Academic journal article African American Review

The Double Truth, Ruth: 'Do the Right Thing' and the Culture of Ambiguity

Academic journal article African American Review

The Double Truth, Ruth: 'Do the Right Thing' and the Culture of Ambiguity

Article excerpt

In "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," the famous first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois ascribes to the African-American consciousness what he perceives to be a fundamental "two-ness." This "double-consciousness . . . two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body" (3), is an effect of the contradictory positioning of African-American culture within the dominant social order of "white Americanism" (4). On the one hand, American democratic capitalism promotes to its ethnic constituents its promise of economic opportunity, material satisfaction, and social justice. On the other, it consistently fails to grant black Americans full and equal access to the socioeconomic structures upon which the fruits of this promise depend.

As Du Bois describes it, this political condition, a consequence of pressures exterior to the black community, creates a corresponding interior dilemma for African-Americans who achieve authority in American culture despite its institutionalized racism. Which of two competing allegiances does one serve? One's loyalty to the black community, which would benefit profoundly from one's acquired expertise in engaging white America? Or one's duty to one's own future, ironically linked to the esteem of a majority culture violently inimical to the minority community of which one is a part?

In The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, composed some ten years after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, James Weldon Johnson likewise identifies "a sort of dual personality" which "every coloured man" has "in proportion to his intellectuality," a "dualism" which persists both "in the freemasonry of his own race" and "in the presence of white men" (2122). And like Du Bois, Johnson's hero feels a dichotomy at the core of his ambition: "Was it more a desire to help those I considered my people, or more a desire to distinguish myself . . .?" (147).

Du Bois calls this dilemma "the waste of double aims," a "seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals" (5) which can never be reconciled. The powerfully unitary pull of responsibility to community and responsibility to self, when configured as oppositional by a racist symbolic order, must inevitably become self-destructive. Thus, sublated in this polarized crisis of responsibility is an equivalently polarized crisis of identity.

Cornel West has argued that it is precisely this perceived crisis of identity, this "sense of double-consciousness," which led "anxiety-ridden, middle-class Black intellectuals" such as Du Bois and Johnson to construe the African-American cultural experience in terms of "simplistic binary oppositions" that forced black attempts at personal and political liberation to "remain inscribed within the very logic that dehumanized them" (72). The implication of West's critique is that the cultural logic of "double-consciousness," as it was promulgated by the intellectuals of the modern black diaspora and as it has been inherited by contemporary African-American culture, consigns that culture to an untenable role within the American capitalist symbolic order. It dooms the African-American subject to a literally "entrepreneurial" purgatory, eternally situated between the oppositional terms of a complex hierarchy of antinomies which by definition can never be resolved. This weft of irreconcilable binarisms is constituted by the ideologies and oppositional counter-ideologies which govern the subject's relation to the hegemonic socioeconomic order, to the strategies of resistance conceived to combat this order, to the strategies of survival necessary when this resistance is compromised, and to the subject's own evolving sense of identity, inextricable as it is from this intricate fabric of relations.

Do the Right Thing, produced in 1989, is director Spike Lee's attempt to explore the human particularity of this system of binarisms and the culturally entrepreneurial situation of the African-American subject within it. …

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