Sunday, July 3, 2011

Exploring W. E. B. DuBois' Double Consciousness Theory in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and SecondClass Citizen by Buchi Emecheta


Double Consciousness: and the Innate Ability to Realize One's Dream

Over the past one hundred years African Americans have been called; Colored, Negro, Black, Afro-American, and African American. Our identity continues to evolve. No matter what title we go by we find ourselves in a world of double standards. We, of African descent have learned to live in two worlds, our own cultural reality, and the reality of the dominant race. This paper will explore the double-consciousness theory of W.E.B. Du Bois as depicted in the writings of Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright, and Buchi Emecheta. Janie Crawford the main character in Hurston's, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright in his autobiographical novel, Black Boy, and Adah in Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, are main characters of African descent who learned to live in two cultures. These two cultures, always clashing and causing conflict in the lives of the protagonists, serve to teach, mold, and strengthen them so that as they mature, their dreams come into fruition.


W. E. B Du Bois states in his book, Souls of Black Folk, "...the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" (Forethought xxxi). He then asks the question, "How does it feel to be a problem" (1)? He calls this problem "...double-consciousness, this since of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (3). This double-consciousness can be seen in the life of Janie Crawford the main character in the bildungsroman novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.


As a young girl Janie was raised by her Grandmother who she called Nanny. Janie and Nanny lived on the property of a White woman named Mis' Washburn. Nanny worked for this woman and helped raise her grandchildren. Janie first came to discover her "self" when she and the other White children had their picture taken. When Janie looked at the picture, she asked "where is me?" Mis' Nellie, the daughter of Mis’ Washburn, pointed to Janie and said "Dats you...don't you know yo' ownself" (Hurston 9)? Janie replied "Aw, aw! Ah'm colored!" Janie was astonished to discover that she was "colored." As a small girl Janie Crawford endured the state of "twoness" she was a colored child, even though her father was a white man. This state of being, caused her to be mistreated by her schoolmates. She was of mixed race, a second class citizen in the eyes of the White race and hated by her peers of her own race. Her mixed heritage held her bound between two races. Hurston continues the journey of Janie Crawford by allowing the reader to look into the desires and dreams of Janie as she begins to long for love, desire, and life.


Janie desired a life of true love and happiness. She believed that this could be accomplished in marriage. But Nanny, who believed that happiness came with financial success, thwarted Janie's dream by arranging for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a Black man who owned sixty acres of land and a mule. Hurston seems to use this man Logan Killicks to show that when African Americans were emancipated they took on the ways of the dominant race. Financial success was the "American dream" and to own land was financial success. So Janie had to give up her dream of love and marriage and accept Nanny's dream of assimilating to the culture of her former slave owners. Hurston uses this marriage to Killicks, to show that the White man’s ways do not always bring happiness.


Janie leaves Killicks to marry Joe Starks. Joe Starks is also trying to capture the American dream. He envisions himself as an important man with money, land, and status. A man that everyone looks up to and admires, just like his former slave holders. Hurston uses this character to depict how the African American imitates his former oppressor. Joe Starks is a cold-hearted businessman. He treats Janie and others around him with contempt. He feels that his money, land and status, makes him above everyone else. He tries to persuade Janie to think and feel as he does, but she never lets go of her inner dream, to experience true love. Janie learns to play by Joe Starks' rules but she never really assimilates to the White man’s way of doing and feeling. She learns the art of silence for the sake of survival.


Janie is experiencing the state of double consciousness, always looking at herself through the eyes of her husband, who is trying to take on the ways of the White man. It is very interesting the way Hurston uses Joe Starks to show how the issue of race and assimilation can cause conflict within the African American race. The people in the small town of Eatonville Florida are all Black. They were awestruck by Joe Starks and the way he came into town and took control of things. He made the little shanty town a place to be proud of with a general store; owned by him, a post office; run by him, and he was also the town's elected Mayor. Joe Starks felt that his wife Janie should be as satisfied as he, because of all these perceived accomplishments.


Joe Starks saw himself through the eyes of the dominant race. He was just like them after all; he was living in a big two story house overlooking the small houses of the small town’s people. He owned all the land, he ran all the town businesses; he was living just like the white man. And yet his home was a place of coldness and contempt, his wife was terribly unhappy. Starks never tried to see life through the eyes of his wife; he never stopped to consider how she felt about things. In his mind they were equal to the White man and that was enough. Janie was forced to be his token, his trophy. She could not mingle with the other women, because in Starks' eyes she was above them. Janie and Joe were both living within their own culture while trying to assimilate to the dominant culture. This caused confusion in their marriage, this confusion was a silent enemy. Janie and Joe never realized that their conflict was one of double consciousness. They never discovered that his desire to be like the White race drove a wedge between them, a chasm that could never be reconciled.


This irreconcilable chasm of twoness also dominated the life of Richard Wright, as portrayed in his novel, Black Boy. As a young boy Richard Wright was curious, mischievous, and defiant. His parents tried to beat the defiance out of him. His Grandmother and Aunt tried to shame the defiance out of him, and the White man tried to scare the defiance out of him. Richard's defiance was his way of refusing to assimilate or conform to the cultural norms of his environment. W. E. B. Du Bois intimates, "One ever feels his twoness,-- an American, Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (3).


This "dogged strength" is what kept Richard from being torn asunder by the outside forces that tried to mold him into a docile, accommodating, complacent, weak-kneed Negro. Richard showed signs of strength and determination as a small child. His family who had conformed to the White culture's way of thinking saw Richard's strength as a hindrance to him and them. They wanted him to acquiesce, to act as the White culture expected Negroes to act. By telling his story in this manner Wright allows the reader to experience the struggle going on in his psyche.


Richard was different from all the other Negroes around him, even though he never realized he was different until it was brought to his attention by his friend, Griggs. When Richard tried to find work after he graduated from high school, he was never able to hold down a job. It was because of his attitude, not that he had a negative attitude, he just did not have a subservient attitude. Griggs told Richard that he did not know how to live in the South. He did not know how to play the role of a Black man, "...look, you're black, black, black, see? Can't you understand that" (Wright 183)? Richard had to be forced to recognize his Blackness just as Janie was forced to recognize that she was Colored; two individuals in the same world with the same problem, the Negro problem.


Richard wanted to "learn this strange world of white people" he asked Griggs to tell him how he must act. Griggs explained "when you're in front of white people, think before you act, think before you speak...your way of doing things is alright among our people, but not for white people. They won't stand for it" (184). It is at this point in the novel that Richard journeys through the struggle of being a Black man in a White man's world. He must reconcile these two opposing forces in his own conscious, in his own world. Richard comes to a time in his life where he must decide if he will assimilate, accommodate, or reject the norms of the dominant white race. Richard attempts to accommodate and act as he is expected to act while in the presence of White people.


Richard's first attempt to accommodate the White man was a total failure. He was working at an optical company with two racist white men. These men refused to teach him the optical trade and even made lewd jokes about his male anatomy. Wright says "My personality was numb, reduced to a lumpish, loose, dissolved state. I was a non-man, something that knew vaguely that it was human but felt that it was not" (194). This is the state of a man almost broken by racism, bigotry and hate. Richard needed to learn how to survive. He felt that if he could only get out of the South that things would change. And so he manipulated his escape and ran to the North only to find that he could not escape the dominate culture. But he did learn to wear a mask long enough to get what he wanted. Paul Lawrence Dunbar penned the poem, "We Wear Mask," to describe the inner turmoil of the American Negro.


We Wear Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us while
We wear the mask
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured soul arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream other wise,
We wear the mask! (71)

Dunbar published this poem in 1896, yet it remains timeless. The Black race has learned to wear the mask to survive in a culture that is dominated by European values. Richard Wright must learn how to wear the mask in order to survive in the Twentieth Century. This struggle, this twoness, this double consciousness, plagued the life of Richard Wright. He was caught between two worlds, and at the same time trying to find him self. Who was he? Why did he exist? What was his future, his purpose? These were the questions that he must answer. He continued his search for "self" by traveling to the North.


When Richard arrived in Chicago he finds that race relations are less strained but racism still exist even in the North. He said the "black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies" (262). Right is experiencing the reality of "Dreams mocked to death by Time" (Hurston 1). But Richard did not give up on his dream. He wanted to become a writer and here in Chicago he would see that dream come into fruition. Chicago became a place where Richard learned how to communicate and live in two worlds. He continued to struggle; he did not assimilate, or accommodate, the dominant culture. He did reject that culture's predetermined expectations of him, as he matured and learned how to be a Black man in a white man's world. As Richard Wright and Janie Crawford both experienced struggles from with-out and with-in, which shaped, molded and helped form their personalities, so did Adah, the main character in Emecheta's, Second class Citizen.


"It had all begun like a dream...one was always aware of its existence. One could feel it, one could be directed by it; unconsciously at first, until it became a reality, a Presence" (Emecheta 7). Adah, a little Nigerian girl, dreams of leaving her country and living in the United Kingdom. She realizes that this is her desire whenever she hears her father talk about the United Kingdom. She said when her father spoke of the United Kingdom it was as if he was speaking of "God's Holiest of Holies" (8).


At the age of eight Adah felt that she was being directed by her dream. She called that dream a Presence. At the time that she realizes this Presence, she also realizes that in her culture she is "insignificant" because she is a girl (7). It is at this time that Adah also understands that "one's savior from poverty and disease was education" (9). But educating a girl was not as important as educating a boy in the Ibo culture. So Ada's brother went to school and Adah would be taught to sew. Adah purposes in her young heart that she will go to school and she will also go to the United Kingdom.


Adah had a desire to not just survive but to be successful, self sufficient. She exhibited that desire at an early age when she manipulated her way into school. Next she manipulated her way into marriage, and finally, she manipulated her husband into moving to the United Kingdom. It was when she arrived in England that Adah realized that people of African descent were regarded as second class citizens.


The main characters that have already been discussed were African Americans who found themselves in a world of conflicting cultures. While Adah is not an African American she is of African descent and faces the same problem of being a person of color, in a European dominated culture. Just as Janie and Richard faced problems from forces with-in and with-out, so does Adah. She finds that she is not content with being treated as a second class citizen. While her husband seems to assimilate to the dominant culture easily Adah still has a dream to fulfill; she wants success, as she envisioned it while growing up in Nigeria. She will not settle for anything less; and for this she is ostracized by her Nigerian community and her husband.


Adah went through one storm after another, Whites did not want to rent to her because of her color. Her husband burned her first manuscript, she had five babies, but she learned to endure. And then she learned to persevere. On her journey she became a strong woman. The culture clash she experienced while being treated as a second class citizen by her Nigerian husband, her Nigerian community and the Europeans served to shape and mold her into a writer. She always dreamed of being a writer, but she thought that this would happen twenty years in the future. It was the pain, the loneliness, the discrimination of the white race, and the wounds she received from the hands of her husband that compelled her to write. She gave birth to her dream, this was her purpose, this was the reason that she came to the United Kingdom. She was an African in a strange land all alone, but she had her intelligence, she had her ability to tell a story and no man could take that gift from her. Adah became a writer.


Richard Wright also became a writer he learned to say what he had to say, by using words as weapons. He followed his dream to speak out against injustice, and to not allow his "self" to be silenced, he refused to give in to the dominant culture. Janie also realized her dream when she threw caution to the wind and left Eatonville, Florida to marry Vergible Tea Cake Woods. Janie refused to be hemmed in by the narrow minds of people and their opinions. She wanted to experience life and love and she did. These three bildungsroman novels allow the reader to view the conflict of race, culture, marriage, and self, as the protagonists grow into mature individuals who overcome the obstacles of life. DuBois' theory of double consciousness is very evident in the lives of the protagonists, it is this state of twoness that causes the main characters to discover "self" their true essence. These individuals go on to see their dreams come to fruition while learning to take risk, to have faith, and to be courageous enough to be themselves.

By Donna Louise
 
Works Cited
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantan Dell, 1989. Print
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1913. Print
Emecheta, Buchi. Second Class Citizen. New York: George Braziller and Company, 1974. Print
Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print