BUI ORIGINS: Double-Consciousness, its Relation to Privilege, and the Quest for Wholeness
Self-consciousness, in its truest, unadulterated form, is a privilege that only befalls the hands of a lucky few. Without oppressors, people in power each have the luxury of attaining for themselves a sense of wholeness; they do not have to build a disjointed façade of themselves to appease the outside world. It would be problematic, though, to assert that humans without such privileges – like the black writers, the depressed poet, and the enslaved and marginalized characters in The Tempest and The Bear – are at fault for having multiple perceptions of themselves; instead, one must recognize double-consciousness as simply a defense mechanism, a grasping attempt to survive and thrive in a broken society.
In order to discern whether an individual is affected by the perceptions of the outside world, or whether their self-consciousness is threatened by the corruptive nature of false judgement, one would have to assess their own condition. In Double-Consciousness and the Veil, W.E.B. Du Bois speaks of the problem that blankets the black community: to be a problem. For Du Bois, the assessment of his character stops at the color of his skin; the shallow judgement of others allows for misperceptions of his merit and true identity. This is where the difference between the privileged and the marginalized comes in: everyone faces false judgement from others, but those who are privileged are not directly affected by that judgement, because they have the power to rise above it; for people who are disadvantaged, like Du Bois, the judgement they suffer is not benign, but rather cataclysmic, as their judges hold social and political power over them. With this truth in mind, Du Bois assesses the condition of his people, of living in “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois 179). This condition, of being powerless in a world that views one as a problem, leads one to adopt multiple perceptions of themselves in order to survive.
Survival, however, is two-fold: success in a white world calls for the suppression of black values, but for the sake of the individual’s health and well-being, it is necessary to embrace one’s true identity. People of privilege do not have to sacrifice their identity to succeed in America. For Du Bois and his people, however, they are stuck; while Du Bois does not wish to “Africanize America,” he would not dare to “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (179). In defense of the self and in pursuit of success, marginalized people are forced to see themselves through the lenses of two “unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals” (179). In the paradox of black survival, the mind becomes a battleground in which the true identity fights the pseudo-identity. This means that those who have no choice but to be doubly conscious are at a grave disadvantage, for the energy and time they spend dividing their identities into what they will show the world and what they will keep to themselves is great and costly. As a result, those who are faced with this reality will never know the privilege of wholeness.
Du Bois, through his analysis of black strife, lays the framework for readers who seek to understand the conditions of Origins characters and writers, for they are subject to the same sense of two-ness, the same paradox of survival, and the same limit of success – all of which afflict the underprivileged, the marginalized, the disadvantaged. This notion of double-consciousness as a hindrance, though, leads us to a final question: Can one truly live in multiple spheres? The answer is no. In order to combat the oppressive forces that divide their identities, the characters and writers must strive for wholeness. Each, however, try to achieve or restore a sense of wholeness in different ways: by relating to others, by clinging to the past, by lashing out, by controlling or depending on others, or by attempting to repudiate their pasts.
Langston Hughes expresses what it feels like, on a personal level, to be viewed as a problem – he is doubly conscious of both his true identity and the identity that others make for him. In “Theme for English B,” Hughes addresses the assumptions of his white professor by defining his own identity – measured and consciously. Hughes is “the only colored student” (line 7) in his class, and he is aware of his race; it is clear that he feels a close connection with Harlem, the historically black community that has undoubtedly solidified his identity as a young black man. Hughes begins the poem with this truth, taking the reader through his neighborhood to show that he puts his black identity in a place of prominence. Towards the end of the poem, though, Hughes reveals how prejudice has forced him into double-consciousness; he reaffirms his “American” identity by assuring his professor that, just like him, he likes “eat, sleep, drink, and be in love” (line 21), too. The fact that Hughes has to prove his relatability to others reveals a harsh reality for minorities in America: in order to succeed, they must prove their worth to their white counterparts. In summation, Hughes cannot live separately in his black identity or in his identity as seen through the eyes of his white English classmates, so he builds a bridge between these warring ideals through poetry, enabling him to achieve a more unified view of himself.
As Hughes attempts to reconcile two opposing identities, Randall Jarrell struggles to build a relationship between his perception of the past and his perception of the present. In his nostalgic “Thinking of the Lost World,” Jarrell contrasts the darkness of reality with colorful, pleasant memories: the sixth stanza begins with the childlike imagery of pterodactyls and princesses, but halfway through, the tone abruptly shifts, signifying a dissonance between playful innocence and the reality of driving from jail with his mother (lines 31-42). While Hughes’ condition was defined by his race, Jarrell faces an oppressor that resides within himself: depression. Just as Du Bois implied, double-consciousness arises when an individual is oppressed in some way. In the context of Jarrell’s life, his consciousness of his reality competes with his perception of how childhood should be: incorruptible. Furthermore, it is his depression – the voice that tells him that his memories are idealized, that they amount to “nothing” – that causes past to conflict with present. As these ideals become harder for Jarrell to reconcile, the parallel between privilege and wholeness becomes more clear.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare toys with power structures to show the effects of privilege (or the absence of privilege) on the consciousness of his characters. Prospero, who once felt wholly conscious in his position of power, was stripped of those privileges and cast off to a faraway island. Without a public to perceive him in a positive light, Prospero struggled to affirm his identity as a nobleman. In one world, Prospero feels entitled and views himself as ruler of the island. In another, he lives in defeat. In order to achieve a sense of wholeness in his new condition, Prospero resorts to controlling others, transforming his current identity and merging it with the one from his more favorable past. Again, the individual simply cannot exist in double-consciousness; they must take measures, sometimes severe, to become fully conscious and merge multiple perceptions of themselves into one.
This is true for Prospero’s slaves, as well – although more so for Caliban. Robbed of his freedoms and privileges upon enslavement, Caliban, like Prospero, is conscious of his past and of the condition he deserves. However, he is doubly conscious of the current position he is in and the impression others have of him: defeated, just like his master. Caliban juxtaposes his current condition with his former, more favorable one – just as Prospero has done – and he exclaims, “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak’st from me … here you sty me / …whiles you do keep from me / The rest o’th’ island” (act 1.2 lines 331-2, 342-4). When faced with this double-consciousness, Caliban lashes out – because, as it was with Hughes and Jarrell and Prospero, two-ness does not contribute to the true success or survival of the individual. In an effort to regain the privilege of wholeness, which, for Caliban, can only be achieved through literal freedom, Caliban attempts to overthrow his master. His failure to do so, combined with the aggressive identity he adopts to compensate for his loss of power, speaks to the traumatic effect of double-consciousness on the individual.
In The Bear, Faulkner uses misnomers to reveal the double-consciousness of his characters – of their perceived identities and the true identity that comes with the name. Boon Hoggenbeck would be a prime example; he’s a drunkard of Native heritage who projects the misperceptions of himself onto others – like the “negro on the street” (217-8) that he shot, carelessly, without purpose, as if it amused him. To be a boon, though, is to be helpful or beneficial. At heart, Boon wants to help others. Boon helps Sam Fathers take his own life, risking his reputation to do what seemed to be a service to his friend. Boon also helps in killing Old Ben, even if it is out of fear for Lion’s life. So why, then, would Boon behave in such a way that others would perceive of him negatively? Because of his second-class status, his absence of white privilege, Boon is automatically placed in a box. While he is conscious of his ability to do good and help others, Boon internalizes the misperceptions of his oppressors – the assumptions that he is lesser, that he is a savage of sorts. In order to compete with them, though, Boon decides that he must act like them; in order to escape his double-consciousness, Boon takes his problems out on innocent black bystanders.
Ike McCaslin is unlike the other characters in that he is, in fact, privileged. However, because he chooses not to benefit from that privilege, Ike is in the same predicament as the rest: he cannot reconcile his past with his present, the crimes of his forefathers with the honest man he strives to be, one consciousness with the other. While all of the Origins characters and writers have contributed their own answers to the question, “Can people live in double-consciousness?” Ike unifies them all, proving that there is no such thing as the repudiation of one’s condition; that people who are forced into double-consciousness more than often have to stay there unless they find some way to drastically alter their behavior and achieve wholeness. In this, Ike reveals the detriment of the oppressed: this feeling of never, ever achieving full consciousness, of failing to reconcile one’s multiple identities. All of these place Du Bois, Hughes, Jarrell, Prospero, Caliban, Boon, and Ike far behind the privileged on the path to success and survival.
To be privileged means that one does not have to write a poem to remind others of their double-consciousness, of the unreconciled strivings of being a young black male in a room of white students. To be privileged means that one’s past is not dark enough to hide behind imagined, pleasant memories, to exist in a state in which one confuses their reality with their ideal perception of themselves. To be privileged means that one does not have to resort to hostility when achieving wholeness. To be privileged and to benefit from that privilege means that one does not have to sacrifice family or friends in renunciation of their past. For those who are not privileged, they fall into the paradox of survival: they must be conscious of the ways others perceive them in order to prove their worth, yet the very act of being doubly conscious, of dividing one’s energy into two separate spheres, is what inevitably holds them back.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Double Consciousness and the Veil.” The Souls of Black Folk. New York:
Bantam, 1989. 1-9.
Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. New York: Modern Library, 1955. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” 1949
Jarrell, Randall. “Thinking of the Lost World.” 1965
Shakespeare, William, and Frank Kermode. The Tempest. London: Methuen, 1964. Print.