In many ways, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man encapsulates and even illuminates many of Du Bois’ ideas surrounding double consciousness. Chapter I of The Souls of Black Folk, addresses many of the struggles about self and identity that Ellison’s narrator undergoes due to the perceptions of various societal groups. In both texts, each of the authors outline a kind of erasure of the self.
Du Bois refers to this double consciousness as, “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In this same way, the narrator of Invisible Man measures himself in accordance with the estimations of those around him. Ellison’s protagonist states, “All my life I had been looking for something and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory.” The narrator struggles with who he is because of how others see him, but he soon realizes that he should not be searching for affirmation in anyone other than himself (there is, however, the question of how much of the self is always already manipulated by societal values).
Du Bois employs a number of Biblical allusions throughout the chapter and I became concerned with their function due to the frequency of their appearances. It soon occurred to me that the chapter is titled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”, which may denote a religious or transcendent journey. There are numerous markers that relate to the journey of the Israelites to the Promised which may symbolize the process of self-discovery as a difficult one, with many obstacles.
However, there is a shift in the subject and timeline of the allusions and Du Bois refers to “social degradation [as] the burden [the black man] bore upon his back.” This analogy between the burden of identity and the crucifixion of Jesus is fitting with the aspect of external ridicule and persecution that accompany both. Most importantly, these biblical allusions indicate that this experience or journey to re-establish the self is a metaphysical one in which each individual bares his own burden.
Du Bois asserts that these external oppressions amount to the, “Suicide of a race!” This is an interesting phraseology because it has less to do with the destruction of the race through external forces and more to do with the destruction of the race through the self. This is also fascinating because Du Bois provides self-acknowledgement and acceptance as a way for the black man to resurrect his sense of self and his race. Similarly, Ellison also allows his protagonist to reflect and come to terms with himself so that he may resurface (also a form of resurrection).
This reading allowed me to view the concept of self-consciousness and individual identity in a more dangerous light. So much of our experiences and how we perceive ourselves do in fact originate from how the rest of the world sees us and our understanding of that. I am now curious about how many of us are unknowingly on paths of self-destruction due to the inadequacy quota that society has forced upon us (alright now my skepticism is really setting in; I’ll end here).