"Hazel" is a short story from John Edgar Wideman's Damballah. The term "double consciousness" was created by W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the twin dichotomies African-Americans must face on a daily basis. African-Americans are both African and American; Du Bois maintained that the "two unreconciled strivings" posed a grave threat to black self-actualization. At the same time, he welcomed the possibility that the average African-American could "merge his double self into a better and truer self."
In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face (from The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois).
In "Hazel," Wideman highlights this double consciousness and the difficulty certain characters experience in reconciling their double selves. For example, Hazel's grandmother is described as resembling a "white lady." Additionally, Hazel's mother, Gaybrella, has long, straight hair, despite her African heritage. In the story, Gaybrella lauds the deceased Grandmother Maggie's beauty to her daughter, Hazel. Hazel's grandmother is presented as an irreproachable and venerable maternal icon; yet, ironically, Hazel cannot relate to this remote figure because Grandmother Maggie is deceased. Thus, Hazel cannot reconcile her "double self" because she has little conception of what this involves.
Later, Gaybrella's lustrous, long hair catches the flames from the stove, and the fire shoots up her back like "wings." Gaybrella runs screaming out of the house "like a roaring, hot wind" and crashes through the railing into "thin air." Here, the flight motif that is so prevalent in African diaspora literature comes into play. The flight motif was said to have been popularized by Toni Morrison, an author who continues to highlight the myth of the flying Africans in her novels.
The myth of the flying Africans refers to the legend of African slaves taking flight to return to Africa rather than to submit themselves to lives of slavery in the Americas. In African-American literature, the flight motive manifests itself in dreams of flight, birds of symbolic tenacity, and images of people flying or falling down stairs, rooftops, or cliffs. In "Hazel," Gaybrella is said to have taken flight after her hair catches on fire. The flight is characterized ambiguously, however. The author implies that Gaybrella has been forced into taking flight against her will and that her possibly suicidal actions were compelled by insidious forces beyond her control.
The early generations of African slaves had believed that suicide was a sin. In time, many came to embrace the idea of "taking flight" as a spiritually cleansing act that erased the intrinsic shame associated with suicide. Thus, the imagery of Hazel falling down a flight of stairs and of Gaybrella taking flight reinforces the spiritual rebirth that characterizes the flight motif. Each fall or flight symbolizes not transcendence but rather, freedom from oppression.
As suggested by Gaybrella, Hazel's resulting disability (from the fall) is a kind of spiritual rebirth. Hazel is blessed because she will never have to suffer the "filth and dirt of this world. The lies of men, their nasty hands." Again, Wideman alludes to the theme of double consciousness; however, this time, it is a dichotomy that results from the inability of the African-American woman to reconcile her place among the domestic and public spheres. Gaybrella concludes that Hazel's inability to walk will keep her "neat and clean and pure." Hazel will never need to reconcile the double consciousness at war within herself because the choice has already been made for her; there is little chance that she will ever marry and set up her own household. For more, please refer to the links and sources below.
1)Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History edited by Richard M. Juang.
2) The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia.