Thursday, April 26, 2012
Invisible Blackness: Nigrescence and Double-Consciousness in Ellison
"[B]eing a problem is a strange experience,--peculiar even for one who has never been anything else." -WEB Dubois Ellison's narrator in Invisible Man spends the entirety of the novel trying to find his identity. He states: "I am an invisible man...I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me" (Ellison 3). By immediately fixating readers' mind around his invisibility, the narrator is able to position them in such a way as to accept the journey on which he is about to take them. He wishes not to "awaken the sleeping ones" (Ellison 3), that is to say, those who form an opinion of him, who see something that is not him, who make him invisible. The narrator battles against and with concepts of blackness and identity. As the narrator moves along his path of discovery, he understandably becomes upset and lashes out. As E. O. Wilson states in On Human Nature, "human beings have a marked hereditary predisposition to aggressive behavior" (100). While Wilson points out that there is an array of reactions to each situation, the reader can conceptually understand aggression through the example of Ellison's narrator. Thus, by studying the narrator's pattern of aggression, the reader can better understand every human's struggle with accepting his role in society. The novel stands as an examination of the journey of acceptance of one's double-consciousness--the perception of one's self through others' eyes--and the process of nigrescence, of becoming black, and the aggression inherent throughout the journey. From the very beginning, the narrator equates his invisibility with WEB Dubois' concept of double-consciousness. In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, Dubois sets out his theory, stating that, "the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, --a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world" (12). That is to say, that black people do not have the luxury of having their own identity, but must grapple with that which is thrust upon them. The narrator struggles with this concept the entire way through the book, dealing with the identity of black scholar slapped on him by the rich white men of his town when he gave his speech on humility, the worst than "the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch" (Ellison 139) placed on him by Bledsoe when the narrator first learns that "the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie (Ellison 139), the mischievous Brer Rabbit identity unwittingly supplied by the doctors and the hospital machine, and the super black orator identity imposed on him by Brother Jack and the Brotherhood. He struggles to identify with any of the personas he is given, becoming frustrated and disillusioned when he cannot reconcile himself with any one identity. Thus, he realizes that he is invisible, that is to say, doubly conscious. The narrator would no doubt agree with Dubois when he writes, "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 self by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (12). The narrator recognizes this phenomenon of being seen physically but unperceived. Therefore, he must move through the world in such a way that he discovers part of his true identity, that is to say, his blackness. In his discussion of the theory of nigrescence, or becoming black, Princeton educated psychologist William E. Cross propounds that "the challenges of being Black are modified through the exploration of new questions that crop up at different points across the lifespan of development" (122). It is important to recognize the overlap here between Cross and Dubois: both men have put forth a theory which puts heavy stock in a person's blackness. The narrator must come to terms with this blackness in order to fully realize his potential. Knowing on a conscious, factual level that he is black, and believing that humility is the way to success, the narrator begins in some stunted recognition of his double-consciousness. He realizes that this identity he has is supported by the whites in his community, but he has yet to see that they are what's causing this identity. That is so say: the narrator does not realize that he is looking at himself through the eyes of the white person, that his identity is forced upon him rather than self-imposed. Throughout the beginning of the book, the narrator lives in what Cross calls the pre-encounter stage, where race is of little or no consequence to a person. The narrator is haunted by the words of his grandfather, that as a black man, he needed to "live with [his] head in the lion's mouth...overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller [him] till they vomit or bust wide open" (Ellison 16). A person in this pre-encounter stage would not be able to make much sense out of this seemingly outrageous statement. Outside of acceptance of the way he is treated as a black person, the narrator does not go out of his way to question what he is or how society views him. Rather, he is part of some amorphous category: the black ones. In other words, in the pre-encounter stage, the narrator is acquiescent and pacific in his understanding of race identity. This non-confrontational behavior is exhibited throughout the beginning of the novel, while the narrator continually does as he is told, and, again, and again, is punished for doing so. During his speech on humility, "the room was filled with the uproar of laughter" (Ellison 31) and the narrator fears "that they'd snatch [him] down" (Ellison 31). After his misadventures with the eminent Mr. Norton, Bledsoe chides the narrator for doing as he's told, yelling "My God, boy! You're black and living in the South--did you forget how to lie?" (Ellison 139) followed by "Nigger, this isn't the time to lie. I'm no white man. Tell me the truth!" (Ellison 139). Bledsoe exhibits a cultural form of aggression that the narrator does not understand. As head of the university, Bledsoe has as much power as any black man in the South at this time can hope to possess. The narrator does not understand why, humility his proverbial aim, he should not habe done as Norton instructed. Bledsoe, having already completed his nigrescence, and with a keen understanding of the role and function of double-consciousness in Southern society, enacts upon the narrator what Wilson defines as "disciplinary aggression used to enforce the rules of society" (102). Being so firmly entrenched in the identity that white culture has thrust upon him, the narrator does not see that Bledsoe is an example gone bad of his grandfather's advice. Bledsoe has "lived in the lion's mouth", but only for his own gain, not that of the entire black community. As such, Bledsoe refuses to let anything, especially the actions of someone he deems naive, get in the way of his power, so he exerts this kind of aggression on the narrator. Later, the narrator will come to understand this kind of aggression, yet, while he had accepted it before, he then holds it in contempt. Even when he moves to New York and gets a job, he is constantly reprimanded for doing as he is told. He starts his day mixing paints, but does as he is told, makes a small mistake and is thrown into Brockway's hands. As the narrator returns from getting his lunch and running into the union meeting, Brockway screams that he will kill him, "you impudent son'bitch" (Ellison 226). This last event begins the encounter stage of Crossian nigrescence; it is the last straw for the narrator. Encountering a sort or revelation that this kind of reaction on Brockway's part should not be allowed, he tells the reader that "something fell away from me" (Ellison 225); the pre-encounter placidity is gone. The narrator has reached the encounter stage of nigrescence by recognition of his own miseducation: I seemed to be telling myself in a rush: You were trained to accept the foolishness of such a man as this, even when you thought them clowns and fools; you were trained to pretend that you respected them and acknowledged in them the same quality of authority and power in your world as the whites before whom they bowed and scraped and feared and loved and imitated, and you were even trained to accept it when, angered or spiteful, or drunk with power, they came at you with a stick or a strap or a cane and you made no effort to strike back, but only to escape unmarked. But this was too much . . . he was not grandfather or uncle or father, nor preacher or teacher. Something uncoiled in my stomach and I was moving toward him, shouting, more at a black blur that irritated my eyes than a clearly defined human face, "YOU'LL KILL WHO?" (Ellison 225) By realizing that what he has been taught about interactions with people, not limited to Brockway himself, the narrator has an epiphany moment, although he his not quite sure what it means yet. Wilson writes in his analysis of human aggression that it does not resemble a fluid that continuously builds pressure against the walls of its containers, nor is it like a set of active ingredients poured into an empty vessel. It is more accurately compared to a preexisting mix of chemicals ready to be transformed by specific catalysts that are added, heated, and stirred at some later time” (Wilson 106) That is to say that the narrator has had these uncertainties about how he has been taught to treat others, who he has been taught to respect, and whether these teachings are actually beneficial. He is taken aback by his sudden questioning of ideas that he has been taught and rules he has followed since childhood. Mixing this confusion with a newfound pride in himself, and a sense that he should not be treated the way he has been his entire life forms" the rage that he aims at Brockway. Initially, he is shocked by this internal monologue, after the fight with Brockway is through, but suddenly Brockway tries to kill him again. In the aftermath of the explosion, the narrator says that he "was understanding something fully" (Ellison 230), that is, his miseducation, his identification with the white perception of blackness, and his own lack of blackness. The narrator's subsequent encounter with the hospital machine cements his transition into exploring his blackness. While there, the doctors treat and speak of him rarely in terms of anything but his psychology, but when they do mention anything besides his brain, they use racial stereotypes, calling "They really do have rhythm, don't they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!" (Ellison 237) as he spasms from the electric currents. As they try to test his brain, coax him to remember, the doctors brought up the memory of Buckeye, or Brer the rabbit. As they question him about the character, he laughs internally, recognizing the nod to his blackness, and describes himself as "giddy with the delight of self-discovery" (Ellison 241) as he identifies with the character. He realizes as he leaves the hospital that he has been playing into white culture's perception of him the entire time. [P]erhaps I was catching up with myself and had put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed. Or was it...that I was no longer afraid? I stopped, looking at the buildings down the bright street slanting with sun and shade. I was no longer afraid...I felt light-headed, my ears were ringing (Ellison 249) The narrator's realization and acceptance that he is no longer afraid pushes him closer to accepting his blackness. He is no longer afraid of a lot of things: the white man and the trustees of the college and Bledsoe, but most importantly, he is no longer afraid of his own blackness. The narrator moves into a transition phase where he begins to explore his blackness. Having not paid Mary for food and shelter for awhile, he finally accepts that maybe her suggestions of "some act of leadership, some newsworthy achievement" (Ellison 258) have some merit to them. He decides to explore his place in the black community by meeting with Brother Jack. Almost as soon as he takes up with him, though, his blackness is questioned by Brother Jack's mistress, Emma, who asks "don't you think he should be a little blacker?" (Ellison 303). The narrator is both uncomfortable and antagonized by the statement because he is unaware of his own role in the community. He wonders what he can do to show his blackness, "sweat coal tar, ink, shoe polish, graphite?" (Ellison 303). Once he accepts the job, Ellison does not even bother to cover the adoption of this new identity with any sort of literary veil: "'This is your new identity,' Brother Jack said" (Ellison 309). The narrator gladly accepts this new identity in the eyes of the others, being so unsure of himself, but he vows to "be no one but [him]self--whoever [he] was" (Ellison 311). The whole phase of transition, according to Cross, because the person is struggling to reconcile who he has been with who he is and who he will be. "All the fireworks of identity metamorphosis are contained in this middle stage," writes Cross. "for within its boundaries, the old identity and emerging identity do battle" (122). The narrator feels at this point, and throughout his entire tenure with the Brotherhood, the acute sting of double-consciousness, for "[h]e simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face" (Dubois 13). The narrator tries to reconcile his blackness with his humanness and this proves difficult to him. Before he leaves Mary's house, the narrator sees a cast iron bank that had previously gone unnoticed. Formed in the stereotypical caricature of a black man, the bank is offensive to the narrator and he breaks it in a fit of rage caused by "the tolerance or lack of discrimination, or whatever, that allows Mary to keep such a self-mocking image around" (Ellison 319). This figure represents not only the cultural perception of himself that he had formerly not noticed or cared about, but also his intolerance of anyone else who has not reached his stage of nigrescence. Wilson propounds that "[h]uman beings are strongly predisposed to respond with unreasoning hatred to external threats and to escalate their hostility sufficiently to overwhelm the source of the threat by a respectably wide margin of safety" (119). This effigy of the stereotypical black man offends the narrator so much, and threatens his newfound sense of blackness, that he overreacts, pounding the offensive image to a pulp, spilling its contents everywhere. He yells at the object, as if it is the entire black community, to "[g]et rid of your cottonpatch ways! Act civilized!" (Ellison 329). The narrator wonders why he did not notice the bank before, and the reader can clearly see that it is because it did not offend him earlier. Since he has come to recognize and embrace his blackness, he sees the image as representing his old self, the caricature of the agreeable, humble black community. Refusing to be seen that way, and wary of anything that threatens his newly embraced blackness, he eliminates the threat like Wilson says humans are want to do. Although he believes in the work the Brotherhood is doing, the narrator finds himself constantly haunted by dreams of his grandfather. Being under the white man's supervision, even in a seemingly biracial partnership deeply disturbs the narrator and he struggles against the pacific nature of his former life and the incendiary nature of his current identity. Once he realizes, after Clifton's death and his rousing eulogy, that the Brotherhood has basically used him, depersonalized him to the point of being a pawn in their game similar to the way white society had made him a pawn in their forced identity of the black community, the narrator decides to take his grandfather's advice and "agree 'em to death and destruction" (Ellison 16). Having come to terms with his blackness, the narrator no longer wants to be given an identity that he cannot control. He realizes that it is best to be himself rather than accept the identities that others thrust upon him. As he reminisces on his journey, the narrator admits that he had let others project their own perception of identities onto him, and he realizes that his problem was that he "always tried to go everyone's way but [his] own" (Ellison 573). By allowing himself to be doubly conscious, or, as he calls it, invisible, he "finally rebelled" (Ellison 573). Having come to terms with his nonconcrete identity as well as his invisibility, the narrator does not feel threatened anymore, and no longer feels the need for aggression. Unlike his nonaggression before, he is not merely being pacified by the white population, but instead, he has a clear sense of his blackness and a wary eye to having identities thrust upon him. So, in the end, the narrator's acceptance and embracing of his invisibility is a way of embracing his blackness, who he is, his own identity. I'm shaking off the old skin...I'm coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it's damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that's my greatest crime, I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play (Ellison 581) The reader has travelled the entire book to realize that being invisible is not a bad thing. Rather, invisibility is something to be embraced, because it means not that one has necessarily found the right identity, but that he has found his own identity. The narrator shirks all identities placed upon him. He realizes, in the end, that the invisibility is part of his identity, whatever that may be, and that his time of "covert preparation for a more overt action" (Ellison 13) has passed. He finally recognizes that he must take social responsibility, not in the way the rich white men who praised his speech want him to, nor in the way the Brotherhood wanted him to, and not through aggression, but in whatever way is most appropriate to his role as invisible. By admitting his own culpability in the rocky story of finding and accepting his blackness and invisibility, the narrator invites the reader to accept his own invisibility, too, for the novel is not about findings concrete identity, but rather being open to shaping oneself rather than simply accepting what one is told that they are. Works Cited Cross, William E. "Nigrescence Theory: Historical and Explanatory Notes." Journal of Vocational Behavior. 44.2 (1994):119-123. Print. Dubois, W. E. B.. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Arc Manor, 2008. eBook. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995. Print. Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.