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Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Beyond the Eyes of the Beholder

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of the Negro has had on the American character” (Baldwin 86-87). Similar to the invisible man’s case, Baldwin’s invisibility has a lot to do with the black man’s lack of history in Europe.

Regardless, it would be overly ingenuous to discount Leukerbad’s unenlightened state, and Baldwin allowing them to be greedy of the “luxury of looking at him as a stranger” (89), as pure innocence. In “The Invisible Man”, the protagonist gets into a fight with a white man. As Ellison’s invisible man violently demands for an apology, the white man continues to “[utter] insults though his lips were frothy with blood”. Even at knifepoint, the white man refuses to deny the invisible man’s inferiority. It occurs to the narrator the man he is attacking does not even see him at all, and it this invisibility is what allows the powerless white man to defeat him.

In the same way, Baldwin, who belonged to a megalopolis called New York, allows himself to feel inferior and undistinguished compared to unsophisticated villagers who did not even know what typewriters were. He allowed them to make him feel powerless simply because they were “related, in a way that [he] was not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine” (83). He still sees himself through the eyes of his oppressors, and it is in this way that he chooses to remain oppressed.

In his most acclaimed work, “The Souls of the Black Folk”, W.E.B. DuBois introduces two concepts that describe the complexity of being an American Black. The first is a “veil” between African-Americans and white America. This veil, which denotes to the literal darkness of black Americans, represents two obstructed views. It is this veil that makes it difficult for the white man to entirely see the black man as an individual, living soul. While this is the easiest way to interpret the concept, it is very important to know that it a struggle that goes both ways. It is also difficult for African-Americans to clearly see themselves beyond the perception of white America. Dubois’ second concept of “double-consciousness” intersects this idea. He writes:

“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.  One ever feels his two-ness— 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” (Dubois 215).

The idea of having two different individuals, two different histories, is incredibly overwhelming. However, it is the power of perception that truly makes the critical difference. In his essay, Baldwin underlines the “great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites” (82). This distinction stands the test of time; which Baldwin proves:

“I am told that there are Haitans able to trace their ancestry back to African king, but any American Negro wishing to go back so far will find his journey through time abruptly arrested by the signature on the bill of sale which served as the entrance paper for his ancestor” (86).

Perhaps, this is also what Baldwin means by “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” (81). How can he be proud of his original identity when it is the very thing that condemned his ancestors, and himself, to generations of institutional oppression? Essentially, it is that inhumane period in history that molded the African-American community. To forget that they were once property is to cut away yet another part of their identity.

Yet Zora Hurston proves that while mentally escaping the past is certainly not easy, it is possible. Unlike the Ellison and Baldwin’s works, her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, relays how she uses her double-consciousness as a weapon of empowerment. Hurston, who was raised in an all-black community, “became colored (215)” when she moved to Jacksonville. What made her so remarkable was that she carried an unapologetic attitude and embraced her two-ness without shame. She mentioned: “There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes” (Hurston 215). It is with this perspective that she was able to establish an identity that was purely her own. Even when the veil between her and white America was suddenly lifted, she refused to feel “colored”.

Don’t be fooled, Hurston is not a delusional optimist, nor did she escape her history. In reference to the slave trade being in the past, she wrote: “The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you” (Hurston 216). She moves on from the past she is unable to change, and focuses on a future she can create. In fact, the past is important to Hurston and she compares herself to a brown bag:

“Pour out the contents, and there is discovered jumble of the small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for the road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still fragrant (Hurston 216).”

The items are bits and pieces from her travels that have become a part of her being. For example, the dried but fragrant flower represents life, while the broken glass and rusty blade symbolizes pain. The bent nail, on the other hand, represents her being weighed down by things that are beyond her control. It may be bent, but it is not broken. The world may have put her in the control group, but she knows she is a “bloomer”. In a color where color matters, she refused to be “tragically colored” (Hurston 215).

The idea of looking forward may seem like an unlikely parallel that can be drawn from Baldwin, Hurston, and Ellison’s works. However, despite the differences in the author’s outlooks, all three works somehow touches on the idea of a future— a positive one. Again, the “bloomers” and the control group only differed. Society has changed, and it will continue to change. One thing is for sure— “this world is white no longer, and will never be again” (Baldwin 90).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Stranger in the Village.” The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-

1985. London: Joseph, 1985. 79-90.

Dubois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” In Three Negro Classics, 209.


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