Identification and Recognition in “Jesus Christ in Texas”

Du Bois’s “Jesus Christ in Texas” begins in darkness. Presumably because of the “solemn twilight” (123), the stranger remains obscured to the white characters with whom the story begins. White men and women perceive his otherness vaguely, but not enough to exclude him from their conversations, the white courtesy of a ride, or their home (124–5). But with a view of him up-close and in the light comes a more complete recognition of his otherness, and with it, a shock:

“The woman started in amazement and the colonel half rose in anger. Why, the man was a mulatto” (125).

Surprise of a different sort comes to the convict upon his first face-to-face meeting with the stranger. Gladness sweeps over him, and he says to the stranger, “Why, you are a n–––, too” (129).

These different identifications precede different responses to the stranger. But they stand together in at least one regard: they are both wrong. In fact, Du Bois’s Christ figure appears distinctively Jewish: “His hair hung in close curls far down the sides of his face and his face was olive, even yellow” (125). Even his coat resembles a traditional Jewish garment.

What might these misrecognitions suggest about Du Bois’s understanding of what it means truly to recognize Jesus? The convict’s misrecognition is followed by repentance and embrace, and he is in turn embraced by the stranger, whereas the colonel and his wife reject the stranger, and he in turn leaves their home. What is the relationship between identification and recognition? What, if anything, does Du Bois think we must recognize/identify about Jesus in order truly to recognize Jesus? What drives true recognition?

It is tempting to answer these questions in terms of association or distance. Though “mulatto” and “n–––” are both incorrect as racial identifiers, the former term is used to denote inferiority to the white characters who employ it. The colonel’s wife worries what another respected dinner guest will think of the mulatto’s presence (126). The latter term, on the other hand, functions on the lips of the convict to identify with the stranger. They are together in having supposedly inferior skin. Indeed, perhaps we can read the convict’s response to the stranger as simply stating this, not making a precise claim about the stranger’s race. Recognizing Jesus would then entail (though certainly not be exhausted by) seeing his similarity to oneself. Or perhaps more precisely, seeing similarity to oneself in what many would consider lowly.

But other characters’ responses to the stranger complicate this picture. The butler and the nurse, whose words and actions, respectively, suggest they recognize Jesus, never tell us exactly what they see in him. Even if we assume they see him as black, still there is not only similarity for them to see but difference, for the stranger is in the house as a guest rather than a servant.

Indeed, at least one character recognizes both similarity and difference before identifying the stranger as Jesus. The farmer’s wife welcomes the stranger with food and opens up to him in conversation because she hears “the voice of a white man” (131), but it is after she has seen his “dark face and curly hair” and “shrieked in angry terror” (132) that she eventually identifies who he is: seeing his cross ablaze in the distance, she utters, “‘Despised and rejected of men’” (133).

Is this true recognition? Her reactions to the stranger render the nature of this confession ambiguous. When the stranger challenges her to love her neighbors, even those she calls “n–––s” in the cabin down the hill, her first reaction is protest—“But they are n–––s!”—a rejection of his instruction (132). But she shares a unique position with the butler as one of only two characters to verbally identify the stranger with biblical language for Jesus. Is her later confession a sign of repentance? Or, after the text of the story ends, will she continue in her unloving, racist ways despite having identified the man who confronted them as Jesus? In either case, neither identifying his similarity (white voice) nor his difference (dark skin) clearly spurs her identification of him as Jesus—whether it’s true recognition or not.

In the end, it seems difficult to draw from Du Bois any consistent suggestion of what one must identify about Jesus to recognize him truly. Issues of race, similarity, and difference are present at every narrative turn—but as we see in the story of the farmer’s wife, not in ways that automatically decide who truly recognizes Jesus. Perhaps, then, Du Bois is not so much interested in the question of what one needs to see in Jesus to recognize him, as in the question, “What does one need to do to recognize Jesus truly?” The butler, the nurse, and the convict all submit to the stranger in some way when they see him in the light. What the farmer’s wife will do after seeing his face remains unanswered.

Questions remain for me about identification and misrecognition. At what point might errors in identification become so great we cannot recognize Jesus as Jesus? If not correct identification, what prompts submission to Jesus? But in Du Bois’s story, it seems such epistemological questions are subordinated to ethical ones. When we encounter Jesus, will we accept his correction? Whether he appears to be like or unlike us, what will we do when he stands in front of us? Perhaps what we identify about Jesus hinges on our answers—not the other way around.

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