Understanding Family: Achieving Self-Consciousness

Living in a world that is viewed through the idea of the color of your skin is a lesson to learn. Even though race is a social construct, indicated throughout history, race is the number one indicator of difference between people. Being black in America, there is a time one has to understand one’s self through the race perspective to fulfill the identity of being black. Thus, through the importance of family, which comes a sense of belonging, consciousness is achieved by the person seeking understanding in one’s life, with the comprehension of racism and sexism.

Consciousness in the sense of blackness is the concept of “self-conscious[ness]” W.E.B. DuBois talks about in The Souls of Black Folk. In the chapter entitled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”, DuBois speaks of the Negro being “sort of [a] seventh son” which is “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world”. He reflects that this true self-consciousness is never true because of the twoness one faces while being American and black. This is continued by his explanation involved with  merging of the two selves, into a finer self that did not lose either self that has already been created; he simply wishes to be black as he still embraces his Americanism.

By merging the two selves, one still has to remember being black, is being American and not to offset that. DuBois wrote:

“[One should] not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. [One should] not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.”

The African diasporic experience within America is different from the motherland and its value of family. With the start of the slave trade, families were ripped apart due to the kidnapping of people from tribal Africa, the deaths on the Middle Passage sea-travel, and the selling of black bodies on auction blocks that took the East Coast hostage.

The family is a powerful factor within one’s life and to story of one’s own lineage is important. Through generations and generations of family, the story may be lost or the dream and creativity may be deferred. During slavery, art was lost due to the oppression within this caste system; thus, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, Alice Walker states that black women need to find their creativity since generations of women before them could not express themselves.

Walker recounts a trip to the Smithsonian Institute  in Washington, D.C. and she saw a unique quilt, made out of rags, that depicted the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. She describes her own thoughts in believing that the work was done by “a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” As she continues, she remembers that she inquired about the creator of this art piece and found out it was created by “an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago.” If one could locate the anonymous woman, Walker proclaims, that the woman could and would be one’s own grandmother, great-grandmother, etc.

Walker expresses that unlike rare situations such as “Ma” Rainey’s life being broadcasted through Bessie Smith’s mouth, black women story and creativity is never showcased; so therefore, black women need to find their mother’s gardens such as Walker did within her mother’s actual garden which is where this one generation of black woman, as Walker put it, because “she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible- except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.”

As Walker is a renowned Africana author, she outlines the importance of family within black womanhood. She understand that black cultural production has helped black lives through the times of unbearable sexism and racism; and to keep that lost artist alive, we must breakdown prior generations. Black women were “sexualized” artist turned Saint because “their bodies became shrines” and “what was thought to be their minds became temples suitable for worship” She continues by referring to black women of her mother and grandmother’s’ generations as Artists and Creators who “lived lives of spiritual waste”, because of their spirituality which is the starting point of Art. Therefore, for a black woman to be complete, she has to understand the lineage of the unwritten past to continue with the  importance of maternality with family. Due to this, one realizes that family is just a sense of belonging through experience.

A strong sense of belonging can come from years of being oppressed and mistreated and their a point when one realizes that. Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, he comes to terms with himself after years of oppression: by being black man working for a white man as a chauffeur and being racialized in everyday life, including housing. After the death of his father, the family is waiting to receive a refund check because of Papa Younger’s death, Walter is “worked up about the money”, like Mama Younger says, but Walter exclaims that with money, they can do anything because money “is life … [and] it was always money”, his family just didn’t know. With that, his mother rebutted and sid that in her time, the goal wasn’t to get “lynched and [to get] to the North” and that things have changed from her and his father’s time.

The lynching and getting to the North is in direct relation with racial violence following slavery, during the time period stamped as the Great Migration. Racial violence lead to blacks leaving the South for, what they hope, a better life in the North. Racial violence was in direct response to the fear of black intellectuals, if that be elites or the working class, woman or man. During this time of urbanization, the ideas of black and/or colorblind meritocracy is concocted during this time.

After a visit from Karl Linder, who’s a representative of the “Welcoming Committee” for the Clybourne Park Improvement Association (the association that runs the development the Younger’s new house is in. Linder informed the Younger family that “the people of Clybourne Park [believed] that for the happiness of all concerned, that [the] Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” After a little of high tensions, Walter and his sister, Beneatha, kick Linder out. Shortly after, Bobo (a friend of Walter and future invest partner) informs him that a third friend of theirs took the money for entrepreneurial store. Following this, his mother is saddened by the money gone that was for Walter’s personal use and Beneatha’s college education.

Continuing, Walter calls Linder to come back to the house and here is when Walter expresses himself and the understanding of  his family. Walter talks to Linder about the professions himself, his wife and mother do. He continues by remembering his father as a laborer most of his life, who almost killed a man for calling him a derogatory name and that the Younger family is full with pride. And Travis, his son, who “makes the sixth generation [of the] family in this country” and since Papa Younger earned every brick for them, they will move into the segregated housing community.

Here is when it is fully understood by Walter the importance of his family in comparison to belonging. Even though it is assumed Walter has always known the story of his family, he has never put it in reference to his family in a positive input. He understands the ways of racism, and how they shape the views of his own life of being a chauffeur to his family’s dream of being social mobile; which is indicated when they bought a house in a all-white middle class neighborhood. Walter has made that leap to showing that he belongs by reclaiming his status as a human since blacks were and have only been seen a property or just objects. This is similar within the discovery of lineage of Macon “Milkman” Dead III.

In Song of Solomon, Milkman is trying to find himself through unwritten history and secrets between the family. Throughout the novel, he discovers his ancestry and finds out that also has Native-American blood in his black veins through self-reflection of his pitted life and the adventures with his best friend turned foe, Guitar. After believing the tales of the town that Pilate, Milkman’s aunt, has a sack of gold, Guitar believes that Milkman took the sack (even though it’s known later that the sack as his grandfather’s bones in it). Milkman has been running away from Guitar since he’s been trying to kill him. At the end of the novel, Pilate is shot by Guitar after the burial of the bones. As soon as Pilate died, Milkman calls out for Guitar because he know he’s going to shoot him. Morrison writes:

“Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees- he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

From her own words, Morrison uses flight as either escape or confrontation. Throughout the whole novel, she uses this term for an escape route; however, she uses this metaphor to express how he took flight with courage following the achievement discovery his family lineage and history. Shalimar being the place his paternal family grew up, he connects his past with his present; therefore; Milkman, now has a sense of belonging in relation to his family. His newly complete family tree it was make him take that jump; regardless of the end result, his family and the relation to flight or fight tactic helps him fully create the self-consciousness he needs.

Nevertheless, one can see without the recognition of kinship and the recognition of how you fit into and why you fit, just leads to destruction of the person: physically, mentally and emotionally. Ann Petry’s The Street gives a realistic account of a black woman, Lutie Johnson, who is trying to find comfortable living conditions for herself, and even more for her son, Bub. Within the novel, while working for a wealthy white family named the Chandlers, she discovers her husband cheated on her; therefore, it became her trying to take care of her son the best way should due to the circumstances with that being- shelter, food, clothing, and the ways of the world. The remaining family, in Lutie’s eyes, is a dysfunctional one with her father, Pop, who used to make liquor; and his alcoholic girlfriend who smokes, Lil. Furthermore, even the family one develops after moving into a new neighborhood, was no family. She was plotted on the very moment she got on 116th Street: by Mrs. Hedges, a tenant and who runs a whore house, as well as Jones, the superintendent of the building. Both characters want her for her sexualized nature- Mrs. Hedges to get money for having this brothel; and Jones for his own sexual fantasies. Lutie does not have a sense of family even though people that are family through blood and bond, and even nearby residents. From this, she has no sense of belonging either because she doesn’t feel comfortable where she is.

At the beginning of the novel, she doesn’t understand how racism and sexism play into the roles of everyday life. As the novel progresses, she still questions why whites can develop so much wealth, and she doesn’t understand why she can’t do the same. Lutie believes in meritocracy, and for what she sees around her, it’s working for some people such as Boots Smith. She doesn’t know that Mr. Junto has ties with Boots (signs off on non-draft paperwork and pays Boots) as well as Mrs. Hedges (helps run bordello). Therefore, after Boots asks Lutie to come sing for the band and Mr. Junto tells Boots to not pay her but to convince her to sleep with him, this is following Bub going to jail because Jones framed Bub because of desire-turned-jealousy for Lutie. Because Lutie sees that the money as a way out and receive true self-consciousness (which she subconsciously believes is social mobility), she ends up killing Boots after he was forcing himself on her that night due to the fear Mr. Junto would successfully be able to sleep with Lutie.

As she is killing Boots, she is remembering all the things that have set her back in life: her husband, eyes of white men staring at her exotic self while hostility within the white women, music school for singing,  and the superintendent trying to kidnap her down to his basement. She takes the money that she was going to use for the lawyer to help for her son, and instead of going to the lawyer, she leaves town for she knows she was going to be charged with murder for this vicious slaying; leaving her young son to be in an orphanage and reform school. Lutie never had the sense of belonging and had no family to reinforce the relation.

Her lack of family and knowledge of belonging lead to her destruction, similar to Helga Crane in Quicksand by Nella Larsen. As she searches for comfortability, on continental and transcontinental platforms, she still is uncovering the ideas of the loose family she already had (mother wasn’t in life, her father died, uncle’s wife disowned her) and to reach out to develop her own intimate relationships (her old fiancée and Dr. Anderson). Helga, throughout the whole novel, is trying to find her harmony, similar to the status quo of her own life. Towards the end, she  meets a minister who she falls for, and later who she becomes pregnant by and gets severely sick after the birth of her baby. By the end of the novel she became married woman who was present just for reproduction; another woman seen as property or irrelevant . Helga never got to experience her true self. Seen through Helga and Lutie, understanding the discrimination of race and how that intersects with sexism, for women, alongside the importance of family can lead to true self-consciousness.

Furthermore, Nella Larsen novel was a loose construction of her own life. Nella Larsen’s real name is Nellie “Nella” Walker. Larsen’s father, Peter Walker, was born in the West Indies; and her mother, Mary Hanson was born in Denmark. After Larsen’s birth, her father disappeared and her mother remarried a white man by the name of Peter, with the last name Larsen. Ms. Hanson let Nella use the surname of Peter Larsen. At a young age, Larsen believed her father disappeared or even died; yet, documents show no new marriage license, thus proving that Peter passed as white. Later, her the remaining part of her immediate family went white, leaving Larsen to be seen as the “awkward stepdaughter” of the family. The emotional toll is shown through Larsen’s writing within the plot and storyline of Quicksand; and in the overall theme of Passing (1929). Passing is about three women who all pass on different accords: Irene Redfield identifies as black, Gertrude Martin passes occasionally, even though she is married to a white man; and Clare Kendry passes all the time. The mulatto theme in these novels reflect Larsen overall troubling concern with her blackness and merging the two selves of her blackness and Americanism. Without her sense of belonging and family, her twoness is still problematic, but not as like Lutie because Larsen herself grasps misogynoir.

Family is everything when it comes down to the diaspora of Africa and the culture laid out before it. Understanding the importance of black family, its ancestors and history, while understanding racism, and if you’re a woman, discrimination due to your gender, will lead to a truer self in a divided world. The truer self is the self-consciousness that plays a part into the daily lives and how to interpret one’s life. One achieves complete “oneness” when they decipher the ways of discrimination and how their family: far or near, dead or alive, real or not real; has created and DuBois says, so it won’t be “Greek to his own flesh and blood.”

Works Cited

  1. DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. Pocket Books, 2005.
  2. Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: with Related Readings. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  3. Larsen, Nella, and Nella Larsen. Quicksand ; and, Passing. Serpents Tail, 1989.
  4. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Vintage Books, 2016.
  5. Petry, Ann. The Street. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
  6. Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

[Written for Dr. Piper Williams’ African-American Literature (1920-1980): May 12, 2017]

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