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EMBRACING THE NEGATIVE: NATIVE SON AND INVISIBLE MAN Jerry Wasserman" Ralph Ellison has said that the search for identity " is the American theme";1 it has certainly also been the primary theme of Afro-American literature. But the black man's search for identity does not begin with a tabuh rasa, nor does it occur in a vacuum. The historical reality of the American experience has demanded that the black writer or character create a legitimate identity for himself amid a dominant white culture that prescribes his existence in negative and often contradictory terms. How does one relate to oneself and others when he is told that he is stupid, lazy, good-humored, simple, dishonest, immoral, lustful, and potentially savage, even murderous, when he knows that he is seen as such a being and is expected to see himself in the same way? In R. D. Laing's words: The others tell one who one is. Later one endorses, or tries to discard, the ways the others have defined one. It is difficult not to accept their story. One may try not to be what one "knows" one is, in one's heart of hearts. One may try to tear out from oneself this "alien" identity one has been endowed with or condemned to, and create by one's own actions an identity for oneself, which one tries to force others to confirm. Whatever its particular subsequent vicissitudes, however, one's first social identity is conferred on one. We learn to be whom we are told we are.2 As Laing suggests, there are a number of ways of confronting this problem, and Black literature has dealt with them all. One may reject the stereotype completely and transcend the role imposed by white society by finding identity in one's own talent and humanity—as in the autobiographical writings of Baldwin, Wright, Cleaver—or in a communal sense of racial pride, as in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Or one may accept the role superficially, for the sake of "getting along," and inure oneself to the pain of a schizophrenic existence. A whole range of private lives is possible behind the public mask of "good nigger," from weary resignation to the telling irony of Charles W. Chestnutt's Uncle Julius to the burning but passive hatred of a number of minor figures in 'Professor Wasserman teaches English at the University of British Columbia. He has edited a book on Dostoevsky and published articles on Rabelais, Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. 94Jerry Wasserman Wright's Bhck Boy to the covert machiavellianism of EUison's Dr. Bledsoe. Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright's Native Son and EUison's Invisible Man, however, discover what might be termed an existential solution to this dilemma. Unable to reject, ignore, or superficially accept the way whites see them, they finally resolve the problem of identity by embracing freely and in full consciousness exactly that negative and stereotyped idea of "blackness" with which white society has endowed them. "What is important," Sartre writes in his study of Genet, "is not what people make of us but what we ourselves make of what they have made of us."3 Only by choosing as the terms of their own existence the same terms by which they have been negatively defined can these characters free themselves from the determining forces of environment and ultimately find their way to a more complete and positive redefinition of their identities. Or to rephrase Kierkegaard: the black character brings himself into existence as a free being with an identity he has given himself by choosing in despair the self which white society has imposed upon him.4 Sartre has seen this as an ongoing historical situation, and he provides illuminating parallels to the experiences of Bigger and the Invisible Man. It is the typical reaction of all groups of untouchables . . . when they have achieved sufficient self-awareness to oppose their oppressors without having the means of imposing a change in their status . . . [to] think only of demanding that they be integrated into the society which rejects them. But when they have realized that it rejects them forever, they themselves assume the ostracism of which...


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pp. 93-104
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