Du Boisian double-consciousness applied to writing narratives.
I have been reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone for the past three days now. I’ve been absorbing such heavy doses of the stuff that my mind is spinning around literary questions. In this book, Baldwin is actually speaking from the perspective of a Black narrator, unlike Giovanni’s Room, where the narrator is a white man. Yet, I wonder if there are any Baldwin books – I have not read them all, sadly – where the narrator is not a Black or White man. A Latina woman? A Black woman? An Asian man?
It is striking to me to think of the various first-person narrators throughout literary history and to see how closely their race reflects the race of their writers. Nick from The Great Gatsby, Yunior from The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jim from My Ántonia – all of these characters belong to a specific racial narrative, the likes of which is hardly crossed… and perhaps for good reason.
What does it mean for a white man to write from the experiences of a Black man? Of a Black woman?
I cannot imagine it to be a good work… for I cannot imagine a White person to be able to fathom the existence of a Black person. That is not to say that they are very different, that black and white people have little if nothing in common. It has everything to do, though, with privilege, a concept which is just as invisible as it is theoretical. I will not go into a diatribe, dissecting and defining what privilege is, but I will note that it is so insidious that the vast majority of those who tote it around have no idea at all that it’s there. It is a coded reality, it is a guardian angel. Only when it is shoved in your face by those without it does it shimmer in and out of invisible in your hands, offering you the choice to unveil it completely or to pretend you saw nothing. I am beginning to be convinced that the former happens far less than the latter.
So take this for an example: the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing caused quite a stir at the dinner table last week. It was difficult for half of the people present to understand what it meant to be transgender. Such behaviors had been attributed to particular deviancy or personal weirdness – never legitimate social identities. Nonetheless, as the other half of the dinner attendees attempted to convince the clueless, the question still remained: “How does a person know they are transgender?”
From the outside, we can really only put together symptoms of what we’ve observed, of what we can reason and put to words. These are not feelings – and a transgender person usually doesn’t feel right in their body, with their prescribed gender. And language is insufficient at conveying emotions like these, especially when they are so complex that our language has no means of describing them.
I could never write from the perspective of a transgender person because I, as a cisgender person, can never put myself in their footsteps, no matter how hard I try. I will never be able to attain anything other than a phony and likely offensive rendition, a minstrelcy jaded in its false perception of reality. The narrator would likely reveal more of my ignorance towards the transgender vantage point than it would discuss the issues of which this vantage point is made most poignantly aware. And therefore all of my reasons in choosing that character would go to waste.
That is to say that the story would have to deal, in some way, with issues of transgenderness?
That is the essence of it. In the creation of narratives, we look so often inwards towards our own perceptions of the world that we desire, often, especially those who are other, to project our identities onto narrators who are nothing more than microphones for our thoughts, dressed up and fashioned to our liking. The third- and second-person narrative styles – which are rarer now, it seems – are disconnected, as if the author themselves is reading you something, usually emotionally sterile in its omniscience and focused purely on plot in its one-track-mindedness, although not always. The first-person narrative is focused on the development of character, on the humanization of a mouthpiece which interacts with the world to which it is connected.
But when we consider privilege when writing first-person narratives, we must consider what is possible for us to comprehend. I cannot understand the plight of a woman – it is beyond my comprehension, and therefore, I do not expect to write many pieces from a woman’s viewpoint. The best that I can do is sympathize and empathize (not pity). All that I know about the daily lives of women is what I have learned from them, and even this is a careful exchange of what that woman believes is worthy of me knowing, or what she is comfortable enough telling me. What hardships she may endure because of her sex are at her discretion. I have no ownership, no claim to them. They are cards she should be able to deal out, for only from her hand will her cards have any legitimacy.
Only from the mouth of the transman will the words of the transman narrator have significance, have true value.
Only from the eyes of the Native-American woman can the accounts of a Native-American woman represent anything more than beautiful words and imagecraft. It is the author who gives the piece its life. This is what makes a good piece great, and what makes a decent piece shitty.
And then we arrive at Giovanni’s Room. How can Baldwin write from the perspective of a white man as a Black man? This is a fascinating question for it posits that James Baldwin, whose work seems to put a smile on my face more often than any other’s, has erred egregiously. And it is not the case, for Baldwin hardly does anything wrong. When we apply the concept of double-consciousness fleshed out by Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk, we arrive at a pivotal realization: oppressed people have access to the vantage-points of their oppressors. If we understand the double-consciousness to be a veil through which the wearer can understand their condition within society while also being able to understand themselves as a person, this gives an author access to more than one narrative vessel, depending on his vantage. The first consciousness is that which is ascribed to everyone, is the self in real-time but the second consciousness is connected to the social world and is thus molded by social interactions, like gazes, punishment and socialization. A white cisgender man has only one consciousness while a white cisgender woman has two. A black man has two, and so does a black pansexual, aromantic transwoman. The only difference is how much a double-consciousness is compounded by these identities, all of which impact our roles and our views in a social world.
This allows the double-consciousness to function in a system of power by reflecting the identities of those who have privilege over the person. A woman, understanding her womanhood because of her doubled consciousness, can also understand manhood by way of her womanhood, by way of her being often denied the perks and the powers of manhood. She becomes aware of what she is by what is denied her, yet is not blinded by her privilege. From there, she can better piece together the world from a man’s viewpoint than a man can from hers, for she must only imagine what it would be like to not be a woman. It is far easier to imagine an existence with privileges once said privileges have been rendered visible than to seek to imagine the absence of that privilege using only what information has been furnished to you by those without it, in the process attempting to make visible that which you do not even know is there.
And this applies to many areas. A gay man can understand straightness, a transman can understand cisness, etc.
That is why I can’t write an Asian narrator, or a Latino narrator, or a Native American narrator or an Australian Aborigine narrator. I also cannot write a Finnish white man, for my entire world view is shaped by my Americanness, and therefore, I am limited to American narrators. Thus, the double-consciousness does not work horizontally. Perhaps this is only in regards to race and nationality, for I imagine sexuality and religion to be far more fluid than race, which is notoriously black-and-white. (!)
Nonetheless, it is important when we craft narratives that we do people justice, and allow them to represent themselves. The process of disallowing representation – either by saying your story is good enough or by writing their story yourselves – you wind up with an abomination of a character, comprised of parts you’ve gleaned from books and testimonies and devoid of any binding fluid to hold these parts together. You often contribute to a running problem of erasure and silencing which makes these voices reach out more for their own representations. As writers, we must be cognitive of the significance of narratives and legitimacy, and take ownership of our biases and our identities, as onerous a task as that may seem.