Everyday Struggle: Black Subjectivity from Du Bois to Black Lives Matter

Richard Thomas

Key elements of the African American literary tradition have been a focus on both subjectivity and agency. Whether it is through classic works by Frederick Douglass or contemporary works by Ta-Nehisi Coates, African American literature has focused on understanding the delicate balance between African descent and what it means to be American. W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal work The Souls of Black Folk uses the term “double consciousness” as a way to articulate this unique challenge. The focus of this paper is to analyze the nature of black subjectivity through Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness as revealed through literary works such as The Souls of Black Folk, Native Son, and Between the World and Me. By tracing the nature of black subjectivity through these accounts, it is possible to understand the richness of experiences that is pivotal to any conception of African American life, particularly in literature.

The prolific career of W.E.B. Du Bois was dedicated to providing subjective meaning to the lives of black Americans. However, Du Bois knew that American racism deeply shaped the lens that black Americans used to interpret their experiences. Double consciousness is the term that he used to describe this phenomenon. In chapter seven of The Souls of Black Folk he used personal accounts of African Americans living in the “Black Belt” to explore the dual realities experienced at the turn of the twentieth century.  Du Bois’ method expresses black subjectivity by providing countertextual narratives that juxtaposed black American experiences with white American experiences. Years after Du Bois’ work, Richard Wright employed a similar method in Native Son. The countertextual narrative in Wright’s novel portrays Bigger Thomas as a person imprisoned both figuratively and literally because his skin color does not provide him with agency. Finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, examines black subjectivity through the lens of intertextuality. Coates’s emphasis on intertextuality allows his personal narrative to explore subjectivity as a meaning-making process. It is this view of subjectivity that embodies the ethos of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

 

Subjectivity and Double Consciousness

The quest for subjectivity is not limited to African American experiences. However, analyzing subjectivity through their lives provides a unique understanding of what it means to acknowledge one’s particularity while also articulating a view of what it means to be American. Audre Lorde described subjectivity as a call to consciousness and the discovery of the origins of the self. It is a desire for wholeness, personal freedom, and cultural determination (Lorde 17). The combination of factors such as time, space, race, place, gender, and sexuality are several attributes that compose the matrix of subjective identity. Although several factors that help determine subjective identity are stagnant, the totality of one’s identity is in constant flux. Thus, humans perpetually strive for more accurate knowledge of both themselves and the world around them, to understand the connection between their subjective value and  their social agency.

For African Americans the sense of agency can be traced to the colonial period. The dawn of slavery in the United States created a view of self-identity with two competing ideologies. On the one hand, African identity (and the slave identity) formed in relation to colonial mechanisms. On the other hand, it formed as a desire for autonomy apart from colonialism. These competing ideologies created a complex view of African American socio-cultural realities. The quest for subjective identity became a way to make sense of experiences and to construct a way to read the world in a specific way (Castro-Borrego 148). This view of subjective identification is exemplified in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois.

One of Du Bois’ most important concepts in the Souls of Black Folk is double consciousness. He contended that the conditions of African Americans that were living in the United States at the turn of the 20th Century were marked by a lack of true self-consciousness (Du Bois 8). As a result of losing their subjective identity, African Americans could only examine themselves first through the lens of another world. This world that was created for them did not recognize their subjectivity, but rather saw them as an object. Thus even as African Americans saw themselves as the subject they simultaneously saw themselves as object to the other. This is what Du Bois described as double consciousness. He wrote: “It is a peculiar sensation, 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” (Du Bois 4). Accordingly, the suffering and outrage that many black Americans felt was first understood in relation to the reality experienced by white Americans.

Double consciousness involves a dialectical vision of the subjective self. This view is composed of the self that strives for autonomy and the self that conforms to socio-cultural influences. Du Bois hoped that this dialectic would be resolved through the merging of the two to create a truer self. He wrote that the merging of these two realities for black Americans “wishes neither of the older selves to be lost…He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both Negro and an American” (Du Bois 8).  Reconciling what it means to be both black and American simultaneously is more than simply a matter of subjective identity. It is also deeply connected to social agency. The view of double consciousness that attempts to find a truer conception of the self is also a move towards social agency.  In other words, by examining consciousness of two competing ideas, African Americans learn how to be both black and American. The doubleness is meant to be maintained rather than be dissolved into a singular consciousness. Previous scholars such as William James and George Hegel believed that notions of doubleness were mutations of the self that required a unifying synthesis (Phillips 591). However, Du Bois’ view of double consciousness leaves open the possibility for fragmentation. Thus, it is possible to understand the social agency involved in what it means to be a part of specific African American communities as well as the larger context of being a citizen in the United States.

 

Double Consciousness as Countertexuality

There are various ways to employ literary techniques to examine the scope of double consciousness within African American life. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois uses a method than can be described as countertexuality (Clark 196). Countertextuality involves exploring the competing realities that shape an individual’s subjective identity. Specifically, in African American literature, countertextuality describes daily life that is shaped by socio-cultural norms. These norms help to create value systems, regulate legal codes, and help to determine socio-economic mobility. Socio-cultural norms are deeply shaped by racial categories/grouping. The dominant racial group has a strong influence on both socio-cultural norms and subjective identity. In others words, white American subjective identity creates the text for black Americans to examine their own subjectivity. The identity that black Americans create for themselves in relation to white subjective identity is the countertext. As a result, the use of countertextuality is always an examination of one’s self through the eyes of another.

In chapter seven of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois utilizes countertextuality to analyze the conditions facing black Americans in the “Black Belt” region of the United States. This region is characterized by a very large African American population that works primarily on cotton plantations and lives in rural areas outside of major cities. Du Bois notes that this area is the center of where over nine million people were forced into the slave labor system. He also notes that the slave system had an indelible impact on African American society and culture. He uses stories of several African Americans living in the “Black Belt” as countertextual examples of double consciousness.

Du Bois first points out places such as Dougherty County, Georgia, as “a land of rapid contrasts and curiously mingled hope and pain” (81). This is mainly because of the mixture of feelings from the black residents of the county. He describes the life of a couple that has recently been married. The couple had moved to the “Black Belt” to capitalize on the economic boom of the cotton crop in Georgia. They had visions of living the American Dream of freedom and economic prosperity. However, the harsh reality is that when the price of cotton fell, all they had was seized by the government in which they have no part of and sold. They no longer owned the property they lived on or the fields that they toiled in. They rented their living space, the mule they used to farm the land, and all the necessary equipment from the white owners of the Bolton Estate. Du Bois equates their condition to slavery. The couples’ ambition to realize their social agency to pursue a better life is juxtaposed against the reality that white landowners control their ability to realize this goal.

Another countertextual example of double consciousness that Du Bois uses is the life of Luke Black. Black is an African American male, who has worked as a day laborer on cotton crops in Georgia for over twenty years. He received only a dollar and a half per week for his work. A third of his earnings went to rent and the rest towards food or supplies to work the land. Luke Black is described as moving “slow, dull, and discouraged…talking hopelessly. Why should he strive? Every year finds him deeper in debt?” (Du Bois 82). Here Du Bois uses countertextuality to point out the psychological impact of racism. Many African Americans in the “Black Belt” internalized subjective agency through means such as economic freedom; however, they simultaneously felt trapped by a society that constantly created barriers that inhibited their ability to succeed. Years after Du Bois’ work, Richard Wright would write a novel that more explicitly focuses on the psychological impact of a countertextual view of double consciousness.

Richard Wright’s Native Son tells the fictive story of a young African American male living in Chicago during the 1930’s, Bigger Thomas. However, Wright is quick to emphasize that this story can be read as a teleological narrative to understand the interconnectedness of race, place, class, and black agency in the United States (Tolentino 377). In fact, Wright described in subsequent version of the book as well as in interviews, that Bigger Thomas was based on a combination of the real serial killer Robert Nixon and five African Americans that Wright personally knew. Wright uses the character Bigger Thomas to show how black subjectivity can be defined by the dominant racial group. In the story, Bigger is both an uneducated and unemployed twenty-year-old who lives in a one-room shack on the Southside of a racially segregated Chicago. He eventually secures a job working as a driver for the affluent Dalton family. His first encounters at the Dalton estate create a cultural shock that exposes him to a world that he can never be a part of. On his first night on the job he is perpetually haunted by the social norms that he is supposed to follow because of his skin color. The tension that he feels culminates with his accidental murder of the beloved daughter of the Daltons, Mary Dalton.

The most significant event in the novel is not Bigger’s murder of Mary Dalton but rather the way he attempts to grapple with the constricted subjectivity available to him because he lives in a society where his existence is regulated by Jim Crow. Early in the story when Bigger is still undecided about working for the Dalton’s, he decides to hang out with his best friend Gus. As they see a plane fly over them, Bigger insists that he could have been a pilot. Gus replies, “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane” (Wright 20). Gus’ retort to Bigger describes a countertextual narrative to Bigger’s dreams. Bigger believes that he could be anything if he worked hard enough towards his goals, including a pilot. However, the reality is that the primary factor of skin color, followed by the secondary factors of education and his socio-economic background, prevents him from achieving his goals. After hearing Gus’s words, the look in Bigger’s eyes is described as “pensive, brooding, amusement as of a man who had been long confronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed always just on the verge of escaping him, by prodding him irresistibly to seek its solution” (Wright 20). This line alludes to Bigger’s attempt to merge his doubleness in an effort to achieve a truer self.

Even Bigger’s accidental murder of Mary Dalton is the result of an attempt to resolve the ongoing conflicts that exist from being black during the Jim Crow Era. His subjectivity past, present and future depends on how he is viewed by someone else. In this case, Bigger’s subjectivity depends on how he is perceived by white society. Wright explains, “Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying…they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood” (307). Bigger tried to do everything he thought was possible to find his agency, including thinking of himself as a murderer. However, countertextual narratives primarily describe agency through illustrating the way that subjectivity depends on the actions of a dominant group. For both Wright and Du Bois racial domination is the lens through which black subjective identity is viewed.

 

Double Consciousness as Intertextuality

By contrast, another way of examining black subjectivity through literature is through an intertextual view of double consciousness. Intertextual double consciousness still maintains the doubleness of simultaneously being black and American. However, it attempts to resituate subjectivity in a liberating way to attain a higher degree of agency. Rather than examining subjective identity through the other described as racial domination, intertextual double consciousness views subjective identity through the eyes of the other described as community. Community is not a stagnant category defined in relation to race. Community is defined through the places or groups in which the person feels a sense of belonging. It can include various affiliations such as gender, sexuality, social location, cultural heritage, religious background, and race. The communities that a person belongs to can be negotiated and change over time. Subjective identity and agency is found through renewed ties to the community. In this sense, intertextual double consciousness emphasizes the meaning-making process as a way to understand subjective value. By virtue of the previously mentioned attributes, intertextuality is story-centric discourse. This means that the primary concern is not to contrast one reality with another but to explore events that are deeply significant to the individual.  In other words, description through personal narratives is the primary way for intertextual double consciousness to express subjective identity.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has sought to bring to the forefront of public attention the subjective value of black life. A movement that began with a facebook hashtag has hit the streets and penetrated the depth of the American system of race-based stratification. It has become more than a political movement; it represents a call to recognize black subjectivity in all facets of life, including academia. In this vein, there are several literary works that embody this value. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, is an example of a work that explores this theme through intertextual double consciousness. Coates wrote the book as a letter to his teenaged son in the aftermath of the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He provides a truncated version of the history of American racism and the direct impact that it has had on his life. He does not provide a sense of optimistic hope for the future (ie: the American Dream) but rather he specifies the realities he knows from personal experiences. The entire book serves as an expression of what it is like to be black and American in the United States. Coates does not pretend to have solutions, he simply is trying to make meaning from the tragedies that have happened in his life. This meaning-making process is a way of finding subjective identity.

Early in his work, Coates describes his upbringing and the challenges he faced during his childhood. Although American racism was a major contributing factor to his fears, he also felt great uncertainty about the many communities that he belonged to. During his youth he was always on guard. In some instances it was against the people he knew on the streets, and in other instances it was from the police. He constantly measured himself against social norms created from groups such as the professional world, school, legal authorities, and the code of the streets. Coates writes, “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease” (Coates 17).  He goes on to contrast these circumstances to those of many white Americans. However, Coates goes beyond a countertextual description of his circumstances. He writes, “It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black–what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable” (Coates 18). His concern here is not about the potential causes of pain and discontent. He is worried about the conditions that his son lives in and how his son is easily disposable in this society. What it means to be an American is placed in the context of being a black father. Coates places the textual narrative of Americanism against one of the communities that he belongs to, namely his concerns as a father. He also acknowledges that communal forces that he uses to measure his subjective value will change throughout his life. He states, “The revelation of these forces, a series of great changes, has unfolded over the course of my life. The changes are still unfolding and will likely continue until I die” (Coates 18). Through understanding himself beyond a binary countertextual paradigm, Coates is able to express his subjective agency through identifying with the communities that mean the most to him.

In Between the World and Me, Coates recounts the various events in his life that have shaped his worldview. He discusses how his views were shaped by his father’s involvement with the Black Panthers, his journey of discovery in college, and his decision to become a writer. He describes his move to suburban America and the profound impact that the death of his close friend Prince Jones has had on him. Yet it is his experience traveling to Paris, France, that offers another example of intertextual double consciousness. While in France, Coates felt like a visitor in someone else’s country while simultaneously feeling outside the country. While he was in America he was a participant in a dream, even if it was not his own. He was only able to view himself based on how his life compared to the American Dream envisioned by a group that he did not belong to. In France he felt that he was far outside of someone else’s dream. During his moments in France he realized that his fear and anxiety were driven by the forces of racial domination. However, Coates hoped to give his son a better vision for the future by taking him to France. He writes, “I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear, apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world, and marked me in the next” (Coates 125). Through his time in France, Coates does not believe that he can see a reality for himself outside a contextual view of double consciousness Coates hopes that his son will not be trapped by the system that he is ensnared by when tells his son about his travels outside of America. He is relying on his role as a black father to provide a contextual lens to not only inform his son of the realities faced by black Americans but to also create his own subjective identity.

 

Conclusion

The Black Lives Matter campaign was founded on the premise of recognizing the everyday struggle of America’s black population. However, Black Lives Matter Movement is simply the most recent incarnation of the task to bring black social agency to the forefront of American society.  Both W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black and Richard Wright’s Native Son are countertextual attempts at this endeavor. However, Ta-Nehisi Coates’Between the World and Me can be viewed as an intertextual attempt at understanding black subjectivity and agency in the era of Black Lives Matter. This is significant because Coates realized that subjective value cannot come from comparison to an external force such as racial domination. This is an important lesson as the search to understand what it means balance what it means to be both black and American continues. Black Lives Matter as a movement represents a turn to intertextuality and the use of personal narratives as the primary method to understand subjective identity. Subsequently, it is more important to continue to explore the diverse narratives that are present in the black community. The black community is composed of African Americans from various faiths, genders, sexual orientations, socio-economic background, and a vast array of other social groups. Accordingly, whether it is in the field of literature or another context, reconciling the unique paradigm that African Americans face can only be accomplished through further of these communities.

 

 

Works Cited

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Clark, Keith. “Re-(W)righting Black Male Subjectivity: The Communal Poetics of Ernest Gaines’s “A Gathering of Old Men.” Callaloo. 22.1 (1999): 195-207. Web. 30 December 2016.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Soul of Black Folk. Chicago, IL: Dover Thrift Editions. 1994. Print.

Lorde, Audre. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.” Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches. New York, NY: Crossing. 1984. Print.

Philips, Michelle. “The Children of Double Counsciousness: From the Souls of Black Folk to the Brownies’ Book.” PMLA. 128.3 (2013): 590- 607. Web. 30 December 2016.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York, NY: Harper and Brother. 1966. Print.