“As soon as you ask yourself the question, ‘What does it mean to be Irish-American, Iranian-American, Greek-American,’ you are American.”
– Gish Jen
Two months ago, I returned to the US after three long months in southern China, both in and near Hong Kong. I spent the summer visiting my grandparents (on my mother’s side), and though I didn’t quite achieve what I wanted to do – my goal was to find a short-term position as a local English teacher – I left with meaningful memories and a better understanding of Chinese people and society, not to mention a great deal of my cultural heritage.
But the longer I stayed overseas, the more I began to think about an unanswered, almost forgotten question of mine: What does it mean to be American? And, being the child of two Chinese immigrants, what does it mean to be “Chinese-American?”
You could easily point to any number of historical or sociological studies on Chinese-Americans and find a common set of themes – assimilation, generation gap, ethnic identity, etc. Obviously these terms aren’t limited to the ‘Chinese-American experience’ either, as the everyday accounts of newly-arrived and recently-settled immigrants (and their families) from all over the world will show. But is it possible to distill that hyphenated existence into something more inclusive of all backgrounds? Or at least less hyphenated?
The first time I read The Souls of Black Folk was three years ago, as a sophomore in a class about black (American) narrative. I wasn’t thinking a great deal about cultural (or even personal) identity at the time, and I was just getting to grips with anything and everything literature could have to say about life. But then I came across this:
[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. 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.
And in short, I was amazed. Du Bois’ imagery – not unlike that of a certain Holmes – did more than enough to capture my attention on first read: veils and second-sight called forth visions of some prophet or oracle; and it’s difficult not to imagine what “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” entails. But I found it even more remarkable that a passage, no less an entire book written over a century ago about the black American experience managed to paint in three sentences, and not a few hyphenated words, a picture of life I thought existed only in my head. Second-sight, two-ness, and most of all, double-consciousness. Suddenly I found someone who’d written about a people not identical to ‘mine,’ yet instantaneously so remarkably similar that I almost couldn’t tell the difference.
It’s easy to heap hyperbole onto a nevertheless-historically-important text, but it’s much harder to put precisely into words how much that particular passage of Du Bois’ meant to me, and how much it still means to me when I re-read it now. So maybe it’d help to consider first what “double-consciousness” meant to another writer, an author with no less keen a perception of how to come to terms – or not – with one’s innate “two-ness.” For the purposes of this post, I’m thinking of James Weldon Johnson.
In that same class on black narrative, we read The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and it probably helped that we discussed that text right after finishing Souls. For one, Johnson’s novel was published (anonymously) in 1912, just nine years after Du Bois released Souls, so the influence the latter had on the former is almost undeniable. But how that influence plays out in Autobiography is pretty notable, especially as Johnson writes with a greater awareness of the “soul,” more than merely the “life” of a cultured black American. There is, for instance, a scene where the “ex-colored man” cuttingly evaluates black Atlantans:
The unkempt appearance, the shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people aroused in me a feeling of almost repulsion. Only one thing about them awoke a feeling of interest; that was their dialect….here I heard it in all of its fullness and freedom….I have since learned that his ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.
Johnson must have had double-consciousness somewhere in his mind when he had his narrator voice those thoughts, because there’s a remarkable self-awareness to the words. The attention to unkempt appearance, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter could easily have come from a white observer, who would have been armed with the vocabulary and imagery to craft that Du Boisian “revelation of the other world” for the black American. But then there’s the subtle switch toward “dialect” – already implying a non-standard, almost bastardized version of ‘American English’ – which gets praised in all of its “fullness and freedom,” perhaps too ironically for a people who would not have thought of themselves that way at the time. The voice doesn’t change (it could still be the hypothetical white sociologist speaking here) but somehow a double-consciousness emerges through that voice once the narrator – at this point, still “colored” – comes into play. Because all of a sudden we get this feedback loop of dual identities: a black man using white language (“a feeling of almost repulsion”) to position himself both among and against black society. It hardly seems coincidental, too, that the narrator closes off with a sarcastic reference to the black man’s “laughing” as “salvation…to keep him from going the way of the Indian,” from going the way of the first Americans.
Johnson’s narrator, of course, treads a fine satirical line between black consciousness and American (white) consciousness in making those very observations, and he maintains that tightrope act even when he name-checks Du Bois himself:
No matter how well [the American Negro] may portray the deeper passions, the public is loth to give him up in his old character; they even conspire to make him a failure in serious work, in order to force him back into comedy. In the same respect, the public is not too much to be blamed, for great comedians are far more scarce than mediocre tragedians; every amateur actor is a tragedian. However, this very fact constitutes the opportunity of the future Negro novelist and poet to give the country something new and unknown, in depicting the life, the ambitions, the struggles and the passions of those of their race who are striving to break the narrow limits of traditions. A beginning has already been made in that remarkable book by Dr. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk.”
This passage isn’t so much directly about double-consciousness as it is about theatrical performance, yet the parallels between the two are readily evident. To start, the narrator pits the “American Negro” against an audience (“the public”) straightaway, and suddenly we get a performer forced to confront that “revelation of the other world” once more. Even worse, the audience forces a powerful irony onto its actor: it makes him a “failure in serious [if not tragic] work, in order to force him back into comedy.” Johnson’s narrator, meanwhile, treads water in his conclusion by cutting back on public blame – “for great comedians are far more scarce than mediocre tragedians” – so that it’s difficult to pin down where, if at all, the voice is satirical. But his turn toward the positive possibilities of black comedy (not exactly that kind of black comedy), however, cleverly transforms the figurative black actor into a black artist: as a future novelist or poet, the performer has the opportunity to turn that seemingly limited role into an artistic experience. It may not be a celebration of black consciousness – there are, after all, “ambitions” and “struggles” and “passions” to be expressed, and the presence of a public audience still tempers the freedom of black performance – but it’s a significant chance for “those of [the black] race” to “break the narrow limits of traditions.”
It’s this sort of language that readily brings us back to America in 2013, with millions of people identifying (or beginning to identify) themselves with hyphens and compound adjectives. There are generations who still struggle and strive to move beyond the limits of tradition(s) or craft their own. There are individuals who find themselves (or simply are) trapped in cultural performances, reduced to a place on a spectrum between deep tragedy and fragile comedy. And then more broadly, there are so many people – so many souls, so many of us – who think and communicate and act with a double-consciousness, with that uneasy awareness of being inside and outside America without ever quite settling with just one position or the other.
Who knows whether we can break the hyphen? Or is it something worth breaking?
Is that what it means to live a hyphenated American life?