400 Years Blog #48 – Du Bois and Double-Consciousness

Posted in: Leader's Blog

One of our nation’s most brilliant scholars, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), lived as “an outcast and a stranger in mine own house.” Growing up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he experienced relatively mild racism as one of the few Black people in town. He was confronted by Jim Crow racism when he entered Fisk University in Tennessee. By the time he graduated as Harvard’s first Black Ph.D., he knew well that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.

In The Souls of Black Folks he described the color-line as omnipresent and shifting, sometimes dividing the races, and other times cutting the psyches of Black Americans in two. While confident in his abilities, Du Bois felt that he was also “looking at one 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.”

Du Bois describes this double-consciousness as a “peculiar sensation,” an inner division that says you are both a citizen of this great country but not fully a citizen: “One ever feels his twoness, – 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.” So painful was this experience that when Du Bois lost his 2-year-old son to diphtheria he exclaimed that at least his son was saved from a life of indignities.  This “twoness” – a haunting, persistent legacy of white supremacy – affects many of my friends of color today.

Academics occasionally helped Du Bois transcend double-consciousness. Three autobiographies, three novels, countless articles in The Crisis (the NAACP journal), and over 20 non-fiction works offered him some wholeness.  He explained, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.  Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.  So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.

Truth, persistence, and wisdom were not enough to earn Du Bois a sense of belonging in America. He was targeted for his socialist leanings during McCarthyism, suffering what historian Manning Marable called “ruthless repression” and “political assassination.” At age 93, when visiting Africa, his birthright country refused to renew his U.S. Passport. He died in Ghana on August 27, 1963.

  • Lesson #249: In 1909, Du Bois joined a diverse group of progressives in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The NAACP was committed to anti-racism work through nonviolent protest and legal action. Named Director of Publicity and Research, Du Bois began The Crisis, which highlighted brutal lynchings of Black citizens.  This publication was generally ignored by the mainstream press.
  • Lesson #250: Du Bois was one of the first scholars to understand and explore the links between racism as it manifested in the United States and as it existed around the world.  He argued that global racism was fueled by capitalism and colonialism. As a result, he was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European powers.
  • Lesson #251: Even those whites seeking to support Du Bois saw “the race problem” as being wrapped up in the very existence of darker skinned people. As Du Bois describes such sympathetic whites, “They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?  At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce to boiling a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”
  • Lesson #252: No white resident of the United States can understand fully the double-consciousness experienced by their fellow citizens of color.  There is, however, an echo of this twoness inside many whites who strive to be anti-racism activists. Like myself, “white allies” sometimes  yearn to be credited for “being woke” and for “getting it.” This desire for absolution distracts from the systemic anti-racism work before us.
  • Lesson #253: In 1896. the University of Pennsylvania invited Du Bois to create a sociological study of Black Philadelphians. Published in 1899 as The Philadelphia Negro, it was one of the first detailed empirical sociological studies in the United States.
  • Lesson #254: During the hysteria of McCarthyism, Du Bois was harassed, indicted, arrested, and arraigned in federal court as an agent of the Soviet Union because he had circulated a petition protesting nuclear weapons. The NAACP describes the incident as “one of the most ludicrous actions ever taken by the American government.” The trial and the publicity ruined Du Bois’s career.
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