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On "third consciousness" in the fiction of Richard Wright.

RICHARD WRIGHT is well-known in the history of American literature for his protest fiction. An essential figure in the development of African American literature, influencing such authors as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Wright has been called one of the most powerful writers of the twentieth century. The central characters in his fiction are usually bitter, alienated black men, and his treatment of their experience provides a vivid portrayal of both the economic and psychological effects of racism.

In his The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the famous historian and essayist W.E.B. Du Bois points out that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" (xxxi) and then he sums up the experiences of black Americans and advances the concept of the duality of the African-American identity, expressed in his related metaphor of "double-consciousness." African Americans are caught between the white and black cultures and forced into miserable living conditions. The concept of double-consciousness is used to describe the sorrowful psyche of American blacks in their life. Actually, Du Bois's theory of double-consciousness is reflected in the fiction of Wright. Du Bois reveals the racial circumstances and the problems existing in American society, while Wright illustrates Du Bois's theory in his fiction, points out the racial crisis in American society, and warns whites of the oncoming danger. Rather than the double-consciousness, which Du Bois speaks of as a double-edged attribute of black Americans, Wright develops a triple characteristic: his very strong sense of himself, his freedom to control that self, and his double awareness of the two cultural milieus in which that self has to exist. The American literary critic Eugene E. Miller mentions in his Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright that "His titanic impulse was to expropriate the three rather than to be expropriated by them. Only in his agony to shape these could his self be perpetuated" (xx). Hence, what Wright advocates here is to establish and maintain the self in black people's double-consciousness and thus he expands Du Bois's theory of twoness. Wright's concept of three-ness is conducive to black people's restoration of self-awareness in the conflicting process of double-consciousness. Apparently, Wright develops Du Bois's theory in his revelation of the tripartite division of a self facing two cultures. Du Bois claims that blacks have lost their "selves" in the assimilation of white culture both before and after Emancipation, but in his fiction Wright shows that some of the blacks in the early half of the twentieth century had attained their self-awareness in the process of acculturation. Hence, we argue that Wright's fiction not only reflects the double-consciousness of most black people, but also the triple-consciousness of some of the blacks.

TRIPLE-CONSCIOUSNESS consists of three components: black heritage and culture, white heritage and culture, and the third consciousness. The third consciousness, growing out of the blacks' striving for integration into white society, includes the following aspects: the will to survive physically and spiritually, the quest for selfhood, the pursuit of manhood, the manipulation of subjective initiative, and the desire for self-expression, self-fulfillment, and violent self-assertion. The third consciousness is a new consciousness, as well as a spirit, formed in the black people's striving for a better life and self-realization in the racist society. This new consciousness is coexistent with the old double-consciousness in the mind of rebellious blacks, so they usually have a duality in their attitudes toward life and society. On the one hand, they, confined by their double-consciousness, are timid and submissive before whites; and on the other hand, they rebel against whites when their own life is in danger. These blacks' counterattack against the society at the impetus of this consciousness might be violent, destructive and even heinous. However, their manhood can only be established in this violent way because of the intense racial oppression in American society. Hence, the third consciousness of the blacks is more constructive than destructive. It may be harmful to the safety and harmony of the white society, but it can lead to the formation of blacks' new identity and the attainment of courage and confidence in their battle with the white racists. Thus, the third consciousness indeed reflects the psyche of a number of intelligent, courageous and rebellious blacks in Wright's fiction, but it does not appear in the minds of all his black characters. Blacks may be able to establish their self-conscious manhood after their attainment of the third consciousness in the process of acculturation. In his fiction, Wright highlights the importance of the third consciousness in blacks' social life.

WRIGHT'S AWARENESS of the blacks' self is derived from his personal observations and from his experience of black life both in the South and the North of America. Wright makes a persistent commitment to his lifelong, identity-defining struggle with the two cultures that mark his existence. Yet both of these cultures are inveterately ingrained in his character. Wright is not uncritical of the two cultures that exist not only outside himself but also within his psychological make-up. Thus, he writes about black identity in his fiction, and argues that most of blacks are still troubled by the conflict in their double conscious mind and are confined to a naturalistic existence, although some of them become awakened and start to struggle for the establishment of their manhood and selfhood. The awakening of these blacks leads to the formation of a third consciousness in their mind. This third consciousness is an embodiment of a new spirit Wright portrays in the lives of his major black characters. It evolves from Wright's concept of self and expands Du Bois's concept of manhood.

THE THIRD CONSCIOUSNESS of the black has five major functions. Firstly, it helps to modulate the relationship between his assimilated white culture and his preserved African root culture. When his assimilation of the white culture has the advantage, he is more westernized in his ideology and his behavior, whereas, when his adherence to the African root culture takes the upper hand, he has a stronger sense of black pride. Secondly, the third consciousness helps to shape a black's preference for the assimilated white cultural elements. Thus, he can adopt the white cultural elements which he appreciates most according to his personal need or life experience. Thirdly, this third consciousness produces a staunch spirit of survival and a strong longing for a better life which acts as the "dogged strength" to keep "the dark body" from "being torn asunder" (Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 3) in the intense conflict in the blacks' double-consciousness. Fourthly, the third consciousness encourages blacks to maximize their interests and to pursue their American dreams. And fifthly, the third consciousness motivates blacks to fight back against whites by self-assertion in spite of law and moral codes when their pursuit of self-fulfillment and their desire for their integration into the mainstream American society are met with strong repulsion by racist whites in America. The third consciousness of blacks can be intensified after incessant acculturation, and it becomes the motivating force in their strivings for the realization of their African-American dreams.

In general, the black characters in Wright's fiction are entrapped in what Du Bois calls "double-consciousness" in The Souls of Black Folk; they fall prey to racism, lose their manhood and selfhood, and end up leading a hopeless life. More importantly, Wright describes in his fiction a new type of character who attains a third level of consciousness in the process of acculturation into the white society. At the instigation of this new consciousness, the characters who share this third consciousness begin to rebel against racism. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that Wright's fiction provides a fictional illustration of Du Bois's theory of double-consciousness, and there is some theoretical justification in following the trail Du Bois has blazed. Du Bois's theory of double-consciousness is one of the important theories used in African-American criticism. The concept of triple-consciousness underlying Wright's fiction not only expands and develops Du Bois's theory, but also contributes greatly to African-American criticism. Thus, I will study the third consciousness in Wright's fiction from the perspective of African-American criticism. I base my analysis of Wright's fiction on the theory of double-consciousness advanced by Du Bois, and the concept of triple-consciousness which, I believe, Wright reveals in a number of major black characters in his fiction.

BLACKS' overwhelming assimilation of the white culture hastens the decline of their African root culture and brings about their desires for manhood, selfhood and self-fulfillment in the white society. Blacks' struggle for the realization of these desires and the removal of spiritual hunger is the motivating force which leads to the appearance of a new consciousness built on their double-consciousness. The new consciousness, which I term the "third consciousness," comes into being in their minds after they have been exposed to the experiences as follow: their resentment against society, their unbelief in religion, their unsubmissiveness to their parents' repression, their challenge to law, and the gradual formation of their existentialist ideology. The third consciousness is the outcome of the psycho-social and socio-political experiences of some rebellious and brave African Americans in the acculturative process, based on their final awareness of their selves. The appearance of the third consciousness in their minds is their natural and normal reaction to a hopeless future in a racist society and demonstrates blacks' intolerance of their fate as second-class citizens. The violent self-assertion caused by these blacks' third consciousness may be destructive, harmful and dangerous to the society, but it leads to the establishment of their manhood and selfhood and encourages them to engage in their strivings for racial equality and social justice. The third consciousness can be considered the final eruption of these blacks' suppressed shame, rage, and hatred in their victimized double-conscious life. It can be assumed that the third consciousness is formed and fermented in the intense clashes between the white and black cultures within their minds. Hence, the third consciousness, combined with the double-consciousness advanced by Du Bois, constitutes the triple-consciousness, of the new psyche of some brave and rebellious blacks Wright portrays in his fiction.

RESENTMENT is the initial stage of the fermentation of the third consciousness. In Native Son, Bigger's and Gus's resentment of the white world can be perceived in their complaints. Bigger says:

"They don't let you do nothing."


"The white folks."

"You talk like you just finding that out," Gus said.

"Naw. But I just can't get used to it," Bigger said. "I swear to God I can't. I know I oughtn't think about it, but I can't help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I'm on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence. (17)

Bigger unveils the different social conditions in the white and black worlds. His feeling of "somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat" displays the hidden resentment in his heart and his intolerance of white racism. His resentment is further intensified by his anger at the racial segregation and the whites' limiting of blacks' self-realization:

"Aw, for Chrissakes! There ain't nothing you can do about it. How come you want to worry yourself? You black and they make the laws ..."

"Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don't they let us fly planes and run ships ..."

Gus punched Bigger with his elbow and mumbled good-naturedly, "Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You'll go nuts." (17)

Bigger tells Gus that his hatred of whites has been hidden in his heart and troubling him for a long time. "That's when I feel like something awful's going to happen to me ... It's like I was going to do something I can't help" (19). The "something" Bigger cannot control refers to the possible occurrence of the third consciousness in his mind at an unexpected moment, like an active volcano.

ALL THE MAJOR black characters in Wright's fiction are disillusioned with religion. It is best expressed in the examples of Bigger, Cross, and Fishbelly in their relations with their pious mothers. In Native Son, Mrs. Thomas, Bigger's mother, advises Bigger to believe in God in the prison.

"Listen! Son ... when ain't nobody round you, when you alone, get on your knees and tell God everything. Ask Him to guide you. That's all you can do now. Son, Promise me you'll go to Him." (254)

Although he has a deep need for "certainty and faith," the forms of religion available to him have been degraded to the point where they can offer him only cheap illusion rather than genuine belief (109). He scorns the fundamentalist religion of his mother and Reverend Hammond, Mrs. Thomas's black minister, because he feels it has produced spiritual impoverishment, resulting in blacks' acceptance of dehumanized roles of submissiveness (Butler, Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero, 114). In The Outsider, Cross Damon's deeply religious mother delivers frequent "Preachments" about his being "a self-centered libertine" with a "lust for pleasure," who is "reaping the wages of sin" (389). Mrs. Damon's religious threats and advice sound sickening to Cross and evoke an inverse psychological reaction. Thus, he runs away from his mother and his family to pursue his total freedom, regardless of any damage done to others.

Furthermore, in The Long Dream, young Fishbelly's mother, Emma, endlessly exhorts her son to "turn his back upon the snares of the flesh, and seek the Kingdom of Heaven" (82). However, the white acculturation of human equality makes Fishbelly turn a deaf ear to his mother, so he tries to seek the possible chance to possess a white woman because in his mind, making love to a white woman would mean his manhood and masculinity were really established. In a nutshell, all three "heroes," Bigger, Cross and Fishbelly, reject religion simply because in a complex modern society it functions only as a ritual, and offers only irrational escape or blind flight from reality. The three men have now severed themselves from the last remnants of religious influence. They have become not only rugged individualists, but the willed creators of their present and future in a chaotic and hostile world. In order to seek their freedom, they get rid of religious hindrances and safeguard their interests in the fermentation of their third consciousness.

WHITE OPPRESSION and racial discrimination will surely compel blacks to challenge the laws of white society and so contribute to the formation of their third consciousness. From Bigger's killing of a rat in the first scene of Native Son until his last, bitter smile to his retreating lawyer, "Bigger Thomas acts as the eternal man in revolt, a type of devil or badman hero who attempts to subvert society by refusing to heed its dictates" (Baker, "Racial Wisdom and Richard Wright's Native Son" (77). Bigger is a typical representative of the dispossessed blacks who look upon law and justice, not as protectors of human rights, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by white men who have little interest in black people; blacks are executed by white men who have never thought of treating black people with courtesy or consideration; and, finally, "the accused law-breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let one guilty one escape" (Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks, 123). Bigger, Cross, Tyree and Fishbelly can hardly abide by the white law, so they are always considered "criminals" or "evil persons" by the white people.

WRIGHT REVEALS that existentialistic ideas re acquired by his major black characters not from lectures on philosophy, but from their own black experiences in the harsh and hostile social environments, with the exception of Cross Damon, who draws upon existentialist ideas both from his philosophical books and his miserable black life. If a black does not want to live a social death, his instinct for a better life will give rise to the innate existentialistic impulse in the struggle for his due rights. His existentialistic thought will clear the way for his self-realization and self-fulfillment. To some extent, we may say blacks are innate existentialists. Bigger Thomas's final stance in Native Son, for example, is as existential as Cross Damon's primary stance in The Outsider. The fundamental conditions of black life in America lead Bigger and Cross to see that moral values can scarcely he operating in the great scheme of events; the quest for value in Native Son and The Outsider, therefore, does not extend beyond the choices of an individual man with his mind set on the pursuit of freedom and human rights. In The Long Dream, Tyree sets as his goal the earning of money and the enlargement of his business at the expense of his black dignity and pride. However, when his property is endangered by the white society, his third consciousness reacts promptly and comes into flame quickly at the impetus of the positive acculturated white belief of equal rights under the law.

In short, the positive effects of acculturation cause a stir in the double-consciousness of the major black characters in Wright's fiction, and these positive effects facilitate their formation of a third consciousness which impels the transformation from double-consciousness to triple-consciousness in their life. This new consciousness, combining itself with double-consciousness, constitutes the triple-consciousness reflected in the blacks' psyche as their response to their relations with the whites.

IT WAS CLEAR to all that, since the Great Migration, American blacks in the Northern and Southern cities have experienced much more intensive exposure to white patterns of behavior and thinking than those in any parts of the Southern rural areas. The acculturation of the black characters in Wright's fiction reveals the Americanized process by which they are enabled to encounter more, to assimilate more, and to know more of the dominant white culture. Acculturation has an overwhelming impact on many of Wright's black characters, and it leads to the appearance of triple-consciousness in the minds of some intelligent and rebellious blacks. The more the blacks absorb in the acculturative process, the less they adhere to their African root culture. The positive assimilation of white culture enables blacks to establish a self-identity much like the whites; it allows them to become aware of the predicament posed by their double-conscious identity, and it stimulates the formation of a third consciousness which functions importantly in their strivings for racial equality and social justice. Their acculturation results in their alienation from their own culture. Inculcated with Western values, but then denied the privileges and equal treatment that these values should have accorded, they gain a critical perspective toward the society that excludes them:

They represented the only bastions of Western thought beyond the confines of the West, the only chance for rationality to prevail over the forces of racism and religion in these areas of the world. (Cobb, Richard Wright and the Third World, 236)

The blacks who have achieved the third consciousness will also meet with a lot of social problems that might trouble them in their black life.

IN HIS GRAPHIC, often brutal accounts of victimized blacks, Wright reveals the dehumanizing effects of racism, and brings to light the physical and psychological torment produced by racial segregation and racial discrimination. His fiction centers on alienated, socially castrated black men who have been denied freedom and personal identity. The sharp contrast between the ideals of these blacks and their reality generates enormous tension in their triple-consciousness, and this tension usually leads to their self-assertion and their eventual self-fulfillment in spite of law and social convention. The acculturation of the blacks in the first half of the twentieth century compelled some blacks to form the third consciousness, which empowered them in their constant struggle for a more egalitarian society and a better life.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr. "Racial Wisdom and Richard Wright's Native Son." In Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Yoshinobu Hakutani, ed. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Cobb, Nina Kressner. "Richard Wright and the Third World." In Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Yoshinobu Hakutani, ed. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam, 1989.

Miller, Eugene E. Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1957.

--. The Outsider. New York: Bantam, 1972.

--. The Long Dream. New York: Bantam, 1969.
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Author:Xu, Chen
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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