Here is a Guestpost by Genet, an Ethiopian blogger, who is passionate about African and African American issues. Check out her personal blog GenetParadise, a space where she often writes about Horn of African topics.
In this article, using historical narratives, Genet discusses the complex nature of identity, particularly the Black identity, and its representation in mainstream media:
W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness and Freud’s internal anxiety theories are constantly active in the hearts and minds of Blacks in America and their representation in media. The two, or more, sides of the self are constantly at war with one another. Anger, frustration and difference must be repressed for any sort of progress, real or imagined. But, Freud contends, this anger will eventually unmask itself because the repressed unconscious is bigger than the conscious.
Self Preservation vs. Social Anxiety
Sigmund Freud conceptualizes the tensions and at times outright incompatibility of one’s inner self and societal standards. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he pits self-preservation against social anxiety. This incongruent relationship is best illustrated in mainstream media’s depiction of the angry Black male who is unable to control his most animalistic urges and emotions. On the flip side is the upright and socially conscious Black male who is able to successfully negotiate the terms of his place in society.
Amiri Baraka’s “The Dutchman” embodies the Black male’s internal struggle, played out by Clay’s calm, cool and collected demeanor, which later explodes into a display of pent-up anger, triggered by Lula’s constant prodding and provocation. In the beginning, Clay appears docile, easygoing and mesmerized by white Lula’s beauty and awkwardness. But as the story progresses, it is evident that Lula wants to break Clay out of this boring mold and into the character that and the other passengers on the train envision about Black men. Clay progresses from a harmless train rider en route to a friend’s party; by the end, his repressed anger, accumulated from Lula’s outlandish behavior and comments, explodes into full force and threat of violence. Clay’s internal struggle plays out in a very public way.
But in Learning to be White, *Thandeka reminds us that it is not just Black men who experience this struggle. Over the course of American history, European immigrants also had to repress their cultures, celebrations and lifestyles in order to seize the opportunities available to them. Like the Black man, if these Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc. immigrants were willing to give up their rowdy and indigenous behavior, opportunity and success would await them on the other side. But these prizes are tricky because they are not always guaranteed and remain conditional; even after one gains them, he or she could lose them if behavior is not up to par. Thandeka cites one immigrant’s experience: “I have been successful. I have property. My children have superior advantages. But I have lost my life.”
This “life” he speaks of is communal living and the blending of work with everyday life in his home country. European immigrants soon learned that they had to forfeit their traditions in order to become “’sober, orderly and moral’ workers” in an industrializing America. Whites created the terms of success, which still persist today. There is a certain standard, which has no room for the deviant or unruly. The assimilation process for European immigrants turned out to be a painful one because it meant the loss of their organic way of life and subsequently incorporation into the white world.
The terms of this loss of life differ a bit for Blacks than for European immigrants in the 19th century. If immigrants were willing to submit to the rules of whiteness, the opportunities were laid out for them to capitalize on. But the wins are not so easy for African Americans, who will not gain full participation in society but the simple illusion of it. In order to make it, Blacks have to repress their natural tendencies and anger as to appear harmless and presentable. But what they get in return is a mere fantasy of inclusion into society. This is evidenced by Gleason Golightly’s character in the “Space Traders” chapter of Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Golightly was simply a token character in the president’s inner circle, seen as the “scholarly-looking black man sitting far down the table.” But when it came time to propose inputs and solutions, his opinions were not seriously considered. Despite his appearance as an equal among the other white members of the president’s advisors, his successes were symbolic, without full weight. Because his views were incompatible with the others in the boardroom, his suggestion was simply tossed aside.
W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness and Freud’s internal anxiety theories are constantly active in the hearts and minds of Blacks in America and their representation in media. The two, or more, sides of the self are constantly at war with one another. Anger, frustration and difference must be repressed for any sort of progress, real or imagined. But, Freud contends, this anger will eventually unmask itself because the repressed unconscious is bigger than the conscious. Such internal wars will continue to be waged as a result of White America’s historical and contemporary hegemony.
*Thandeka, author of Learning to be White, makes the claim that wealthy, landowning White men created whiteness or a white identity in order to retain power and dominance. In 19th century industrializing America, European immigrants were still connected to their cultures and traditions. But these values were not congruent with the needs and standards of the American workplace and social institutions. These European immigrants were looked down upon and treated as second-class citizens, similar to the status of Blacks. Rich white men created a white identity as a means to forge a faux brotherhood with poor European immigrants; faux because this new identity only created the illusion of opportunity and equality for immigrants. The main aim was to deflect class unity so that poor immigrants could not join with Blacks to demand class equality; instead, they were pacified by the idea that they now belonged to a superior racial group.