The Burden of Blackness
By Curtis J. Evans, Ph.D.
“The spiritual striving of the freedman’s sons is the travail of souls whose burden is almost beyond the measure of their strength, but who bear it in the name of an historic race, in the name of this land of their father’s fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.”
– W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
When the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is told by Mary, in whose apartment he is living as a tenant, that she hopes he will do great things that are a “credit to the race” and that he and other young blacks from the South will have a role in moving “us all [blacks] on up a little higher,” he is inwardly torn.
On the one hand, Mary has saddled him with the heroic and arduous task of uplifting and representing the race. On the other, she represents a stabilizing force from the past, one that keeps a nebulous hope alive in him, reminding him that something beyond his individual success is expected of him.
Both power and constraints of history
In this powerful narrative, Ellison captures both the liberating power and constraints of history for blacks, especially through the protagonist’s ongoing and tortuous internal struggle to make sense of his grandfather’s dying words, which war against his own overwhelming aspirations for individual achievement. After he resorts to his state of “hibernation,” the protagonist is haunted by his grandfather’s advice, which he states as a question: “Was it that we [black Americans] of all, we, most of all, had to affirm the principle [of democracy and equality on which the country was founded], the plan in whose name we had been brutalized and sacrificed?”
He concludes that his grandfather must have meant that “we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.” Though the protagonist fiercely maintains his hostility to conformity, he recognizes that his hibernation must end. And then he confesses that “there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”
He thus agonizingly comes to terms with the import of his grandfather’s words for American democracy and race relations as one who is trying to decipher a dense philosophical treatise might gain wisdom by wrestling with its contents. The protagonist cannot escape his history, though he spends much of his life in a new environment in which he seeks to move beyond a racialized identity. Through this character, Ellison poignantly portrays the burden of blackness. The protagonist finally accepts the deep humanity of his grandfather, a man lacking in education and culture, even as he becomes profoundly disillusioned with the scientific pretentions of a Communist brotherhood that professes its commitment to the common man while regarding individual black persons as expendable for the Cause cause of history.
Making Sense of the Past
Black leaders have sought to capture this burden of blackness in the form of the following questions:
- What is the meaning of the black experience in America?
- How do we make sense of a history of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression?
- How do blacks own the past without drowning in it and becoming overcome by it?
- And how can whites remember and accept this past without being overcome by guilt or rendered powerless by its pain?
Here again, Ellison’s evocative narrative provides some clues. First, we must embrace the past. Acceptance requires owning up to and recognizing how it has shaped our identities and current social aspirations. Escaping the past involves constant acts of repression. These acts merely postpone an inevitable eruption in a more sinister and destructive form.
Second, we must not allow tragedy and pain to cloud out the triumphs and joys of the past. To be black in America has surely been a tortured existence, but the joy of the spirituals, the improvisation of jazz, the celebration of gospel music, and the ecstasy induced by the holistic worship experience in many black churches have all been affirmations of the goodness of the varieties of experience that the creation offers.
And finally, blacks and whites, though often separated by distance and culture, can celebrate a shared history of struggle and victory. We must remember to glance back in time to rediscover moments when both groups allowed the goals of reconciliation and justice to take priority over ostracism and criticism.
The past can be mined for more than tragedy. It can yield an insight and depth to so much of the weightlessness in our contemporary a historical contemporary moment. A new sense of grounding emerges only after wrestling with, and bitterly contesting, one’s history. James Baldwin writings teach us that we can free ourselves from the tyrannical power of the uncritical acceptance of our past and present historical position, and thereby change the social order for future generations.
We must come to grips with the truth that history imposes burdens that we cannot escape, and we must therefore bear them through divine grace and within a community of helpers.
Curtis J. Evans, Ph.D. is an author and historian of American religion. His first book, The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008), argues that black religion was crucial in debates about the role of blacks in American culture. Evans received a master’s degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Harvard University.
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