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Over the past few posts, I have been discussing how authors such as Frank Yerby, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston counter western ideals of beauty, specifically ideals of white beauty. Over the next couple of posts, I want to move back a little and look at W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness in relation to this topic and in relation to Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me!“
In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois presents his thoughts about double consciousness. Du Bois begins by saying that “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with a second-sight in this American world.” What is the “second-sight”? It’s a sight that causes the subject to exist within “two warring ideals,” the ideals of what the others say the subject should be and the ideals of how the subject views him or herself. Du Bois continues by writing, “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.”
This consciousness is what Bita Plant, Mrs. Turner, and Harry Forbes each navigate, even if their stories occur outside of the United States. European ideals and perceptions pervade their lives. Some, like Mrs. Turner, buy into the perceptions and create an altar to the ways that “the eyes of others” see her. Others, like Bita and Harry, understand the ways that others view them and they use that knowledge to push back and construct their own identity. However, even when they construct their identity, they still exist within spaces that project certain ideas upon them, and they must constantly navigate those spaces.
Following his discussion of double consciousness, Du Bois move on to a section where he looks at how Black artisans, ministers, doctors, and savants exist between the “two warring ideals” and how that position creates tensions. Writing about the Black savant, Du Bois says,
The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.
Here, Du Bois makes me think of authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Chesnutt at the turn of the twentieth century. Chesnutt, in a journal entry from 1880, wrote, “The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.” With this statement, Chesnutt embodies Du Bois’ assertions from the paragraph quoted above. He had to work within a literary system that wanted stereotypical images of Black life, and he had to, as Dunbar did as well, subvert those images in texts such as The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales (1899).
In the mid to latter half of the twentieth century, Frank Yerby navigated the same literary landscape. When James L. Hill asked Yerby, in 1977, if anyone picked up on the subversive elements in his novels, specifically The Foxes of Harrow and other “costume novels,” Yerby told him, “And I was trying to get to the bigots; I was trying to get to the ******-haters. I got some of them, and I actually received letters that indicated that I made some of that kind of people think, you know.” Like Chesnutt, Yerby wants to reach whites. Some readers noticed the “soul-beauty of a race” that Yerby presented in his texts; however, how many more did not?
As Chesnutt and Yerby worked to confront and educate white readers, they found pushback from Black intellectuals and critics. Chesnutt had critical success with The Marrow of Tradition and other works, but the last novel to appear during his lifetime was The Colonel’s Dream (1905). In essence, his career as a fiction writer did not last long. Chesnutt did not die until 1932, and he continued to write during that period. He penned Paul Marchand, F.MC. and The Quarry in the 1920s, both of which appeared posthumously. Neither of these texts found a publisher, possibly do to the shifting literary landscape of the period and the fact that each novel essentially deals with a white man who is raised Black, discovers the secret, and chooses to remain in the Black community. If we think about Chesnutt’s journal entry, each of these novels works to elevate whites by showing that race exists as a legal and social construction.
While Chesnutt’s literary output during his lifetime ended around 1905, Yerby’s continued throughout his life. He published 33 novels over a 39 year period, and he received popular success and fame. Even with all of the success, critics have maligned Yerby’s work. Dawrin Turner even opined, in 1968, that if any academics still read Yerby they do so in secret because of his reputation as a pulp and popular writer with nothing to offer those with sophisticated tastes. Most famously, of course, Robert Bone, in 1958, called Yerby the “prince of pulpsters.”
After the success of his debut novel The Foxes of Harrow in 1946, some like Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes praised his success. However, others like Blyden Jackson accused Yerby of selling out and continuing the “moonlight and magnolia” tradition of the Old South. As the years went by, and Yerby published more “costume novels,” Bontemps and Hughes leaned more towards Jackson’s assessment because Yerby did not, overtly, challenge white supremacy. He did not, to them, use his success and position to end Jim Crow and usher in the Civil Rights Movement.
Since that time, scholars have still given Yerby short shrift in regard to accepting and studying his work. Du Bois sums up the tension that Yerby and even Chesnutt dealt with in their careers. They each struggled with how to represent “the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised” to white audiences in hopes of changing their perspectives. This move to address white audiences in such a manner, especially for Yerby, alienated him from the African American literary canon and critical tradition, to this day. He sought “to satisfy two unreconciled ideals.”
Next post I will look at how Hurston, in her essay, navigates these issues as well, specifically how she explores Du Bois’ double consciousness. Until then, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.