Critical Commentary

In Limbo: Double Consciousness in Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’

‘You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist – can’t you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think…’[1]

W E B Du Bois (1918)

W E B Du Bois (1918)

The term double consciousness was first explored by W E B Du Bois in ‘The Souls of Black Folk’[2], published in 1903. Du Bois understands this doubling of consciousness as a direct product of ‘the power of white stereotypes in black life and thought’[3] and the practical racism that excluded every black American from the mainstream of society.[4] For Du Bois, the concept of double consciousness is characterised by two particular and distinct signifiers; the first is ‘second sight’ – the inherent duality of African American identity and vision. The second, and more problematic signifier, is that of existing ‘behind the veil’ and this may be defined as the limitations of seeing and being seen unclearly. Du Bois stresses that double consciousness – the awareness of being simultaneously an American and not an American – denied African-Americans the opportunity to embrace a ‘true self-consciousness’[5]; instead, he/she is characterised by his ‘two-ness, – an American, a Negro… two warring ideals in one dark body’, subjected to see themselves ‘through the eyes of others’,[6] and therefore unable to reconcile their two ‘selves’.

Since 1903, double consciousness has become a key theme in African-American literature and criticism, as a concept that is capable of describing the quintessential Black experience in America[7]. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man[8] and Richard Wright’s ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’[9] are two iconic African-American texts that use the theme of invisibility and the acquisition of a self-imposed identity in their exploration of double-consciousness. This essay will explore Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness, demonstrating Wright’s and Ellison’s representation of the experience of double consciousness, as well as identifying the differences in the application of this concept by both writers. Wright’s use of the concept of double consciousness is most prominent in his detailing of the harrowing experience of existing ‘behind the veil’, which marks his protagonist’s experience as an African-American[10]; although Ellison’s narrator is also subjected to the experience of existing ‘behind the veil’, his double consciousness is also represented through the restrictive nature of his ‘second sight’. At the beginning of the novel he lacks any awareness of this ‘second sight’ and therefore, privileges his ‘American’ vision, unable to identify with aspects of ‘black’ culture. As the novel progresses, however, the narrator becomes increasingly aware of his double consciousness and begins to acquire a black identity; an experience William E Cross describes as nigrescence.[11]

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

‘The Man Who Lived Underground’ opens by introducing a protagonist who is identified only as ‘he’; characterised as a ‘reactive, instinctive, less-than-human fugitive’,[12] the reader first meets him ‘crouching… running and dodging… gritt[ing] his teeth… dropp[ing] instinctively to his hands and knees.’[13] The animalistic figure is initially both nameless, and race-less, until his appearance is slowly described in contrast to the ‘white face’ of the police man ‘looming above his head.’ [14]  This opening, which restricts the reader’s view of the protagonist, mimics the metaphorical signifier of double consciousness and forces the reader to view Daniels ‘behind the veil’, preventing us from seeing Daniels for who he really is. His identity at this stage is certainly not self-imposed; he has been branded a murderer by the racially discriminative social institutions that control the ‘white’ world aboveground. As he begins to adjust to his new place underground, Daniels makes new and significant discoveries about the world from which he has escaped. Whilst he is still contemplating his decision to remain hidden underground, a distant sound draws his attention and he finds himself initially ‘tantalized’ and attracted by what he identifies as a church service. As he watches the ‘black men and women in white robes singing’[15] his first impulse is to laugh at them. The scene takes a particularly repulsive turn as the narrative becomes increasingly conscious of the smell of the sewer ‘blowing in on them’ and the protagonist becomes aware that he is ‘gazing upon something abysmally obscene.’ This strongly suggests that his initial transformation into self-awareness has begun to occur; in other words, his ‘veil’ is being lifted and he begins to see things clearly. He continues;

Pain throbbed in his legs and a deeper pain, induced by the

sight of those black people grovelling and begging for something

they could never get, churned him.[16]

As he progresses through the sewer, Daniels becomes aware of another ‘familiar image’;

The tiny nude body of a baby… dead, cold, nothing… the same

nothingness he had felt as he watched the men and women

singing in the church… the eyes were closed… the fists clenched,

as though in protest; and the mouth gaped black in a soundless

cry. [17]

The image of the baby here mirrors the image of Daniels after Lawson has shot him, ‘and his mouth gaped soundless’[18]

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

covertly identifying Daniels with the dead baby. These images, therefore, of black degradation and death begin to rouse in him an awareness of the condition of the African American in the unjust world aboveground; in turn, his awareness of his self is sharpened and he begins the quest for his identity. Gates argues that it is this very moment, when he stumbles over the dead baby, that ‘we know Daniels to be ‘dead, baby’’;[19] in other words, Daniels as he was introduced at the beginning of the novella is dead, and in his place, a new, self-conscious and veil-less Daniels begins to emerge. Faber has gone further in connecting these events symbolically; the church congregation becomes religious segregation, the dead baby is the African American rejected by American culture, and the dead body on the embalming table (later in the novella) is the black man emptied of substance and transfused with the stereotyped vision of the white world.[20]

Double consciousness – and its implications and limitations – also play a fundamental role in the narrator’s acquisition of identity in Invisible Man. Initially he is restricted because of his inability to unite and reconcile his ‘black’ identity with his ‘American’ identity, and arguably, in the first phase of the novel the narrator suffers from a lack of double consciousness; he is incapable of seeing himself [21] other than ‘through the eyes of others’.[22] Consider the early scene between Mr Norton, Jim Trueblood and the narrator; the narrator begins by claiming that ‘I identified myself with the rich man [Mr Norton] reminiscing on the seat…’[23] and continues to further identify himself with Mr Norton by his lack of identification with Trueblood.[24] He adds;

We were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sang, but

since the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude,

high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led

the quartet.[25]

The narrator here is displaying a strong rejection of his identification with Trueblood, and consequently, his blackness. Upon being confronted with an example of black folk expression then, the narrator – to borrow Gates expression – ‘blanches’.[26] This rejection increases profoundly as Trueblood narrates his story of incest in the presence of the narrator and Mr Norton. As Gates points out,

‘Trueblood’s tale is spliced with comments by Invisible Man that

speak of his discomfort… and his ‘sense of shame’ at

hearing Trueblood’s sometimes ribald narrative in the presence of a

white person.’[27]

In this scene then, the narrator is ashamed, disgusted and embarrassed, because he sees Trueblood through Mr Norton’s eyes. The limitations of the narrator’s double consciousness at this point prevent him from being able to engage his African/black identity; unlike the Duboisian model, he is not gifted from birth with ‘second sight’, but instead this is something he must acquire through a series of fundamental discoveries about his identity. It is interesting to identify that in this scene Ellison adopts both tell tale signifiers of double consciousness by also perpetuating the notion of ‘the veil’. The narrator’s refusal to see Trueblood clearly renders Trueblood invisible; he becomes like the narrator himself – an invisible man, because people refuse to see him.[28]

Identity then, is evidently fundamental in both Invisible Man and ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’; in both texts, the narrator and protagonist respectively, undergo a similar loss of identity in order to proceed with the acquisition of a ‘better and truer self’.[29] In ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’ the protagonist, freed from the constraints of obeying the values of the world aboveground, is able to shed his identity. Whilst he is surviving underground and becoming accustomed to his new way of life, and new identity, Daniels continues to experience the negative and alienating effects of existing ‘behind the veil’. Throughout the novella several identities are thrust on him; he is mistaken for an employee of the greengrocer, a woman sees his outline through the window. Wherever he goes, society refuses to see him: he is invisible. By escaping underground where possessing a name is superfluous, he soon forgets it and is incapable of identifying himself to the police; by shedding this identity, and by rejecting the identities imposed on him, ‘freddaniels’ re-invents himself creating a self-constructed identity as ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’.

One of the most representative demonstrations of double consciousness in Invisible Man is the symbolic scene when the narrator comes across Todd Clifton selling Sambo dolls in the street. Not understanding what is going on the narrator appears shocked at what he witnesses; ‘Why should a man deliberately plunge outside of history and peddle an obscenity… Why should he … give up his voice and leave the only organisation offering him a chance to ‘define’ himself?’ [30] But this is before the narrator has discovered how corrupt the Brotherhood is; before Brother Jack confesses in an outrage, ‘Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!’[31] What the narrator doesn’t understand at this point is that Clifton is using the Sambo doll in order to subvert the dominance of the white stereotype over the African American self-identification. He is not – as the narrator believes – peddling a parody of his own blackness as it is constructed by whites.[32] By pulling the strings on the Sambo doll – therefore controlling the Sambo doll – Clifton is ‘appropriating the white prerogative of caricaturing blackness by speaking for the black [American] through the … Sambo figure’[33]. Clifton is, therefore, rebelling against the white power structure that seeks to control the representation of the black American. It is for this reason that Clifton is arrested; as there is clearly something very disorienting and threatening to whites in the figure of the black street vendor puling the strings on his own Sambo doll[34], and also in the self-aware lyrics; ‘Sambo-Woogie… he lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile.’[35] When the narrator re-examines the figure of the Sambo-doll he not only realises that ‘it had two faces, one on either side of the disk’, but also – and most importantly – ‘Clifton had been making it dance all the time.’ [36]

In both of texts, the most significant model of self-representation is seen in the act of writing itself; just as the protagonist in ‘The Man’ shapes his story through his act of narration, so too does the narrator in Invisible Man; by giving his narrative a beginning and an end, he ‘converts events that threaten to be chaotic into ones that reveal form and significance.’[37] In doing so, both the protagonist of ‘The Man’ and the narrator of Invisible Man, create for themselves a persona that develops, and indeed exists, in direct contrast to the images that others have projected onto him.[38] Both of the novels also explore the notion of double consciousness as adaptive, particularly as a survival technique, as well as maladaptive, because it can generate mental conflict.[39] This maladaptive response can result in the oppressed taking on the characteristics of the oppressor; for African-Americans – and for the narrators of both texts studied in this essay – this means a rejection of their ‘blackness’ and a mental identification with white America and European culture. in ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ Du Bois does not only explore the struggle of a black American identity, he also proposes a remedy; reconciliation of the two striving selves, encouraging the African-American individual to ‘merge his  double self into a better and truer self.’[40] The solution to the problems of identity then, as Du Bois suggests, may be rooted in the double consciousness of reliving one’s story as both narrator and protagonist.

 


Notes:

[1] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001) pg. 143

[2] W. E. B Du Bois, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Nellie Y. McKay, 2nd edn. (New York: Norton, 2004) p.

[3] Dickson D. Bruce Jr, ‘W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness’, American Literature, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Jun, 1992), p. 301

[4] ibid., p. 301

[5] Du Bois, op. cit., p. 694

[6] ibid., p. 694

[7] Double consciousness is also a fundamental concept of post-colonial theory, and Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks (Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1952). I must credit the following essay for highlighting the differences between the Duboisian concept of double consciousness and the Fanonian concept; T. Owens Moore, ‘A Fanonian Perspective on Double Consciousness’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 35, No. 6 (Jul, 2005)

[8] Ellison, op. cit.,

[9] Richard Wright, ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’, in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Nellie Y. McKay, 2nd edn. (New York: Norton, 2004)

[10] Carla Cappetti, ‘Black Orpheus: Richard Wright’s ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’’, MELUS, Vol. 26, No. 4, (Winter, 2001)

[11] William E. Cross, Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991)

[12] Cappetti, op. cit., p. 48

[13] Wright, op. cit., p. 1436

[14] ibid., p. 1437

[15] ibid., p. 1439

[16] ibid., p. 1439

[17] ibid., p. 1439

[18] ibid., p. 1470

[19] Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 1988) p. 106

[20] Michael Faber, The World of Richard Wright (Missisipi: University Press of Missisipi, 1985) p. 101 – 102

[21] I would like to point out here, that by being incapable of seeing ‘himself’, ie: his blackness, the narrator is also incapable of seeing African Americans for what they are, and instead, adopts traditional white stereotypes to look upon the black American.

[22] Du Bois, pg. 694

[23] Ellison, op. cit., p. 45

[24] Harold Bloom, Ralph Ellison (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010) p. 101

[25] Ellison, op. cit., p. 47

[26] Gates, op. cit., p. 101

[27] ibid., p. 101

[28] John F. Callahan, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University press, Inc, 2004) p.

[29] Du Bois, op. cit., p. 695

[30] Ellison, op. cit., p. 438

[31] ibid., p. 473

[32] Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 103

[33] ibid., p. 103

[34] Wirth-Nesher, op. cit., p. 103

[35] Ellison, op. cit., p. 432

[36] ibid., p. 446

[37] Callahan, op. cit., p. 209

[38] ibid., p. 209

[39] Moore, op. cit., p. 752

[40] Du Bois, op. cit., p. 695


 

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold. Ralph Ellison (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010)

Bruce Jr, Dickson D. ‘W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness’, American Literature, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Jun, 1992), pp. 299 – 309

Cappetti, Carla. ‘Black Orpheus: Richard Wright’s ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’’, MELUS, Vol. 26, No. 4, (Winter, 2001), pp. 41 – 68

Callahan, John F. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University press, Inc, 2004)

Cross, William E. Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991)

Du Bois, W. E. B. ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Nellie Y. McKay, 2nd edn. (New York: Norton, 2004) pp. 692 – 766

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001)

Faber, Michael. The World of Richard Wright (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1985)

Gates, Jr, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 1988)

Moore, T. Owens. ‘A Fanonian Perspective on Double Consciousness’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 35, No. 6 (Jul, 2005), pp. 751 – 762

Stepto, Robert. From Behind The Veil (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1991)

Wright, Richard. ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’, in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Nellie Y. McKay, 2nd edn. (New York: Norton, 2004) pp. 1436 – 1470


 

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2 thoughts on “In Limbo: Double Consciousness in Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’

  1. Zahra says:

    I think that you misunderstood the concept of Double Consciousness. You said” in the first phase of the novel the narrator suffers from a lack of double consciousness”. Dubois says that ”Double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”. In this light, Double consciousness is itself the reason that inhibited Invisible Man from developing a true self consciousness. In the first phase of the novel, he did exactly what the others asked him to do because he was seeing through their eyes. He was blinded to his reality and thought that acquiescence was the key to success. It’s only at the end of the novel that he learned that looking at himself through the eys of the others which is double consciousness leads to nowhere. And at the end you said: ”The solution to the problems of identity then, as Du Bois suggests, may be rooted in the double consciousness of reliving one’s story as both narrator and protagonist.” This solution isn’t found by Dubois and you can’t find it in his text. It’s Ellison who made an attainment of true self consciousness possible through narration, which is the double consciousness of being both a narrator and a protagonist. And this is what the story of Invisible Man is based on!

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    • Hi Zahra, thank you for engaging so actively with my blog post! I enjoyed reading your comments. You quoted me saying that ‘the protagonist of ‘Invisible Man’ suffers from a lack of double consciousness’, and it seems you have not understood the rest of my theorising; at the beginning of the novel the protagonist suffers from a single false consciousness, he sees himself – as well as all other African Americans – through the eyes of white America. At this point in the novel the protagonist is unable to reconcile his ‘black’ identity with his ‘American’ identity because he does not acknowledge his black identity; his consciousness is, therefore, not double at this point, but single. You quoted Du Bois directly yet, as I am sure you are aware, this does not comprise the whole argument and it is not possible to garner an understanding of this complex concept through one sentence.

      I hope this helps to clarify some of my own thoughts! Please do not hesitate to reply with any further comments,

      Best wishes,
      Ana.

      Like

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