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From Double to Mestiza Consciousness

The below section is taken from the Introduction of my MA thesis From Double to Mestiza Consciousness as a part of the Research Master Study of Art and Literature program at the Leiden University.

Identity politics require the presence of a marginalized Other. Marginalization occurs when a group of people is disadvantaged based on single or multiple constructed inequalities in a social context. This study is concentrated on the African-American and Mexican-American experience of marginal identities in the United States. Even though the American national identity is a construct, the members of each group face the hardship of not being included in the dominant white majority. They struggle to identify themselves through becoming conscious of their place in the community. Their experience of being discriminated against is the subject of my investigation through diverse approaches to race, gender, sexual orientation and class. W. E. B. Du Bois conceptualized “double consciousness” in 1903, to define the psychological conflict caused by being both black and American in the United States. Parallel to that, though much later, in 1987, Gloria Anzaldúa formulated the notion of “mestiza consciousness” as a means of resistance against prejudice regarding race, gender, sexual orientation and class. This became an important concept for Chicana feminists. I will discuss these two forms of self-consciousness about marginalized identity in relation to their effects on selective works of the Harlem Renaissance and Chicana feminist literature respectively. I will investigate possible relations between double and mestiza consciousness through interdisciplinary research into the specific historical contexts and intellectual backgrounds of the social and artistic movements of which Du Bois and Anzaldúa were part. I will also relate the two types of consciousness to psychological, postcolonial and feminist theories. This thesis is a comparative study of double and mestiza consciousness in Du Bois and Anzaldua, and a study of how Nella Larsen and Sandra Cisneros mobilized these concepts in their fiction.

From the several definitions of consciousness in Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I chose the ones that are associated with philosophy and psychology because double and mestiza consciousness are concepts related to the subject’s thought about identity and self-definition. OED defines consciousness as “[t]he faculty or capacity from which awareness of thought, feeling, and volition and of the external world arises; the exercise of this.” It is “[a]ttributed as a collective faculty to an aggregate of people, a period of time, etc.; a set of shared defining ideas and beliefs” (OED). In the field of consciousness studies, however, double and mestiza consciousness can be positioned as forms of phenomenal consciousness. According to Christopher Hill, a professor of philosophy, phenomenal consciousness presents the subject with qualitative characteristics. These can be the experiences of sensations, emotions and thoughts in a diversity of space and time that make up the identity of the self (19). The concepts of double and mestiza consciousness are ways for the marginalized subject to perceive him/herself in the world and relate to it.

In this thesis, I will argue that, though complex, double consciousness has mainly a pathological nature whereas mestiza consciousness is a means of creative resistance. The link between the two types of consciousness is that each represents a perception of a marginalized self, but their distinct historical contexts separate double consciousness from mestiza consciousness. This comparative study of two types of consciousness aims to explain and make a connection between the two modes of seeing and experiencing the self within different timeframes. Double consciousness as a form of racial self-perception emerged after the abolition of slavery, towards the end of the nineteenth century, when laws of racial segregation and disfranchisement were in effect in the U.S. South. This mode of perceiving the self continued until the mid-twentieth century. Anzaldúa, on the other hand, developed mestiza consciousness in the 1980s, after the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement in the United States. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that these two kinds of consciousness do not belong to the same historical periods. Nevertheless, there is an obvious connection between double and mestiza consciousness because both emerged in response to the racial, ethnic and economic discrimination that the two minority groups have historically faced. This does not mean that all African Americans had a psychological conflict or all Mexican American women could recreate themselves through becoming a mestiza. These concepts are used to make clear the acts and thoughts of psychologically and socially aware members of the minorities. Therefore, the generalizations about people with double or mestiza consciousness are meant to describe specifically those who perceive themselves from these conceptual points of view.

This thesis consists of four chapters. The concept of double consciousness is approached through psychological analysis in Chapter 1. It opens with a brief discussion of the historical context of the institutionalization of slavery and racial segregation. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is used to relate to the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1865. I will also discuss European Romanticism and American Transcendentalism as the psychological, literary and philosophical contexts for double consciousness, but Frantz Fanon’s psychopathological approach to analyzing double consciousness will be the core of this chapter. Comparing Du Bois’s and Fanon’s studies on Africa-originated selves, I will show that both Du Bois and Fanon diagnose what Du Bois calls double consciousness as a mental disorder because it involves a dual identity. Holding a negative self-image is connected to perceiving the self as the Other. Because he sees social marginalization as the cause of this neurosis, Du Bois sees intellectual enlightenment and economic improvement as the solution to the problem.

Chapter 2 discusses double consciousness in relation to the New Negro Movement of the Harlem Renaissance, focusing specifically on Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. The Harlem Renaissance is briefly introduced as a movement connected by social, intellectual and artistic developments centered in the Harlem district of New York City in the 1920s. The main concern of the era is the African-Americans’ racial self-assertion and self-definition in a society regulated by and for white supremacy. The construction of the notion of a “New Negro” identity that emerged when large numbers of African-American migrants settled in Harlem will be discussed. Examples of increased numbers of publications by black artists in the post-World War I period and the contests organized by black magazines are given as proof of the progress African-American writers made in the literary scene. Du Bois’s role in the Harlem Renaissance is evaluated; he became a leading figure as the editor of the literary magazine The Crisis and as the co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His expectations from the “Talented Tenth” of the African-American population will also be discussed. The significance of the Harlem Renaissance in the African-American artistic production within Western parameters will be discussed. I chose to analyze Nella Larsen’s novel Passing because it is specifically about the racial conflict of black women passing as whites. I will connect the theme of an African-American woman’s passing as white to double consciousness. A gender perspective will be employed in assessing why Larsen chose a female protagonist to explore the psychological and social aspects of passing. The chapter ends by demonstrating Larsen’s view of double consciousness as pathology.

The second major topic of this thesis, mestiza consciousness, takes the foreground in Chapter 3. A postcolonial approach is taken towards analyzing mestiza consciousness. The historical background of the border conflict between Mexico and the United States is briefly introduced to explain the migration of Mexicans to the United States. Racial and class-related consequences of illegal border crossings are evaluated through the cultural background of hybridity formed in the colonial era and the nineteenth century, which paves the path towards mestiza identity. Gloria Anzaldúa’s construction of mestiza consciousness is discussed as a reconceptualization of double consciousness. The border culture Anzaldúa refers to is explained in relation to race, gender, class and sexual orientation. The oppositional standpoint of mestiza identity is articulated as a means of self-empowerment. Later, Homi Bhabha’s postcolonial framework of the “Third Space” is connected to the borderland identity of mestiza consciousness. In explaining the Third Space, Bhabha refers to hybridity, difference and multiple forms of identification. The function of a hybrid identity in the American social context is elaborated. The borderland is a land, a space, and a mental state; it is not just a border or a single line. Anzaldúa makes it a space to be occupied. Pushing the limits of figurative language, she makes the mestiza stand there as a person being discriminated against because of her race, gender, sexual orientation and class. The borderland is a space, according to Bhabha’s understanding of hybridity, which enables new forms of reconciliation between historically conflicting identities. I will explain how Anzaldúa developed the idea of mestiza consciousness by drawing on pre-Columbian mythology, particulary the figure of Coatlicue. The reactionary position of the newly created mestiza identity is contrasted to the negotiation-based double consciousness. While African-Americans see themselves through the eyes of the white majority and consequently submit to the negative white view of the black self, Chicana feminists respond to the whites’ perception of Mexican Americans by transforming it into something positive. The dynamism of mestiza consciousness as resistance against patriarchy and white supremacy is analyzed through Gayatry Spivak’s conceptualization of the subaltern subject. The feminist perspective is given as a form of postcolonial discourse since the layer of race still causes women of color to be subaltern in comparison with their white counterparts. Anzaldúa constructs mestiza consciousness for the women seen as inferior by the dominant society. Spivak assigns the subaltern status to third-world feminists but Mexican-American women in a first-world environment face similar unequal treatment concerning their gender. The need for a voice consciousness in Spivak’s account of the subaltern subject’s deprivation of communication is related to mestiza consciousness.

Chapter 4 is about Chicana feminism. The historical background of the nationalist Chicano Movement is portrayed as a continuation of the conflict between Mexico and United States introduced in the previous chapter. The major issues leading to the breaking up of the movement into Chicanos and Chicanas will be discussed, focusing on the feminist perspective and especially on Anzaldúa’s role in shaping and fostering Chicana feminism. She separates Chicanas from the larger Chicano Movement because she constructs her own and her fellow mestizas as having a specific identity related to being mestiza feminists. Anzaldúa’s application of diverse narrative forms, such as essays, stories, anecdotes and poems in her book in addition to constructing the mestiza as an identity of a subject in process is connected to postmodernism in the 1980s. I will end the chapter with an analysis of Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories through the lens of mestiza consciousness. I will concentrate on three of her stories in the collection because these provide criticism of assimilation of Chicanas in the form of identity fragmentation. The conflict each protagonist faces is linked to her self-definition.


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