Reading the works of renowned and prolific authors/playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and others has been such an exciting experience. Although I was familiar with most of them, my knowledge and understanding of the themes in their work has been elevated. Delving deeper into their ideas independently and during class discussions gave me insight that I shared similar experiences that they were writing about. Although I never heard of the term “Double Consciousness” first coined by W.E.B Dubois I definitely experienced it firsthand. Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke discussed this intimate struggle for Blacks in America within their own works.
Alain Locke was a writer that I wasn’t familiar with prior to attending the Contemporary Black Writers course. I was excited to learn about him and examine how his voice contributed to the community of Black writers as a whole. I was also curious to why he was named the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain LeRoy Locke was born September 13, 1885. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended Philadelphia Central High School where he graduated in 1902. Alain Locke attended Harvard University pursuing a degree in philosophy and literature. Alain Locke graduated from Harvard in the year 1907. Alain Locke was the first Black male to be awarded the Rhodes scholarship. He went on to pursue a degree at Hertford College.
It is here that Alain Locke studied philosophy for three years (1907-1910). Later, Alain Locke went on to teach English as a professor at the historic Black college Howard University. He also went back on to graduate with his doctorates degree in philosophy at Harvard in the year 1918. Alain Locked was given the title as the father of the Harlem Renaissance for his essays and writing that’s focused on the struggles and identities of Blacks living in America. He was also wrote about the importance of the Harlem Renaissance for Blacks and the safe space it gave Black artist to create art unbound. Alain was also a huge supporter and friend to other great Harlem Renaissance writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B Dubois.
On June 9, 1954 Alain Locke died. He is most infamously known for his writing piece “The New Negro” published in 1925. In W.E.B. DuBois essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” he clearly defines the term Double Consciousness and its effect on the identity of Blacks living in America. ‘One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The History of the American Negro is the history of this strive-this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. He 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.”
Alain Locke touches upon this theory in his essay “The New Negro”. “This is what, even more than any “most creditable record of fifty years of freedom,” requires that the Negro of today be seen through other than the dusty spectacles of past controversy. The day of “aunties,” “uncles” and “mammies” is equally gone.” Here Alain Locke stresses the importance of Black Americans to have their own identity, one that is separate from the racist and stereotypical caricatures of Black people such as the mammie’s and the auntie’s. Both W.E.B DuBois and Alain Locke stress the importance for Black people in America to control their narrative and the image that the outside world sees of Black people. Alain Locke’s mention of the mammie and aunties hints at the warped idea the world and the white majority have of Black people at that time. In many instances those who didn’t have first-hand encounters with Black people in America were introduced to them through minstrel shows and derogatory images and cartoons of Black people.
Zora Neale Hurston approaches the idea of double consciousness from a different prospective. In her essay “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” In her essay she reveals the moment that changed the view she had of herself. “It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.” Here she describes how she was no longer viewed as Zora once she left her segregated and predominately black town of Orange County and how she was now a “little colored girl” once in a predominantly white community of Jacksonville Florida. She further supports this narrative in her essay when she speaks upon the moments when she felt the most colored. “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
Aside from these two examples, surprisingly Zora Neale Hurston didn’t identify with double consciousness in the same manner as her counterparts Alain Locke and W.E.B DuBois did. She describes that she experiences life being a Black American different from that of her fellow white citizens. Zora Neale Hurston is quoted saying that “I am not tragically Black.” I interpret this powerful proclamation that although Blacks are faced with surmounting obstacles and hardship she doesn’t consider her blackness to be tragic nor does she pity herself for being Black. This ideology is further supported in her essay. “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you.
The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said ‘On the line!’ The Reconstruction said ‘Get set!’ and the generation before said ‘Go!’ Zora Neale Hurston’s view of life in America as Black is an optimistic one. She didn’t believe that the past should affect her from being successful. Alain Locke shares a similar sentiment in his essay “The New Negro”. “The intelligent Negro of today is resolved not to make discrimination an extenuation for his shortcomings in performance, individual or collective; he is trying to hold himself at par, neither inflated by sentimental allowances nor depreciated by current social discounts.” Here Alain Locke describes the mentality of the new Negro. To him, the new Negro doesn’t use the prevalence of discrimination and prejudice as an excuse to be unsuccessful and unmotivated within his/her community and society.
I don’t believe Alain Locke agreed with Zora Neale Hurston’s statement “at certain times I have no race, I am me.” In this statement Zora Neale Hurston explain that during particular moments she is not bound by the classification of race. There are times where she doesn’t feel Black because she is just in the moment of being Zora. This idea is contrary to the theme in Alain Locke’s essay “The New Negro”. His entire essay discusses the importance and responsibilities that comes with being a Black person living in America. Alain Locke emphasizes the importance of race so much so that he coins the term New Negro to highlights the evolution of Black intellect and sense of identity.
Zora Neale Hurston’s idea is that one can come to an understanding that being Black is only a part of a person’s identity. This is supported in her statement that “I have no race, I am me” due to the fact that without acknowledging her race for a moment doesn’t negate that she is still Zora. Alain Locke’s essay differs in this opinion because in his essay being Black and an individual is a mutually exclusive ideology. Alain Locke’s essay conveys the message that being the New Negro requires Blackness to be the center of ones existence. I believe Alain Locke is in agreement with W.E.B DuBois’s idea in “Of our Spiritual Striving”. W.E.B DuBois speaks of the obstacles faced as a Black person living in America. He details the identity issue Blacks grapple with and the prevalence of double consciousness and its effects on the Black community. Alain Locke in his essay also touches upon these themes in his essay “The New Negro”.
In addition to identifying the internal battles Blacks face due to double consciousness, Alain Locke also offers idea on how to successfully navigate life in White America as a Black person. His solution is the elevation from the old Negro to the new Negro. Double consciousness is a theme that was coined by W.E.B Dubois generations ago but this idea is still prevalent today in the Black community. In the Huffpost article entitled “I’m Exhausted From Trying To Be The ‘Right’ Kind Of Black Girl At Work” the author D. Shante describes her experience with being Black in a predominately white job.
“This was the beginning of a life filled with endless code switching, always modifying my behavior and appearance to adapt to my new sociocultural norm.” Here she describes how it’s difficult to be her authentic self at work due to the hostile environment. She goes on to describe that she can’t be “too” Black at work in order to survive there. She list a few ways to co-exist in her workplace without her blackness causing too much of a disruption. “Wear your natural curls, but not too big so you don’t bring too much attention to your fro.” She also describes how emotionally draining it is to have to deny a major part of her identity in order to continue working at her job. “The micro aggressions I was dealing with at work led to an enormous amount of self-doubt and caused me to put more pressure on myself than I could ever imagine. The code-switching was exhausting, but I needed to keep it up for survival. This was my job now.”
I can relate to the sentiments of D. Shante in her article. I too have had to choose between which part of myself was appropriate to reveal in particular settings. There were times in my honors classes were I felt that being Black Maya wasn’t as accepted compared to allying with the generalized and generic American identity. I believe the only way we can tackle this issue of double consciousness is to take back control of our narrative and make expressions of blackness in all forms acceptable. Similar to the ideologies of W.EB DuBois, I believe that Black people in America shouldn’t base their identity upon the input of the white majority. We shouldn’t judge our experiences of Black life in America through the lens of white Americans because those are two separate and unique journeys.