A few months ago, I along with many others, went to see Lee Daniel’s new film, The Butler. If you haven’t yet seen it, I would recommend you do before continuing to read this blog. To say the least, the movie is incredibly profound. It touched on more topics than I can recall any movie touching on in a short two hours. Some subtle yet revealing, and others harsh but necessary. The Butler is ultimately the tale of a father and son love story (according to the director), albeit heavy with history of civil rights in America and rich with an inside-the-mind view of the life and struggle of the African American experience in post-slavery America.
As I discussed the movie with family members and others I gleaned many different insights. Many of which I never would have gathered on my own. This is a side note, but it never ceases to amaze me how often people perceive things different, even down to the very expressions of Forrest Whitaker. He plays the main character Cecil Gaines (Eugene Allen in real life) in the film. What he and the writer/director wished to convey to the audience through the non-verbal expressions in one of several key scenes in the movie is anybody’s guess or opinion. However, the diversity of opinions about it didn’t cease to amaze me. To me one of the most important moments in the movie is a brilliantly silent five-minute scene where Cecil Gaines and his wife, Gloria (played by Oprah), attend a formal White House social event. It’s key for several reasons. First, a personal invitation from Nancy Reagan to attend a state dinner finally fulfills his wife’s bucket list item to see the interior of the White House. And second, Cecil gets his first glimpse of life lived beyond his vocation as a subservient, seen-but-not-heard butler in service to eight presidents. The quiet expressions of Cecil and his wife were masterful. Without using words, they project the raw feelings of disappointment for a moment anticipated to be so special. Cecil occupied a highly respected job as one a few select butlers who served the president and his staff. Although, in that moment, he comes to realize that he’s an insider by occupation only. The cheerful and warm social atmosphere of the White House dinner is cold to the Gaines. Not only are they ostracized by communication, excluded from a crowd familiar and comfortable with their own, but they too are self-ostracized by their own identity forged out of elements unknown to the world they’ve been invited into. The realities draw nearer even as he’s being served by the Butlers he normally serves alongside. As I watched that scene I couldn’t help but think of the piercing words of W.E.B. Du Bois from his famous book – “The Souls of Black Folk”. Where he describes the peculiar world of blacks in America, where life is lived through what he coined as a “double consciousness” and “life behind the veil”. A world he describes below:
“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 two-ness— 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.” – William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
As with so many of my blog posts, I could go in a million directions with this one, though I felt the urge to write in particular about how this “double consciousness” is not just an African American problem, but much more broad. It’s a human problem. Specifically in how we relate to the outside world, but function all the while through the lens of our own sub-culture, or for many Americans pop-culture.
This whole topic is messy and complex like all of humanity, but I hoped to tackle it in two parts. First, by relating in a very real and personal context of how this affects African Americans, and how double consciousness (i.e. – double-mindedness) can only be defeated by forging a new/transformed identity in Christ and Christ alone. Literally leaving room for ethnic expression to be a distant second, third, fourth etc… I know, harsh right? Don’t hate the messenger, it’s the very first commandment (Exodus 20). I have one question to ask if that last sentence (italicized) bit you, like it does me. Where have you been hiding you idols? I’ll address that at the end…………
Black double-consciouness and the idol worship of sub-cultural norms:
What kind of black people go to the beach? You swim? You listen to jazz music? Why don’t you laugh at certain brands of ethnic humor (implied – the kind that involves coarse joking and the highlighting of either people’s looks, weaknesses etc..)? You never attended “Freak-Nik”? (LMBO, at that last one)
I purposefully intermingled the above offensive comments that myself and others have heard (or similar within their own cultural context) from both our own communities and from those outside. In particular, those above, all faux-social norms primarily derived from slave narratives. Don’t judge me for that last point. For those who know their history, many social “norms” in the African American community are often unknowingly long lasting remnants of slave culture. It’s a tiny and narrowly defined window that unfortunately neglects the legacy of large portions of its community. Step anywhere outside the boundaries of the stereotypical social expectancy and you instantly no longer have a home, but must find a new home in some gray-area of society. The Butler, faced a similar double, if not triple or quadruple consciousness. While he was accepted within certain circles of his own community, he also found himself, as a result of the times, spurned by the younger generation. His own son represented that very generation that embraced a more radical element. Cecil’s generation, who derived it’s thinking from the likes of more Christ-centered figures like Booker T Washington, Frederick Douglass and John Lewis, were being replaced by the likes of Angela Davis, Stokley Carmichael and Malcolm X. To make things even more complex he found himself, as a result of the times in tumultuous identity crises at work. A place where Butlers were to be seen but not heard, but were expected give advice about the needs and desires of their communities to presidents who wanted to exploit that information for political gain.
The predicament of double-consciousness that Cecil faced renders a clear picture of the dilemma of ethnic identity verses self-identity forged in the likeness of Christ. Far too many hold dear to their own social normatives. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It’s understandable, because it’s much easier to conform then to stand out. Its effect is a double-edge sword. It tints the lens through which we see ourselves, but it also serves as a buffer from ridicule of others. The peer-pressure to conform then is a viscous cycle. It finds itself only including some while excluding others. Sound familiar? (Think Peter in Galatians…….) As one of my favorite groups from the late 90′s, The Fugees, once proclaimed on their breakthrough debut album – “Everybody wears the mask”.
So, what do we do with all of this? We all face similar plights in one way or another, whether it be through racism, classism, sexism, heck you name the ism…
The cure – Jesus:
Now, before I move on don’t get me wrong; cultural identity is a powerful, and I believe, God given gift. Different languages, skin colors, forms of music, foods, mannerisms, and verbal forms of communication (whether linguistic or even simple differences in vocal inflection), all of them are beautiful and authentic expressions that speak of God’s vast creation. They all provide a very real human picture of how creative He is, and how much he values diversity and uniqueness.
Where it often takes a horribly wrong turn is when it becomes an idol. A mask that must be worn before its peers in order to maintain membership. And worse, when it takes the place or divides different people of different races or even of the same race or ethnicity from finding commonality in Christ. It’s this broader version of double consciousness that I’m referring to here that I believe the Butler was masterful in showing. A man who finds himself in a gray area between multiple worlds. One foot steeped in his African-American heritage, as an ex-slave-turned-successful butler. That life, juxtaposed against his identity clash within his own culture and family. While the juggling act is admirable considering the times and hardships that Eugene Allen had to endure, there’s a “more perfect way” of navigating the maze of life and the unity of so many polarizing forces in the world.
Peter faced the same personal impasse as it related to ethic identity…..
“11-13 Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends. That’s how fearful he was of the conservative Jewish clique that’s been pushing the old system of circumcision. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jews in the Antioch church joined in that hypocrisy so that even Barnabas was swept along in the charade.“
The cure to healing the ailment of double-consciousness is this….. Submitting all things to the will of Christ, and being re-born into his identity rather than that of men. Even our very ethnic identity must be washed in the blood that purifies (1 John 1:7).