W. E. B. Du Bois, drawing upon the teachings of his former Harvard professor, the preeminent philosopher and psychologist William James, employed the term “double consciousness” to describe the psychological state African Americans experienced most acutely during the post-Emancipation era. Situated between the promise of health and freedom and the violent realities of de jure and de facto segregation, Du Bois evokes, in his magisterial collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the metaphysical vagaries of black life lived both above and below the Mason Dixon Line:
“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.”
Du Bois’s cogent insight recognizes immediately that any nuanced analysis of the emotional wages of slavery and its legally fraught aftermath cannot be read outside of a symbiotic understanding of both mind and body—of psyche and soma. As such, while pro-slavery and Jim Crow discourse placed particular emphasis on the supposed mental deficiency of black subjects, public intellectuals such as Richard Wright, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison turned, in the mid-twentieth century, to the creative and sociological trope of madness, and to the language of existentialism and psychoanalytic inquiry, in order to make sense of the conjoined taboos of race and sex in a nation painfully divided. Influenced by the writings of Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Melville, as well as anti-imperial efforts taking place on an international scale, their work, ranging across all literary genres, sought to examine, aesthetically, not the implied pathologies of “blackness” per se, but the inherent “scission” at the heart of the democratic creed. At the same time, Wright and his cohort took seriously the angst-ridden and therapeutic weight of artistic production, and their creative output also pays credence to the personal tensions they endured in an age of Civil Rights struggle and Cold War paranoia—a period of Communist witch hunts, FBI surveillance, and political assassinations at home and abroad.
As a representative overview, The Anxiety of Influence spans roughly one hundred years from the 1890s to the 1980s—from Du Bois’s Harvard term paper “The Renaissance of Ethics” to a series of ephemera that traces the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the Neo-Expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat’s trademark aphorisms and brilliantly frenetic canvases reveal the obsessive leitmotifs of historicity and bodily pain—his repeated rendering of gross anatomy and fractured skulls. While this section focuses primarily on the mid-century thematic concerns of Wright, Himes, and Baldwin, the specter of slavery is present, in tandem with Du Bois, in the work of the contemporary artist Kara Walker. Walker’s grotesque and highly provocative abstractions of plantation fantasy run amok are similarly echoed in the haunting dreamscapes of Adrienne Kennedy and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s surrealist plays—a Theatre of Cruelty that captures,
with brutal economy, the political ferment of the 1960s.
—Louise Bernard, Curator of Prose and Drama-Yale Collection of American Literature
Image: Chester Himes, The Primitive, New York: Signet, 1956. Himes perhaps best sums up the intense plot dynamics of his macabre novel, The End of a Primitive, first published in the U.S. in expurgated form with the redacted title, The Primitive (1955): “I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially-frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment, and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.”
Influence of Anxiety Checklist and Object Descriptions
Watch: Richard Wright’s Screen test for Native Son