship and the demand of hard work. Despite the trials he faced, however, Washington presents a view of his life and of racial issues that not only fails to call for action, but that absolves white Southerners of any guilt in the application of slavery. Washington’s uniquely positive perspective on the issue of slavery and equal rights, although admirable in its optimism, is ultimately problematic in furthering justice for African Americans.
Washington’s piece, “Up from Slavery,” is initially striking in the positive spin that it attempts to put on the issue of slavery. Although Washington is by no means an advocate for the institution of slavery, he pauses to note that, “the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition… than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe” (Washington 1350). Here, Washington is suggesting that there is a benefit, however small or unintentional, of the enslavement of African Americans, an assertion that would today be met with fierce criticism and opposition by the general public. Washington also describes himself as having a connection to his masters, and remarks that he felt sorrow at one of their deaths. Despite the fact that Washington does not praise slavery outright, he certainly adopts a more positive stance than any other former slaves. By painting slavery in anything less than a horrible light, Washington essentially weakens the plight of African Americans during this time, and thus makes less pressing the need for justice.
Beyond attempting to put a less negative, if not explicitly positive spin on the issue of slavery, Washington goes as far as to deflect guilt from white slave owners. About his father, a white plantation owner who presumably raped his mother, Washington says, “I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time” (Washington 1345). This statement is jarring, not only because of Washington’s position as a former slave, but because holds a fundamental implication that white plantation owners were not responsible for the atrocities they committed against other human beings. In using the word “victim,” Washington argues not only a lack of guilt, but an oppression against white slaveholders. Such an assertion, though perhaps honorable to some on Washington’s part, is highly problematic in that it absolves white Southerners of any guilt in the matter of slavery, and allows those in power to ignore responsibility for their own actions. In doing this, Washington’s argument makes very difficult the fight for justice.
This is not to say that Washington was not an advocate for a reversal of this social injustice. He makes clear that, despite his oddly positive view on his life as a slave, he is in no way a supporter of the institution of slavery, and that finding any African American who was would be virtually impossible. Washington asserts, “I have never seen one who did not want to be free, or one who would return to slavery,” and goes on to say that he “pit[ies] from the bottom of [his] heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery” (Washington 1350). Clearly, Washington has a decidedly negative view on slavery as a whole, and he exhibits throughout this piece that he is an avid supporter of upward mobility for African Americans through education. However, Washington’s envisioned mode of achieving equality is passive to the point of inactivity; he urges his fellow African Americans to simply wait until the time for equality reaches them.
Such an approach is incredibly telling of Washington’s beliefs about society and human nature. Expressed throughout the piece is a sense of positivity and thankfulness toward the people around him. For example, he repeatedly uses the word “privilege” in regards to his experience with General Armstrong, a man who worked at the Hampton Institute during Washington’s time there, and he later asserts that “the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history of this country” (Washington 1359). Remarks such as this illustrate Washington’s inherent tendency toward gratefulness and appreciation of the people with whom he interacts. It is made clear throughout the piece that Washington views his fellow human beings, regardless of race, in a distinctly positive light.
This ability to see and believe the best in people is, in itself, an admirable one; however, the way in which it informs his idea of race relations is deeply misguided. Out of his deep sense of positivity stems Washington’s belief that people are fundamentally good, and that—beyond this—they possess an innate ability to recognize the good in others. Not only does Washington believe that people “lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others” (Washington 1362), he believes firmly that the people around him—specifically, white people in power—will eventually come to this realization without any external pressure to do so. Believing the good in people is of course, in itself, not a flaw, but when applied to the issue of racial oppression, it poses an enormous problem to the advancement for equality. His belief in people’s inherent goodness informs Washington’s passive approach to racism, which he expresses in his Atlanta Exposition Address and which essentially states that African American people ought to wait patiently until justice becomes a reality. “Say what we will,” Washington says, “there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward the merit in another, regardless of color or race” (Washington 1371).
This statement is both powerful and deeply persuasive. Yet in arguing this, Washington is inadvertently working to slow the advancement of the people of his own race. His assertion that people need wait found support primarily with whites; even peaceful African American activists found his view hugely problematic. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argues precisely the opposite, exclaiming, that “when you are haunted day and night by the fact that you are a Negro… plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King 97). Despite the fact that Martin Luther King’s statement is aimed at white clergymen, it seems his argument applies just as clearly to Washington’s assertion. “This ‘wait’” Martin Luther King says, “has almost always meant ‘never’” (King 97). Thus, by King’s logic, Washington instructing his fellow citizens to wait for justice was effectively a request to ask them to ignore the need for justice.
Washington’s decidedly passivity was also criticized heavily by African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in The Souls of Black Folk, accuses Booker T. Washington of serving as a catalyst in the disenfranchisement and institutional inferiority of blacks in the U.S. through his “old attitude of adjustment and submission,” and his desire to serve as “a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro” (Du Bois 1385). These assertions are far from inaccurate; Washington’s passive approach appealed largely to white audiences and helped to bridge the gap between justice-seeking African Americans and white citizens who were reluctant at best to extend rights of citizenship to blacks. His position as a former slave who had worked his way up in society led many other members of his race to follow in his example, and thus worked to quiet the collective voice that called out for justice.
Washington’s piece as a whole advocates for the submission of African Americans to the injustices of society on the grounds that, in time, white men will come to recognize the innate value in their fellow citizens regardless of race. He also works to absolve white citizens of their guilt, for he does not simply refer to them as without fault, but as victims—likening their suffering to his as a slave and proposing the belief that slavery is not a product of individual wrongs, but a wrong institution that has forced itself on the Nation as a whole. Overall, his optimistic yet wholly unrealistic perception of society, coupled with his attempts to present white plantation owners as victims of the institution of slavery, ultimately serves to undermine the plight of African Americans during the early 20th century, and serves as an excuse for white citizens to ignore the pressing need for justice in America.
“American Civil War Census Data.” American Civil War Census Data. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
”Booker T. Washington.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Critical Strategies and Great Questions. Saint Mary’s College of California, 2013. 97. Print.
Lemke-Santangelo, G. (2015, November 30). Radical or Congressional Reconstruction 1867-77. Lecture presented at Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga.
Washington, Booker T. “Up From Slavery” Health Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 1344-372. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk” Health Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 1374-397. Print.
The Pursuit of Happiness and The Veil
W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neal Hurston, undoubtedly, had two distinct ways of writing, one through an analytical form of storytelling with interwoven fragments of moralistic and ethical themes and one through short fiction that exemplified the distinctiveness of black culture and dialects. Though these styles are diverse, they both harkened on the condition of blackness and each presented poignant narratives that existed to both study and challenge the position of black people as a whole. The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neal Hurston and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois both put black culture and black intellectualism into the conversation surrounding political and socioeconomic inequalities. Additionally, these works forced blacks and whites alike to assess and reevaluate ideas surrounding identity and what it means to take ownership of one’s own culture and exist in contentment. Joe, Otis T. Slemmons, and the W.E.B. DuBois’ son all represent the idea that whiteness, through a black cultural lens, is something one puts on and despite attempts to escape The Veil there is an ever present barrier that prevents blacks from reaching the illusion of happiness.
The transformation from contentedness to materialistic desire for wealth and the ideal of happiness nearly ruins Joe and Missie May’s marriage. It is the need for stability and lineage that keeps them together in the end. The opening lines of the narrative creates a sense of a community united by its outlook towards growth. Hurston writes, “It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G and G Fertilizer works for its support” (1033). Joe and Missie May appear happy when they play around and perform their game, but it is the underlying sinful desires that creep through despite their attempted separation from the world around them. Missie May scrubs her dark skin with white soup in bathes and galvanized tub. When Joe enters the house he rids himself of the dirty fertilizer. There is the distinct undertone of uncleanliness that lurks just below the surface just out of the peripheral of the happily married couple that does not truly come to the surface until Otis steps into the picture. Just before Joe walks in on Missie May and Otis’ sexual encounter he contemplates his future with Missie May, he analyzes, “creation obsessed him…a little boy child would be about right” (1037). Like many previous authors, including DuBois, there is an incomprehensible desire for strong paternal lineage; this desire may derive from the separation of families during slavery or a wide range of ancestral bonds, but Joe seems to buy into this philosophy. Similar to how his community depends on the G and G Fertilizer works, Joe puts all his faith into the stability that he thinks he has with his wife and the certainty of an equally stable future.
Despite Joe’s optimistic viewpoint, it is evident that his desire for happiness is different from Missie May’s desire for the same thing. Joe explains after he comes back from work, “You ain’t hongry, sugar…youse jes’ a little empty. Ah could eat up camp meetin’, back off ‘ssociation, and drink Jurdan dry” (1034). Joe likens his hunger to a spiritual desire, he is so hungry he could fill himself with the Jordan River, which has distinctly religious connotations. Joe tells Missie May that she is just empty which means it is necessary to fill herself up but not explicitly in a spiritual manner. Missie May’s emptiness causes her to look for fulfillment in other ways, through her sexual encounter with Otis and her envy for the gilded six-bits. After the brief affair Missie May has with Otis she believes her marriage is over, she even debates leaving Joe forever, but she can’t bring herself to leave. Joe chastises, “Missie May, you cry too much. Don’t look back lak Lot’s wife and turn to salt” (1039). Missie May, similarly to Lot’s wife, struggled with her faith in the future. Her indiscretion and adultery in the past held her hidden desires and view of happiness though, as she would come to find out, she desired nothing but a masquerade. Otis Slemmons introduces something into the lives of Missie May and Joe, and it’s the notion of economic inferiority and material desire and it, regardless of their decision to stay together, destroys their marriage.
Otis T. Slemmons represents, like the snake in the Christian creation myth, the introduction of sin, knowledge, and desire into the lives of Joe and Missie May. Otis’ clothes, girth, and money causes the couple to liken him with robber barons such as Rockefeller and Henry Ford. Without his presence, Joe and Missie May would not have become aware of the economic disparity within the black community. Previously their view on wealth, power, and the performance of masculine superiority only existed as something that was distinctly white and in a far off community. Joe praises, “He got de finest clothes Ah ever seen on a colored man’s back” (1035). The focus on clothes in relation to how Otis presents his material wealth, exemplifies two notions; that economic superiority is solely represented through material ownership and whiteness, from Joe and Missie May’s point of view, is something one puts on. Once Otis infiltrates their home, he has the power to ruin them, before he was only outside of the house. Missie May and Joe only travel to the ice cream parlor to see Otis. The moment Joe and Missie May begin to talk about Otis, desire and jealousy enter their lives and it causes them both to make uncharacteristically flawed choices. Missie May desires the “wealth” that Otis possesses, thinking that it will make her happy. Joe, understanding that he cannot compete with Otis’ economic status, desires to possess women like Otis does. Joe covets, “Sho wish it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im” (1035). There is an immediate gendered gap between the desires of Joe and Missie May, women as a whole become possessions that drive and empower men. The commodification of Missie May and the expression of ownership and power through the possession of the six-bits presents the notion that Missie May’s sexuality becomes something that is traded between the men. By the end of the narrative, Joe tosses fifteen coins on the porch rather than nine, signifying that the desire for economic prosperity rules their marriage and they cannot rid themselves of the sinful desires that Otis introduced into their lives. They are no longer free in their expression of love but rather oppressed by outside forces. The couple can never obtain the contentment that they had or the contentment that they wanted because their present actions limit their opportunities for serenity.
W.E.B. DuBois’ unnamed son tragically dies before he is able to obtain an identity. By dying he escapes the tragedy of The Veil, or the systematic oppression that entraps blacks into a state of inequalities and internalized racism. DuBois describes, “He knew no color-line, poor dear,-and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not darkened half his sun” (741). The baby is innocent and he is not yet black nor white. The Veil is a mere shadow in his world, he has hope and the ability to escape. Blackness was created as an opposition to white, without this dichotomy, whites could not retain their own identity as blackness interferes with the possession of the American identity. The unnamed boy, if he had lived, could take ownership of his identity as a black man and as an American. The Veil, as DuBois defines, limits blacks in their pursuit of a better life because they have little to no opportunity of escaping it. W.E.B. DuBois asserts, “The price of culture is a Lie” (DuBois, 738). Or in other words, in order to take ownership of one’s identity, and of one’s culture, it is imperative that as a collective whole black people have to forget; not forgive. As DuBois argues and demonstrates through the tragic death of his son, this boy was able to live outside of The Veil, but his only true freedom came through death. As a theorist and analyst, the conclusion that death is the only way out is not a viable result, so DuBois challenges black people to seek refuge in their future in order to own their identities and create their own happiness. In relation to Missie May and Joe, the child was innocent and unadulterated by the desires of the world, he did not desire prosperity because he had no concept of what prosperity entailed within the realm of his existence.
What Zora Neal Huston and W.E.B. DuBois present is an insight into the turmoil of the black identity as it relates to overall contentment in life. Most analytics focus primarily on political or social disparities between blacks and whites and how those factors limit economic disparities between the two communities. The Gilded Six-Bits alters that narrative, as it focuses on how economics reshapes sociopolitical as well as moral ideology within the black community that resides in Eatonville and more specifically Joe and Missie May’s lives. W.E.B. DuBois does not specifically comment on happiness as a tangible goal among blacks, but he does force readers to note the freedom that exists just outside of The Veil. DuBois’ son does not have the opportunity to pursue his own happiness, to cultivate his own community, or to define his own identity but he does have the luxury of innocence and the void of a stereotyped existence. Despite DuBois’ theorizing and Hurston’s narrative voice, both authors suggest that happiness can exist within the black community if they resist the temptations of materialism and if they can be empowered on their own without relying on oppositional identities to define themselves. Both these works delve into notions of Pan-African (American) ism, as The Gilded Six-Bits takes place in Eatonville and DuBois’ work attempts to holistically study and describe the condition of black Americans. Through this Pan-African-Americanism these writers dictate how one can foresee the strength of the black community despite the obtrusive nature of white American ideology seeping in. Happiness is not something that W.E.B. DuBois suggests is the end goal for African Americans, his goals are self-sustainability, power through identity, and most importantly freedom. Ultimately freedom is happiness, the simplistic nature of contentedness and desire for familial growth is the most innocent and prosperous form of happiness that there ever can be in DuBois’ ideal world and in Joe and Missie May’s world as well just before Otis, and sin, entered into their life.
DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” The Norton Anthology of African American
Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 692-765. Print.
Hurston, Zora. “The Gilded Six-Bits.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.
Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 1033-1041. Print.