The twentieth century was an especially contentious period in the realms of large scale politics and civil rights. While these macroscopic movements were of great importance for the betterment of society as a whole, they also set the stage for a multitude of microscopic conflicts regarding individual and group identities. Through analysis of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s play The Toilet in the context of W.E.B Du Bois’s seminal work The Souls of Black Folk and Owen E. Brady’s insightful piece “Cultural Conflict and Cult Ritual in LeRoi Jones’s The Toilet” identity struggles pertaining to race within the African American community and their effects on individuals are illuminated.
The Toilet centers around a multitude of identity conflicts, amongst these, struggles about the meaning of being African American in an oppressive white society, as well as those pertaining to masculinity are especially pronounced. These struggles – and their root causes – become more clear when taken in the context of W.E.B Du Bois’s iconic book The Souls of Black Folk. Lastly, through Owen E. Brady’s deep analysis of the play, the long term effects of these conflicts are elucidated. The complexities of these conflicts are manifested through interactions between the character of The Toilet.
Amongst the internal struggles the characters in The Toilet are undergoing, the conflict between the boy’s perception of their own race is highlighted through their contradictory use of it in both insulting and complimentary ways. Though Foots is seen as the leader of the group, Ora acts as the most domineering figure for the majority of the play. Throughout the series of confrontations Ora is involved in, he frequently uses “black” as an insult to the rest of the group.
While confronting Hines, Ora exclaims “get outta here you black ass bastid” (Jones/Baraka 41) and later when Perry threatens to restrain Ora over his excessively confrontational demeanor Ora responds by saying “well you damn sure got your chance right now, you black sonofabitch” (Jones/Baraka 46). While this play does not have a clear antagonist in the sense that the boys are, in some ways, friends, Ora is the most confrontational character in the group. He continuously responds with insults that use his friends race as an insult in spite of the fact that he himself is also African American.
The duality of their perception of race – and specifically their own “blackness” – is seen even more clearly through an exchange between Ora and Willie Love. After punching Donald Farrell, a white boy, Ora claims that he did it because “[Farrell] called [him] a nigger” to which Love responds by saying “well, what the hell are you? Wha’s the matter, you shamed of your people?” (Jones/Baraka 50). When Ora asserts that Farrell called him a “nigger” he does so while “laughing paradoxically”.
Through this exchange the boys unknowingly confront the complexities of their own perception of their racial identity. Ora, who uses “black” as an insult throughout the play, laughs while telling the boys thar Farrell called him a “nigger”. This exemplifies both his positive perception of his race – as seen through by the action he took in response to the use of the slur – as well as the negative perception of his own race which is seen through the way he makes it into a joke. The duality of their racial perception is further exemplified through Love’s response which questions whether Ora perceives his own race as being shameful.
The conflicting perceptions of racial identity seen in The Toilet – while illuminating – are not novel concepts; W.E.B Du Bois explores these notions in his influential work The Souls of Black Folk. W.E.B Du Bois – one of the great civil rights leaders of the twentieth century – explores the ideas behind the duality of identity seen through the boys in The Toilet in his timeless work The Souls of Black Folk. As seen throughout the play, the boys struggle with two different identities. In one identity, they are proud of their heritage and – to an extent – united by their race.
In contrast, their other identity holds a certain level resentment or shame for their race as the result of growing up under the oppression of white society; this is seen through Ora’s degrading use of the word “black” throughout the play. Though The Toilet was written over half a century after Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk the concepts captured in this quintessential work are vividly mirrored in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s play.
Du Bois perfectly captures the identity conflicts African Americans struggle with by explaining thatOne ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body… with… this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self… tomake it possible to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spitupon by his fellows (Du-Bois 3-4).
Du Bois describes the “twoness” that an African American man feels under the pervasiveness of white dominance in the United States during the twentieth century. He goes on to say that to embrace oneself as an American and as an African American is to embrace two mutually exclusive identities. Though the boys in The Toilet never directly acknowledge their own “twoness” it is abundantly evident through their seemingly contradictory views of their African American identities. The ramifications of the identity crisis on the morality of The Toilets characters are explored in Owen E. Brady’s astute analytic work “Cultural Conflict and Cult Ritual in LeRoi Jones’s The Toilet”.
In this piece Owen E. Brady elaborates upon W.E.B Du Bois’s concept of the “twoness” of African American identity by exploring how this internal conflict influenced their behavior. The majority of the play is marked by brash and cruel actions that the boys take in their hunt for Karolis – Foots’s secret lover – yet there are instances in which they display the capacity for moral integrity. Their ability to act morally is best seen through the character descriptions of Willie Love, George Davis, Skippy, and Ray Foots who are described as “should have been sensitive”, “judicious”, “someone to be trusted”, and “intelligent” respectively (Jones/Baraka 35).
These descriptions are not consistent with the actions they take – which leave Karolis bloodied and unconscious on the bathroom floor – further supporting the duality of their identities. Owen E. Brady expands upon this in his articleAlthough each boy has a potential for fuller participation in humanity, American experience has perverted that potential. There is some evidence within the playof positive traits in the boys, but an audience recoils from their crudity, violence andobscenity. This contrast underscores the transformation of blackness which American experience has wrought (Brady 71).
Brady elaborates upon the notion that the cruelty and amoral nature of the boys behavior; he claims that each of the boys has the capability to fully participate in humanity and yet they continuously do not. Brady claims that, in essence, their failure to act in a more humane manner is the product of institutionalized oppression that defines twentieth century America. Rather than act in a manner that is consistent with what “blackness” is in reality, the boys conform to the warped definition of blackness created by white America.
In conclusion, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s play The Toilet explores the contentious nature of African American identity in the twentieth century. The confusion regarding their identity as African Americans culminates in two unique identities; one fosters unity while the other fosters shame. This duality of African American identity was first conceptualized in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois through the exploration of the “twoness” that is inherent to the experience of being an African American man in twentieth century America.
Finally, Owen E. Bradley elaborates on the American roots of this dichotomy and the consequences of it as seen through the characters in The Toilet. Through analyzing the actions and underlying causes of The Toilet’s characters in the context of W.E.B Du Bois’s and Owen E. Baker’s works the complexities of African American identity in the face of white America’s oppression are profoundly and effectively illustrated.