SOURCE: Smith, David L. “Walter Mosley's Blue Light: (Double Consciousness) squared.” Extrapolation 42, no. 1 (spring 2001): 7-26.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses Blue Light in terms of the intersection of transcendental thought and the African American experience, arguing that Blue Light's lukewarm critical reception was a result of reviewers not recognizing the work as “a novel of ideas.”]
In a pre-publication blurb for the first edition of Walter Mosley's Blue Light, Jonathan Lethem characterized the novel as a piece of “urban transcendentalism” (dust jacket). It's hard to tell how seriously this was intended—Lethem went on to imagine the book with a soundtrack by George Clinton. Nevertheless, with just a little refocusing, the phrase provides a reliable guide to the book's deepest themes. For “transcendentalism,” we can read “Transcendentalism”: a specific vision of human nature, human possibilities, and human limitations with roots in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Urban,” in turn, should be read according to the current lexicon of racial code words as “black,” pointing to the book's specifically African American take on how human possibilities get limited.
I propose to take these suggestions seriously, and to show in the process how Mosley's novel stands in relation to two of the strongest traditions in American writing. On the one hand, Mosley echoes the spiritual vision of Transcendentalism, with its particular approach to the possibilities of human development and the ironies of fulfillment. On the other, he participates in an African American tradition of reflection on human potential and its pitfalls—a tradition that intensifies Transcendental irony and grounds it in social experience. The achievement of Blue Light is the way it brings these visions into conversation, working at once as a speculative novel about the human spirit and as a novel about race, allowing each line of thought to deepen and comment on the other.
As we shall see, by thus placing racial realism against a wider horizon of spiritual aspiration, Mosley's work recalls some of the later reflections of James Baldwin, who developed his own version of “urban transcendentalism” by way of Harlem Pentecostalism. As Baldwin wrote in his 1984 introduction to a reprint of Notes of a Native Son, “My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting; my birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance” (Collected Essays 810). First, that is, there is a horizon of infinite possibility that requires cosmic rhetoric to do it justice (the sense of eternal connection to “all that lives”); but then there is history, the “inheritance,” the particular conditions of life in the body, in time and place. The two would seem to exclude each other, to cancel each other out. And yet, the deeper realization is that they are interrelated. There is no birthright apart from the inheritance—no Life apart from the particular life that at once nurtures and undermines our desire for something more. The dilemma is one discovered in various ways by writers working the vein of Transcendentalist spirituality and by writers working the territory of race. Mosley, in Blue Light, is doing both at once, with results that repay careful attention.
By taking Blue Light seriously as a novel of ideas, I also hope to clear the air of some of the disparagement cast by its early journalistic reviewers. Blue Light was a radical departure from Mosley's popular work in the detective genre, and so it drew fire from critics who had come to rely on Mosley for a kind of predictable African American “realism”—tours of street life “giving white people glimpses of black life we rarely could otherwise see” (Prager).1 Mosley's turn to science fiction broke free from these expectations, and it was motivated by his desire to do precisely that.2 He has often said in interviews and published essays that as long as black writers perform their assigned task as tour guides through black neighborhoods, they never get beyond a world defined by white interests. They “end up writing about racism, and that means they end up writing about White people” (Whetstone 106). Science fiction, however, allows black authors to break out of this box—to entertain “possibility, alternative lives and even revenge,” and thus to “shout down the realism imprisoning us behind a wall of alienating culture” (“Black to the Future” 32).
The reviewers' pique over Mosley's decision to write a novel of ideas is thus understandable. In a sense, they were right to feel betrayed, because by writing Blue Light. Mosley was quite consciously stepping out of his place. What should bother us more, however, is the reviewers' subsequent refusal to engage with Mosley's ideas. The book's philosophy is brushed off as “New Age posturing” (Judah) or as “generic, acid perceptions of the 60's.” The speeches of its characters are dismissed as “pseudo-sagacities” (Daynard). While Carolyn See in The Washington Post noted a similarity between Mosley's metaphysics and Emerson's, this too was presented as a reason not to take Mosley seriously. (Emerson had already “covered much of the same material.”) As I hope to show, however, this sort of critical impatience does not do Mosley justice. In any case, conclusions about who is “posturing” and whose wisdom is “pseudo” should wait on closer examination of the texts. It is time to stop dwelling on what Blue Light is not and to begin coming to terms more honestly with what it has to say.
The first set of connections I want to explore, then, links Mosley to American Transcendentalism, and to Emerson in particular. The relationship proposed here is not one of direct literary influence. Mosley may have derived some ideas from reading Emerson. He may have come by some of the same ideas indirectly, for as scholars have repeatedly affirmed, Emerson's influence pervades the atmosphere of American letters.3 Then again, Mosley may have found his material in some of the same sources that shaped Emerson himself: the broad currents of religious thought variously called Hermetic, Orphic, Gnostic, Esoteric, Harmonial, Metaphysical, and Perennial.4 Arcane as the labels may sound, such traditions are very much “in the air” of American culture. They represent a way of thinking about nature and human life which, although “alternative” with respect to “official” Biblical models, is actually widely shared.5 In any case, it appears to me that Mosley has been drawn to a vision of the human spiritual condition that is remarkably similar to Emerson's and, moreover, that the two writers have worked out the “logic” of this vision—the paradoxes of its application to life—in strikingly similar ways.
We need to begin with the “blue light” itself—the thing, the event, and the experience that initiates and structures Mosley's story. According to the book's frame-myth, blue light is the organizing principle of all life. More specifically, it is itself a life-form that evolved long ago around a distant star. When its home world cooled and died, this life/energy disseminated itself throughout the universe as packets of light, beams of pure information, a kind of electromagnetic DNA. Wherever the light struck a planet, it organized matter according to the complex musical patterns of the information encoded in it, and life was seeded. Living things, accordingly, echo the structure of the light that engendered them in their own essential nature, or synecdochically in their “blood.”
Once life is seeded it can also receive a fresh impetus from its source. Subsequent beams of light may arrive on planets where life has taken root, now no longer simply at random but drawn by the emerging music of self-organization. Living things that receive the light—seeing or otherwise absorbing it—immediately recognize it as a reminder of their own essential nature and as a call to self-realization. Light comes to the children of light, “like Sunday school in a flashlight,” as one character in the novel remarks (148). Deep calls unto deep, bringing with it an impetus to life's fuller flourishing and a reminder of the cosmic heritage that all life shares—in general, awakening things to become more fully what they already are.6 “We are the seeds,” says Nesta Vine, one of the characters struck by the light, “just seeds waiting for water in order to grow” (149). And the water, in Mosley's story, is light. The arrival of one such shower of revivifying sparks, and the consequent enlightenment of various humans, dogs, insects, fish, and plants in the San Francisco Bay area in August 1965, is what gets Mosley's story off the ground.
This piece of the myth, however, is really only background. A more complete answer to the question “what is blue light?” will have to consider both the later unfolding of the story and the broader connotations of “blue light” as an image. Perhaps a few of the latter are worth noting here. For example, readers of science fiction will immediately see a parallel between Mosley's “blue light” and Philip Dick's “pink light,” the agent of the awakening of “Horselover Fat,” the principal character in Valis, and a symbolic representation of the experiences that led to what Dick called his own spiritual “resurrection.”7 Like blue light, Dick's pink light is a beam of pure information that unlocks buried memories and opens vistas on the meaningfulness of the world. As Fat puts it, “All creation is a language and nothing but a language which for some inexplicable reason we can't read outside and can't hear inside” (Dick 23). Seeing the pink light restores those lost capacities.
The parallel between Dick's light and Mosley's light is so close, in fact, that it mainly serves to call attention to Mosley's decision to make his light blue. The point of that decision—the meaning of “blue” for Mosley—is indicated by several reference points established in his writing. For example, in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the novel published immediately prior to Blue Light, young Socrates Fortlow recalls a conversation with his aunt about the color of God. God is not white or black, she tells him. “Naw. God's blue. … Blue like the ocean. Blue. Sad and cold and far away like the sky is far and blue. You got to go a long long way to get to God. And even if you get there he might not say a thing. Not a damn thing” (114). Blue, then, is at once an infinite horizon of possibility like the sea or the sky (where the light comes from, “out of the blue”), and also something cold, remote, and inhuman. It attracts our desire, but the fulfillment it gives is sad, ironic, empty.
A bit more far-fetched, but immediately relevant to the world of the book, is the fact that blue was the color of several of the more notorious varieties of LSD circulating in California around the time Mosley's story is set (“blue cheer,” “Owsley blue”).8 Several of the book's main characters are serious users of psychedelics, and insofar as Blue Light can be read as an allegory of the spiritual ferment of the Bay Area in the 1960s, it is certainly true that many people in that time and place were getting their religion “out of the blue.”
Above all, though, “blue” represents the blues, the African American art form that was Mosley's primary subject in his first work of “literary” fiction, R. L.'s Dream. A song by Robert Johnson, the presiding spirit of the earlier novel, is heard on the radio by Blue Light's narrator, Chance, making this connection explicit. “The blue light is my blues, the red light is my mind,” sings Johnson (57-58).9 Moreover, in the jargon of the novel, “the Blues” refers to the people who have seen the light, the people whose lives are most deeply transformed. Blue light communicates the blues by communicating itself. And this, in turn, suggests another connection. If the blues is preeminently the music of black identity and consciousness, then there is also something identifiably “black” about the consciousness imparted by blue light. More precisely, the identity issues that blue light creates when it enters the world of twentieth-century America closely parallel the issues of black Americans coming to consciousness there.
First, however, we need to unpack some of the religious ideas implied in the small part of the book's frame-myth that has already been sketched. In this connection, the story of the origins of blue light makes a fairly straightforward point: the life of every person—of everything living, in fact—is consubstantial with the creative principle of the universe itself, one with the creative impulse that the blue light manifests. Blue light is not the creative force behind the material universe, and so it does not fill the Biblical role of Creator ex niliho. Nevertheless, it is an impulse to life arising directly out of material nature, continuous with it, and by implication, an expression of its inherent potential.
This points to some important differences between Mosley's cosmology and the Biblical model, especially with regard to the relation between human life and the universe. In the Bible, human life derives from God but does not partake directly of His nature. Human nature is at most a reflection or “image” of the divine. Here, however, the Mind that organizes all life in the universe—the Mind that emerges from the self-organizing properties of matter itself—is one with the human mind. We may not fully realize the grandeur of our birthright, but we have the potential to expand our awareness, to incorporate more of the information carried by the light, and so to become one with Mind, God in microcosm. In all this, Mosley's vision shows a clear kinship with Hermetic cosmologies and homegrown American metaphysical movements, from Transcendentalism to New Thought to the New Age. The distinguishing feature of all these groups has been a world-affirming emphasis on continuity between Mind in nature and the human mind, and thus on the potential of each individual to become God.10
Accordingly, while Mosley's novel frequently associates blue light with God, it also explicitly distinguishes the light from the familiar God of the Bible. For example, according to Ordé, the book's philosopher/preacher figure, blue light is “Not God, but life. Not lies or hopes or dreams. Nothing that is to come later, but right now. Right now. Here” (28). When Ordé hears “God,” that is, he hears the connotations of “other” and “beyond” that are carried by the Biblical creation story. “God” is a metaphysically transcendent being to whom we can relate only as something remote. We reach out to such a God through hopes, dreams, and historical expectations, or failing that, as Ordé implies, by building bridges of lies. What the light has revealed to Ordé, however, is an ultimacy that is inherent in our nature, intrinsic to life itself. The completion we yearn for is thus already here, potential within us.
And this, in turn, points to another significant shift in the logic of the book's religious thought. A remote God can be reached only by means of a journey, a quest. Images of spiritual life as a quest have accordingly come to dominate most Western thinking about religion. The more appropriate metaphor for what blue light brings, however, is “awakening”—a sudden or gradual realization of things already present, “Right now. Here.” This point is made with great delicacy in a passage where Chance describes his own partial awakening by reference to a time when he, as a child, first learned to identify certain blurry forms on the horizon as mountains. “All I could make out was ‘far away’ and colors. But as [my mother] kept explaining and pointing, I slowly made out the mountains she described. The elation I felt at realizing mountains for the first time was a weak emotion compared with what Ordé made me feel there in the darkness” (29). The transformation that comes, in other words, is not a matter of new facts being revealed, but of coming to see the world for what it always is. If this truth seems elusive, it is because of its subtlety, its vanishing pervasiveness—not because it involves anything literally hidden or remote. “Ordé's words brought me visions of a place between things. A space that is smaller than an atom but that still encompasses everything in existence” (44).
As already noted, this set of spiritual premises—the oneness of human life and the life of the universe, divine immanence, and metaphysical non-dualism—has many antecedents and possible sources. One of the more proximate for an American writer, however, is Emerson, who has our attention here. For Emerson, as in Mosley's story, spiritual life begins in moments of awakening or insight, in the “few real hours of life” set apart from ordinary consciousness by their intensity, power, and intrinsic authority (Collected Works 1:90). What such moments reveal, however, is not a remote being or an alien will, but the essential divinity or infinitude within us. Such moments, Emerson says, are “divine and deifying.” As soon as he invokes the divine, however, Emerson adds a caveat that anticipates Ordé's “not God, but life.” Through such moments, Emerson writes, “the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another,—by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself” (1:79).
Moreover, Emerson sometimes places this vision of human potential in a mythic frame that resembles that of Blue Light in important respects. In “Nature,” he tells the story of how Man becomes “a god in ruins … a dwarf of himself. … Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. … [But now] he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. … Yet sometimes he starts in his slumber, and wonders at himself and his house, and muses strangely at the resemblance betwixt him and it” (1:42). According to this tale, that is, humanity was originally one with all things. Human life is universal life. Mysteriously, however, we are now “shrunk” to a state of blinking alienation, a half-life in which we only dimly remember our original relation to the universe. Occasionally, though, there come moments of insight—stirrings of memory or odd flashes of meaning—that alert us to both the tragedy of our diminishment and the possibility of recovery.
It is important to note that Emerson does not represent this cosmological story as his own, but as the gift of a certain “Orphic poet” (1:42). That is, by distancing himself from the account, Emerson shows that he is not committed to the literal particulars of this cosmology, any more than Mosley is committed to the objective truth of his frame myth. What is important about the story. In each case, is what it says about human spiritual potential namely, that our birth right is vast, that our inherent nature unites us with all things, and that our inability to realize this is itself the primary mystery—an absence that entails a possible presence.
Finally, for Emerson, as for the recipients of blue light, awakening brings a sense of the vivid meaningfulness or symbolic character of all things. In “The Poet,” for example, Emerson relates the poet's ability to uncover meaning through metaphor to the Hermetic picture of our kinship with the life of the universe: “The highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted” (3:3-4). A talent for metaphor is thus closely related to spiritual awakening. The Poet sees the relations between things—the potential for infinite metaphor—because she has remembered the actual interrelation between herself and all things. “For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed” (2:37). In the famous formula of “Nature,” then: “The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass” (1:21). Seeing that our life is one with the life of the world will “purge the eyes to understand [nature's] text” (1:23).
In Blue Light, Ordé makes a similar point about coming to see nature as symbolic, using the term “soul” with a distinctively Emersonian twist in the process. For Emerson, Soul is the Unity “within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other” (2:160). Similarly, in Blue Light, soul is “what Ordé had called that energy which binds the tiniest pieces of the universe, that force which seeks to unite and dissimulate” (170). Why “dissimulate?” Because the world understood as soul is a world in which everything is representation. Everything speaks—in however slippery a way—of the Life it manifests. Thus, as Chance notes after receiving his own infusion of blueness: “everything set my senses to translating. That's what Ordé called it. Reading the meaning of myself in the world” (53). The light informs him “like a parchment burning with alien inscriptions, equations, and hieroglyphs” (48). Later, Juan Thrombone, shaman and trickster among the Blues, makes the same point about universal significance using the image of music. “All the world is music, you see. There is music in atoms and music in suns. That is the range of a scale that you can see and read. There is music in emptiness and silence between. Everything is singing all the time, all the time. Singing and calling for what is missing” (216).11 Emerson's poets, like Mosley's Blues, are simply the ones among us who hear and respond to that call.
This, at least, states the ideal. If nothing stood in the way of realizing such transparency and joy, Mosley would have no plot and Emerson might have gone on writing sermons instead of essays. For both writers, however, the plot of spiritual life thickens because light encounters limitation. The infinite clarity which is our birthright is, in practice, balked by the foibles of character and circumstance. We all share one life, but life exists only in particular lives. And individuals have different characters, different histories, different moods, different “blood.” Life, in fact, turns out to be not a simple unity, but a complex of contrary elements, including even death. Awakening, as an intensification of life, thus also intensifies life's inherent tensions and conflicts.
Mosley's story, then, turns on the rather familiar point that people—even illuminated people—are different. While the Blues are all similarly able to decipher the code of creation, they nevertheless turn out to be reading very different “texts.” This is explained by Mosley through a further elaboration of the frame-myth. When the light arrives on earth, it finds people consumed by various passions, involved in various activities or stages of life. And in each case, the light's effect is to elevate the qualities it encounters in people to a kind of heroic intensity. Thus, Claudia Zimmerman, suburban spouse-swapper, caught by the light during a perfunctory act of adultery, becomes Claudia Heart, an archetype of sexual desire and danger on a level with Circe. William Portman—philosophy school drop-out, psychedelic enthusiast and bullshit artist—becomes Ordé, the preacher to the Close Congregation whose “words were the truth” (26). And Horace LaFontaine, caught in the instant of death, becomes Death itself, the Gray Man, devoted to the beauty of negation, the “repose of extinction” (70).12 As Phyllis Yamaguchi, the scientist among the Blues, explains it, the light each creature receives both contains differences and becomes different “because the information in living blood alters each one of us. … Even the way you think is based on the possibility of your blood” (35). The result of the coming of the light, accordingly, is not utopian harmony, but a magnification of the conflicts inherent in our condition. The irony of this situation and its potential for disaster is put well in a statement by Juan Thrombone, which neatly summarizes the book's various meditations on human identity: “You are a song of the gods in the mouth of a fool. You can't help it. So much promise in one so weak attracts disease” (217).
In a similar way, Emerson understood that the effects of awakening are fatally warped by the biases of human nature, and limited by the quirks of character. Insight, according to Emerson, is universally available, at least in principle.13 And yet the mystery is how few people are fully and simply awake. As he had noted already in “Nature,” “most persons do not see the sun”—that is, we do not “really” see it in its full, musical meaningfulness, in its interconnection with all being (Collected Works 1:19). In later writings, he develops an account of this puzzle in terms of temperament, or the warping, biasing effects of individual character. “Exaggeration is in the course of things. Nature sends no creature, no man into the world without adding a small excess of his proper quality. … To every creature nature added a little violence or direction in its proper path, a shove to put it on its way; in every instance, a slight generosity, a drop too much” (3:107). The result of this exaggeration, in turn, is a distortion of perception and an inescapable “partiality” (3:38). We do not see the world as it is, but through “lenses” of subjective circumstance. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. … Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung” (3:30). The effects of this subjective bias in human character are not all negative, of course. Bias can, from another point of view, be understood as a person's vocation or genius.14 And yet every gift is also a limitation, a Fate that detracts from the possible unity of things. Nature “rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed in a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person” (3:139). This play of biases and partial viewpoints, in Emerson, generates the intellectual drama of his essays. In Mosley, it generates the overt violence of his plot.
The suggestions offered by Mosley and Emerson as to how the limits of bias might be overcome also follow similar lines. In Mosley's story, the possibility of transcending the limits of character is represented by Juan Thrombone. Unlike the other Blues, Juan received multiple illuminations: three bolts from the blue that took him beyond life and negation to a kind of Hegelian synthesis transcending both (118-19).15 Juan, that is, did not receive just one impulse to his character, resulting in the kind of monomania or tyrannous will exhibited by the others. Rather, the additive effect of his illuminations gives him a more inclusive perspective. Thus, Wanita the Dreamer comments on the difference between Juan and the other Blues: “All'a the rest ‘a us just think one thing. … [Juan] do a lotta things” (210).
It is much the same for Emerson. If there is no escaping the limited perspectives of temperament and mood, there is at least the possibility of incorporating multiple perspectives. “The universality being hindered in its primary form, comes in the secondary form of all sides” (Collected Works 3:142). Or as he puts it in a slightly more playful mood, “since we are all so stupid, what benefit that there should be two stupidities” (3:141). The irony of the human condition—born to the promise of power yet fated to the paltry rewards of everyday life—is debilitating at times. There is Life, and then there is the individual life—God's song and the fool who sings it. How can the two be reconciled? The relationship of these two aspects of our nature “appears beforehand monstrous, as each denies and tends to abolish the other” (3:143).
But the irony can be sublated, in effect, by being taken lightly, lived successively, and embraced without fear of contradiction. Significantly for the thesis I am proposing, Emerson calls this state of awareness the “double consciousness.” “One key, one solution to the mysteries of the human condition … exists; the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one and the other foot on the back of the other” (6:47).
The lightness and dancing playfulness that Emerson associates with double consciousness is also characteristic of Juan Thrombone. As Chance puts it, the other Blues all “struggled trying to decipher their nature, procreate, and change the world to fit their image. But they rarely laughed or played. … But Juan Thrombone did laugh and play” (245-46). Juan's tendency to speak in riddles and paradoxes is likewise a sign of his comprehensive vision. As Emerson says and Juan seems to acknowledge, “No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie” (3:143-44).
Juan thus lives beyond human limitations, even the limits of the heroic humanity represented by the Blues. At the same time, though, as Chance goes on to note, Juan “was more human than the other Blues” (246). He is often distant and uncanny—an idealist who lives Emerson's “noble doubt” about whether the world really exists (Collected Works 1:29), flouting conditions of time and space (201). But he also has a childlike warmth that none of the other Blues exhibit. The others, Ordé in particular, are single-mindedly driven by a sense of mission, and tend to see themselves as Ubermenschen, using humanity as nothing more than raw material for their schemes. At worst, they represent a threat to humanity. As Ordé says to Chance, not all the Blues are to be trusted. “We are not here to answer your prayers. … We are here to prepare the firmament for the unification of all things. … Your desires are meaningless. We only love you if it meets our needs” (45). Even at best, their attitude toward the particularities of human life and history is rather cavalier. When Chance asks Nesta Vine if she is still human, she replies “This body is like a uniform, Chance. I'm like a soldier. I'm proud of the colors and buttons, but they are only vestiges of the spirit that wears them” (171) For Nesta, that is, the universal perspective she has attained makes her particular identity as a black woman relatively expendable. Even Juan displays something of this attitude when he tries to warn off those who have come to him in the woods: “I'm not your momma, little one […]. I'm the Big Bad Wolf and you were just dreaming about your mother” (197).
More typically, however, Juan demonstrates sympathy towards ordinary humanity, and more deeply, an appreciation of the mystery and necessity of incarnation. The light apart from a body, he says, is like blood spilled out on the ground; it is “not a man, can't be, but only a promise without an ear to hear” (216).16 Juan thus represents something more than simple Blueness, as Wanita recognizes. It is his “all sides” ability to see the world as including both promise and limitation—his playful double consciousness—that enables him to overcome the conflicts created by other Blues and, as the novel unfolds, to create the book's closest approach to a realized transcendence in the deep-woods colony called Treaty.
Emerson used the phrase “double consciousness” in praise of a kind of negative capacity, a spiritual suppleness that takes life's ambiguities in stride. When W. E. B. Du Bois used the same phrase some fifty years later, it was to call attention to the pain that unresolved ambiguities can produce.
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Du Bois's observation, or the experience from which it grows, establishes another important context for understanding Mosley's work—the “urban” or black dimension of his “urban transcendentalism.” Mosley, that is, is not only an American writer, but a black American writer. The issues that are important to him are the puzzles posed by this situation, even when race is not his ostensible subject. So how do black American concerns, as represented here by Du Bois, relate to the larger spiritual drama of Blue Light?
Du Bois's famous formula focuses attention on the problem of identity. To be black in America is to experience two selves, two centers of gravity, one universal and one particular, neither fully realized and neither quite compatible with the other. On the one hand, there is America with its aspiration to inclusiveness, its dazzling paper promise to accept all comers on the face value of their simple humanity. “America,” in this ideal sense, is more than a national identity, Rather, as Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, it represents a hope that resonates with the Christian dream of the Kingdom of God—a hope for that simple and absolute brotherhood that King liked to call the “Beloved Community” (Cone 58-69). It is a hope that can hardly be denied, perhaps, without killing something in one's own heart. On the other hand, though, there is the actual history of the black race in this country, along with the daily reminders of exclusion and oppression that are its legacy. Double-consciousness, then, is a simultaneous awareness of hope and of that which gives the lie to hope. It encompasses both the self one knows to be one's own—the free and expansive self—and the ragged mess one can expect out of life in time.
As noted above, James Baldwin also comments on this doubleness in a way that is strikingly relevant to our discussion of Mosley. “My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting: my birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance” (Collected Essays
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
On Nov. 24, 2014, a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for firing six shots in an August confrontation that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“You stood up for yourself, Darryl,” Socrates said. “That’s all a black man could do. You always outnumbered, you always outgunned.”
This semester I am taking Professor Boelcskevy’s “Topics in African American Literature” course where we have compared and analyzed the genres of the slave narrative and neo-slave narrative.
Last week we began our discussion of Walter Mosely’s 1997 novel Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. If you are unfamiliar, AOAO is the fictional account of Socrates Fortlow, “a tough, brooding ex-convict determined to challenge and understand the violence and anarchy in his world – and in himself” (inside cover). The novel was also made into a television movie starring Laurence Fishburne.
Mosely does an exceptional job of detailing the ways that social systems work against his protagonist – not simply a man, but a black man; not simply a black man, but a black man and an ex-convict. As readers, we see the ways that society perpetuates subordination and marginalization through institutions without Socrates ever having to explicitly detail the occurrences in which he is subordinated or made to feel inferior. Throughout the novel, Socrates is fully aware of the ways that his identity is further complicated by the ways society reads him. With that, he must navigate and negotiate his own masculinity, sexuality, and emotions on a daily basis – and he does so with such precision, his actions become formulaic.
What situations do you find yourself negotiating interactions with systems or individuals? Are there instances where you’ve witnessed others navigating these scenarios? Are there ways to negotiate one’s identity without selling out or selling one’s self short?
I find myself negotiating systems and individuals daily. Are my experiences the same as Socrates’? No. As a woman of color the ways that I interact with society are quite different than the fictional Socrates, but that does not mean I do not understand or relate to the issues that he deals with and that Mosely poses.
I ask the above questions to get at another point. In a society where oppressed groups must reassess and second-guess their very existence or ability to enter certain spaces, it becomes abundantly clear why social justice, recontextualization of history, and working toward inclusivity are necessary. The African American Studies MA program at BU has helped me to recognize this daily, from my coursework to interactions with my professors. In analyzing the world through the lens of African American Studies, I feel well prepared for taking on the challenge of undoing this country’s oppressive systems.
Gina Physic, GRS ’15
November 25, 2014