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Reflections on Double-Consciousness

Program Note


Native Son

by Nambi E. Kelley

directed by Seret Scott


Yale Repertory Theatre

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question,” observes the thinker and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois: “the real question, How does it feel to be a problem?”

In his 1897 essay “Strivings of the Negro People,” Du Bois names that feeling “double-consciousness.” Later republished in his landmark The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’s description of his own daily and lifelong oppression has resonated with generations of writers.

“The 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. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”

Langston Hughes, poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, opens his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” with an anecdote of double-consciousness:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe… ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. […] But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”

The Martinique-born revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon describes the psychology of colonial oppression in his 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks:

“He is afraid, he is terribly afraid. He is afraid, but of what is he afraid? Of himself. No one knows yet who he is, but he knows that fear will fill the world when the world finds out. And when the world knows, the world always expects something of the Negro. […]Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disemboweled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralyzed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.”

Known for his literary and social prose—including vigorous criticism of Wright’s novel­— James Baldwin evokes double-consciousness in his 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son:

“The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that. He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle. One may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.”

In her 1984 collection Sister Outsider, poet and essayist Audre Lorde carves space for intersectional feminisms and for black women’s double-consciousness:

“It is the members of the oppressed, objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor. For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers.”

In her adaptation of Native Son, playwright Nambi E. Kelley stages double-consciousness theatrically. In the novel’s opening scene, Bigger kills a foot-long, yellow-toothed rat that has infested the one-room slum he shares with his mother, brother, and sister. Kelley transforms this visceral image into a character: the Black Rat, Bigger’s shadow-self, personifies double-consciousness:

“We all got two minds. How we see them seeing us. How we see our own self. But how they see you take over on the inside. And when you look in the mirror—You only see what they tell you you is. A black rat sonofabitch.”