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Keisha Blake Defining Her True Essence

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            Existentialism is a philosophical movement focused on the “analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.” (Existentialism) This particular movement deals heavily with the idea that human existence is as it is perceived and there is no general human experience, just individual’s experiences. (Crowell) A significant philosopher and proponent of this idea was Jean-Paul Sartre who first created the idea that “existence precedes essence.” (Crowell) This means that humans are not born with any predefined essence or nature, it must be created through their actions and decisions.

            In the book “NW” by Zadie Smith, all of the main characters go through their own form of identity crisis, however, none quite as explicitly or extensively as Keisha Blake. From very early age Keisha had trouble figuring her identity and how her own perception of herself was related to how other saw her. As she continued thought her life, this crisis followed her, even after she changed her first name to Natalie in an attempt to leave her past behind her. She spent her whole life trying to cover one identity with another only to end up with a completely different identity that she did not want to have.

            Around the age of ten Keisha began to understand the identity crisis that would plague her adulthood. She became aware that “In the child’s mind a breach now appeared: between what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as other seemed to understand it.” (Smith 208) Here she realized that the essence she thought of herself as having was not the same as what other people saw. This presents the question of which one is her true essence, if either? According to Sartre’s ideas about one’s essence, it is most likely a combination of the two. Sartre states that one’s essence is defined entirely by their actions and choices. If this is true, then Keisha is defined by the actions that everyone else see and the actions that only she knows about. The disconnect that she is experiencing between what she sees of herself and what other see could thus be explained by her trying to hide her true self from others, either knowingly of unconsciously. If she were not doing this, her actions should present her essence as she herself perceives it to be. However, since there is a disagreement, that means that she cannot be showing everything to everyone else that she knows of herself. Thus the actions that truly define her essence are neither what is seen by others nor what is seen by only her, her essence is defined by her actions in hiding herself.

            At the age of sixteen, Keisha and her best friend Leah were forced apart by Keisha’s mother after Leah gave Keisha an inappropriate birthday gift. This separation from Leah faced Keisha to once again look at her own identity and attempt to figure out who she really was. “In the absence of Leah—at school, on the streets, in Cladwell—Keisha Blake felt herself to be revealed and exposed. She had not noticed until the break that the state of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ constituted a sort of passport, lending Keisha a protected form of access in most social situations.” (Smith 224). Here Keisha realizes that being Leah’s friend and doing as Leah does had acted as a shield covering her from having to make her own choices and form her own essence. Throughout the time that the two were best friends, Keisha was happy being Leah’s friend and having no other defining characteristics. According to Sartre’s theories, she defined her essence during that time by choosing to follow Leah rather that break off and act on her own. However, this in itself is action (or, rather, inaction) and therefor defines her essence. An interesting pattern to note here is that by choosing to be simply Leah’s friend, Keisha is choosing, once again to hide herself, this time behind the actions of another rather than by controlling her own actions.

            In college Keisha continued to struggle with finding her identity, however, she decided that it was time for her to take action and try to create an identity for herself. When Leah came to visit Keisha at college for the third time, Keisha sees all the changes that her friend has gone through since the last time they saw each other. Seeing someone that, in Keisha’s eyes at least, has a defined personality and control over their identity was the final push that convinced her to take control of her own identity. As Leah introduces Keisha to her friends the conversation goes, “ ‘… Guys, this is Keisha, she—‘ ‘No: Natalie.’ ‘Sorry, this is Natalie, we went to school together.’” (Smith 240) In that moment, Keisha decides to shed her name with the intent of leaving behind her former conflicted identity with it. However, once again this is an act of covering her tracks and trying to show the world that she is a certain way when it is clear to her and the reader that she is not. Dropping her name looks on the surface to be a way of creating a new life and starting fresh, however, in the case of Natalie Blake, she introduced this name for the first time to her childhood friend. This action shows that although she is trying to break free from her past, she is still connected to it and bound by it.

            Later on in her life when Natalie is trying to secure a position as a lawyer she once again faces a point where she forces an identity upon herself even though she knows that it is not truly her. When she is not having the success the she had hoped for as a lawyer, she attempts to hide it from herself and everyone else. In order to pull this off “she told herself a story about legal ethics, strong moral character and indifference to money. She told the same tale to Frank and Leah, to her family, to her fellow trainee barristers and to anyone who inquired after her future.” (Smith 288) This is, in a way, a new low point for Natalie because not only is she trying to cover up her true essence, for the first time she is actually aware of what she is doing and why. In Sartre’s theory this is a highly defining moment for Natalie because she is consciously aware that she is covering up who she is and what she wants in life. Although this act of hiding herself is not a new aspect of her true essence, this is the first instance in which she admits that fact to herself and goes through with it anyway.

                        As Natalie continues to progress through her life, her confusion over her own essence continues to torture her. The more uncomfortable this feeling becomes for her, the more she reverts back to her former self, both in actions and in name. Finally at the end of the book she completely loses sight of Natalie, the new person she has created, and falls back entirely on Keisha. The novel concludes with Keisha and her lifelong best friend Leah turning in Nathan, a former classmate, for a murder that he may not have even committed. As Natalie she would not have done this because in her self-designed essence, Natalie is a good person who defends those who are helpless and cannot defend themselves. However, in her youth Keisha experienced a traumatic event involving Nathan that was the foundation of her and Leah’s relationship. Remaining true to this stronger essence, Keisha teamed up with Leah to seek closure after what had happened so many years before. This action is an incredibly defining moment in the creation of Keisha’s identity. She is tied down to her past and the person that she tried to escape from being. This action shows that despite all of her efforts, Keisha is the product of her experiences and her choices.

            In the novel “NW” by Zadie Smith, Keisha Blake struggles to find her true identity. She spends her life battling to cover up who she thinks she is to make others see her as someone else. What she does not realize is that in doing this she is creating another essence for herself, that of a person who hides themselves behind other people, stories, and lies. Keisha will never truly be able to escape the identity she has so desperately tried to cover throughout her life and become Natalie because in order to do that she must allow herself to be seen for who she really is. None of the essences that she tries to take on or actually does take on are prepared to expose themselves in that way.



Work Cited

Crowell, Steven. "Existentialism." Stanford University. Stanford University, 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

"Existentialism." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.

"Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy." Existentialism, Sartre’s []. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.