An Examination of Agency in | Teen Ink

An Examination of Agency in

May 9, 2022
By clee23 SILVER, New York, New York
clee23 SILVER, New York, New York
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

In 1877, the Reconstruction Era came to an abrupt end. The North and South wanted reconciliation at the expense of Black people. As the ensuing racial violence led to the legalized Jim Crow system of segregation, scholar W. E. B. Du Bois then introduced the idea of “double consciousness” to address the psychological toll of racism in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois framed double consciousness as a Black individual’s awareness of how one is and feels internally while simultaneously being aware of how they are perceived in society, especially given society’s racism. Double consciousness, while allowing for knowledge, takes away autonomy; one changes their actions based on their grasp of how they are perceived by those with more social power. The framework of double consciousness reveals how fictional Black barber Tom Taylor, from Chesnutt’s 1911 short story “The Doll,” has little agency in shaping his life and community. Agency is being autonomous and being able to make decisions without repercussions caused by social barriers, specifically racism. While Tom Taylor is able to enjoy a degree of economic success, this agency is mainly an illusion because all his choices in responding to racism come with heavy costs due to the prevalence of racial violence during the Jim Crow era.

Tom Taylor establishes himself as the successful embodiment of Booker T. Washington’s advice and thus has a limited sense of agency. Booker T. Washington offers his black audience the option to “Cast [your bucket] down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races… in this connection it is well to bear in mind that… the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world.” In short, Washington promises economic gain and social success if black people appease white people. By “making friends,” possibly at the cost of accountability and reparations, black people will become integrated into the economic sphere of white people, even if white people remain economically and socially superior. Like Booker T. Washington himself, Tom Taylor was born into slavery and financially built himself up: “It was a handsome shop… Prominent among a struggling people, as yet scarcely beyond the threshold of citizenship, he had long been looked upon, and had become accustomed to regard himself, as a representative man.” The phrase “representative man” reflects Booker T. Washington and his theory for black uplift. In his Atlanta address, Washington referred to himself as such: “I had been asked to make an address as a representative of the Negro race.” Chesnutt encourages the reader to see Taylor as a success story of Washington’s. Tom Taylor’s success as a black business owner ultimately provides him benefits such as an employee sending a child to college and another purchasing a house -- two well known facets of the American Dream. Further, the masculine and positive connotation of “handsome” echoes Washington’s “manly way” and reinforces Taylor’s success, giving him a respected place in society and thus allowing him to feel a sense of agency in society. However, Tom Taylor’s status of being just “scarcely beyond the threshold of citizenship” emphasizes his inability to be equal to a white person and status as a second class citizen under Jim Crow.

This sense of agency, therefore, is an illusion for Taylor because of the harmful emotional consequences that come with representing an entire community. Double consciousness frames Taylor’s life because he discerns white society’s perception of not only himself but of the entire black community. It would be devastating for the black community if he were to kill the Colonel: “He knew full well that should he lose the shop no colored man would ever succeed him; a center of industry, a medium friendly contact with white men, would be lost to his people.” As the representative man, Tom Taylor is forced to be perfect, something he cannot be as a human. Therefore, the pressure to perform, as a result of tokenizing, strips Taylor of his humanity and thus agency. The added layer of emotional costs that come with being a “representative man” remain unacknowledged by Washington but nevertheless true for Taylor: “The barber’s hand did not tremble. In the barber’s mind, however, the whirlwind of emotions had passed lightly over the general and settled upon the particular injury. So strong, for the moment, was the homicidal impulse that it would have already had not the noisy opening of the door to admit a patron diverted the barber’s attention.” The lack of Tom Taylor’s hand “tremb[ling]” demonstrates his immense self-restraint and cognizance of his appearance to white audiences. Internally, however, Tom Taylor must gain control over “the whirlwind of emotions,” with a violent connotation of “whirlwind” indicating the severity of his anger -- and the psychological cost of the economic gain Tom Taylor gets from the Colonel’s shave. The haphazard quality of this description cements the intensity of his emotions and reaffirms Taylor’s humanity. The performance of the “representative man” becomes, instead, a straining responsibility for Taylor because he must be a puppet to white people and appease them. He is entrapped in a mold that white people set for him and if he tries to escape there are harsh consequences that curtail his agency. 

The prevalence of racial violence during the Jim Crow era illuminates Tom Taylor’s inability to access agency. According to journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the number of lynchings increased from 52 in 1882 to 169 in 1891. This rise of racial terror would have posed a major threat for Tom Taylor. Additionally, Taylor’s father was killed by the Colonel and his life is defined by remorseless violence: “I drew my revolver and shot him. The result was unfortunate; but he and his people learned a lesson. We had no further trouble with bumptious n*****s in our town.” The word “bumptious” further oppresses Tom Taylor, as he may not advocate for himself and his family -- he is trapped in a narrative that white people create for him. On the other hand, the Colonel does not suffer any consequences for his actions. Because of the necessity for and existence of double consciousness, Tom Taylor remains psychologically oppressed.

The oppression from the racist social structure deprives Tom Taylor of agency because each decision comes with heavy consequences and prevents social mobility for him. As Taylor is locked into a status carved for him by white people, Chesnutt calls for change to happen at a systemic level. In order for a society to be just and for people to have agency, action at an institutional level must happen as opposed to complacency and a mainly deceitful sense of agency for oppressed people.

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