Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Voyeuristic Double Consciousness

Another undergrad paper. Again, note the change in formatting as a result of copy and paste method (altered spacing, italicizing...)

BY THE WAY, FYI PLAGIARIZING PUKEHEADS - I have information about you in my STATS and if you steal (aka copy and paste) this essay in order to make it YOUR OWN, I will hunt you down and knock you out of your DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS. Plus, your PROFESSOR might suspect something PATHETIC and PUKEY is going on, and all they have to do is type a few words from the paper and MY ORIGINAL VERSION will show up. So, if you're here to STEAL, get LOST. NOW. 

Jessica Mason McFadden
ENG 348 Ethnic Literatures
Dr. Penny Kelsey - Western Illinois University
Critical Essay 1
January 31st 2006

Degrees of Separation:
The Voyeuristic Double Consciousness of the White-Identified Narrator in
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Identity is an essential component of character development that challenges readers to recognize and analyze qualities that support theories about characters. Identity affects how characters relate to and interact with their surroundings, including other characters, time, and places. Narrators, in particular, assume powerful roles in stories because they have the authority to infuse life into and shape the realities of characters and plots. Writers are the puppeteers of their narrators, shaping and playing with their narrative voices, as well as considering the possible influences that their narrators may have on a variety of readers.

Narration influences, not only the images and substance a story conveys, but also how readers relate to stories. As described in Gerald Prince’s Dictionary of Narratology, a narrator may be blatant, well-informed, omnipresent, self-conscious, and dependable (65). A nameless protagonist is at the heart of James Weldon Johnson’s narrative, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. As a narrator-agent, the protagonist’s formal, Victorian style emphasizes his high degree self-consciousness. Though the first-person narration personalizes and internally focalizes the narrated situations, the protagonist distances himself from other characters, situations, and the narratee. The protagonist’s otherness is manifest in a reappearing double consciousness, as well as in his voyeuristic fascinations with and separations from those he encounters. His inability to connect with the world around him supports his tendency to maintain a distance from his identity, which in turn, establishes a distance between him and his audience.

While Johnson’s protagonist does not possess an obvious hatred toward his racial identity, he compulsively expresses animosity toward a burdensome knowledge of having a mixed identity. He describes the discovery of his mixed racial makeup as having caused him a transition into a new world, as “the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each colored man in the United States” (9). His dramatic description implies that having knowledge of his connection to blackness sickens his mind, and that anyone who identifies as a colored man in the United States will experience this traumatic transition; however his eventual excommunication with his identity as a man with mixed blood suggests that he never fully accomplishes this transition. He is uncomfortable with what he abstractly refers to as a “distorting influence,” and his own lack of clarity over his feelings reveals his inability to fully realize his identity and connect with his surroundings. The result is a life-long struggle with ambivalent feelings and a prevailing sense of otherness, a disconnectedness from any world—black or white.

W.E.B. Du Bois describes this duality in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, claiming that “one ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals” (Du Bois 861). Resembling Du Bois description, the duality of the protagonist’s separate racial worlds (black and white) implies that he is driven by an insatiable need to be on one side of a dichotomy. He desires wholeness, but does not imagine that one can be whole despite being racially diverse. The protagonist is driven to be whole, but his inability to see his racial makeup as unified prevents him from becoming whole, and this, in turn, prevents him from accepting himself. His blood ties him to a world that he fears and his appearance allows him to linger in a world that he is drawn to, but the worlds are distinct and so he is divided.

The protagonist admits to struggling with duality, claiming that colored people can only be a mystery to white people, and so “this gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality” (Johnson 9). Rather than finding hope in the idea of being able to move as a free spirit along a continuum, he feels unstable in his identity. Johnson’s protagonist struggles with the psychological duality that Du Bois describes. His two-ness is evident in his intellectual struggle over his identity. The protagonist constantly considers his separate identities throughout the narrative, struggling to find answers, but he does not consider their commonalities. His spirit is divided because he is preoccupied with two worlds that, in his mind, are incompatible. He is incapable of allowing his racial identities to exist simultaneously within himself, and this distances him from his own reality.

Readers may assume that the protagonist struggles with a dual identity because of his need to separate and categorize people according to their position in society. An example of this is his attempt to categorize African Americans into three classes. He analyzes his observations of the southern community, and concludes that “colored people may be said to be roughly divided into three classes, not so much in respect to themselves as in respect to their relations with the whites” (Johnson 35). By analyzing and labeling his surroundings, the protagonist achieves a sense of comfort. His double consciousness is evident in his need to analyze his surroundings in relation to a white-perspective. He needs labels and hierarchies, and this reflects his own desire to have a place in the world, as well as his failure at having achieved a sense of security by not being able to do so.

The protagonist’s categories of blackness also reveal that he measures himself and his surroundings through the oppressive eyes of a supposedly superior class of white people, and more specifically, according to narrow-minded European system of hierarchical oppression. His hesitant struggle over identity is reflected in his double consciousness. Du Bois defines another aspect of double consciousness in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, as a “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” (861). Johnson’s protagonist loses his sense of self, surrendering to his fears of the dominant prejudices held by people in the United States. His weakness is his preoccupation with others, as well as his double consciousness, in which he constantly measures his self-worth according to his fearful belief that he is immersed in a world in which there is no place for him and no hope for multifaceted individuality.

At the beginning of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the protagonist is confused and unsatisfied with himself. He misses his opportunities to explore his identity as a black man by dismissing and diminishing the evidence of the culture that he encounters. He does not try to connect with the black communities that he encounters, he merely uses his observations as a way of further separating himself from his racial identity. Instead of trying to connect with the colored people’s concerns over the race question, he dismisses it, arrogantly stating that “the majority of intelligent colored people are, in some degrees, too much in earnest over the race question” (86). The protagonist implies that the race question is insignificant, and that the issues it raises aren’t worth the time and energy spent in considering it. It is ironic and hypocritical, considering that he, himself, constantly engages in discussions regarding the race question, but is critical of colored people for doing so. The protagonist will not admit to his own preoccupation with the race question. Not only does he dismiss a large portion of the black community by only referring to a hierarchical class of intelligent colored people, but he also heedlessly dismisses the gravity of such a question by ignoring its relevance to his own struggles and using it to insult a community of people.

Despite his rejection of his identity as a black man, he remains unsatisfied with his choice to identify as a white man. The protagonist is not at peace with his decision to ignore his blackness, regretting that he feels egotistical and diminutive in comparison to the black men who have struggled for justice (Johnson 99). Unsatisfied, he describes himself as a “privileged spectator,” admitting that he longs for a connection with his mother’s people (90). The word, spectator, indicates that the protagonist’s otherness is of a voyeuristic nature. His fear and denial of his identity prevent him from feeling connected to any group, and this affects his relationships with individuals, as well. He is an outsider, voyeuristically observing the world and remaining on the outside by abstaining from the deepest, most integral aspects of his vulnerability in relationships with others.

As an outsider, the protagonist encounters people and situations with fascination and dissatisfaction. He describes his feelings in the presence of his patron, saying, “He seemed to be some grim, mute, but relentless tyrant, possessing over me a supernatural power which he used to drive me mercilessly to exhaustion” (Johnson 56). Though the protagonist feels frightened, he continues to nurture the relationship with his patron. His willingness to obey his patron—to be taken advantage of and worked to the point of collapse—is evidence of his loneliness and desire to be accepted. If he respected himself, he would have been able to protect himself from the abusive requests of his patron. Despite the closeness that the protagonist strives for with his patron, he does not feel satisfied, and eventually leaves to continue his search for an identity and a sense of belonging. He approaches each character with deep curiosity, but without a balance of parity. He places his encounters on a pedestal so that they appear accessible, but are always just out of reach. His fascination—a result of feeling out of place—separates him emotionally from those he encounters.

In his essay, “Du Boisian Double Consciousness: The Unsustainable Argument,” Ernest Allen separates Du Bois’ description of double consciousness into two distinct statements. He claims that the separation is “a perilous disconnect between the two sections of Du Bois’ text: on the one hand, an anguish resulting from one’s humanity having been systematically denied; on the other, a tortured clash of thoughts, strivings, and ideals in the minds of Negro Americans” (Allen). The disconnectedness that Allen refers to does not alter the obvious correlation that exists between Johnson’s protagonist and Du Bois’ concept of a double consciousness. In fact, Allen’s deconstruction of the double consciousness supports the arguments that there are distinct elements of the protagonist’s double consciousness. The protagonist suffers from a clash of thoughts, as well as from the cruel ideology of dehumanization. He suffers, not from a personal hatred toward his racial identity, but from the shame of having his humanity denied.

The protagonist’s fear of association with the black community fosters his inability to develop and maintain a stable connection with that community, and as a result, he isn’t able to accept his colored identity. Just as powerfully, his fear of rejection and disapproval from the white community fosters his inability to develop and maintain a connection with the white community. Though he chooses to deny his identity as a black man and chooses to identify as a white man, he never fully achieves this because his consciousness will not allow it. He wavers between accepting and denying his identity, but ultimately does not admit to feeling comfortable with either or both identities. He yields to his double consciousness and voyeuristic fascinations, which prevents him from achieving a sense of comfort in any identity, and so, he never moves through his state of otherness. Just as the protagonist maintains a distance from his world and identity, as a narrator, he also maintains a distance from his audience. It may not disappoint readers to feel this distance, because it speaks to an honest message of loneliness and separateness that is common in those who struggle with a double consciousness.

Works Cited

Allen, Ernest Jr. “Du Boisian Double Consciousness: The Unsustainable Argument.” Black Scholar 333.2 (2003). 1 Feb. 2006 .

Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997. 861.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Dover, 1995.

Prince, Gerald. “Narrator.” Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: Nebraska P, 1987.

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