February 25, 2022


W.E.B DuBois Informs Our Past & Present

By: Louis Damani Jones

There are many important books of the 20th century that contributed to better understanding the African-American condition in the trajectory of the American project, but there is no doubt that one of the most influential and consequential is W.E.B. DuBois’ work The Soul of Black Folks. DuBois, the first African-American to earn a PhD at Harvard, wrote The Soul of Black Folks to shine a light on the condition of African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction era, with a particular focus on the experience from a southern perspective. Famously, DuBois opens the work’s chapter entitled “Of the Dawn of Freedom with the line “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” this “veil” that starkly delineates the subjective experience of “blacks” on one side and “whites” on the other. This binary experience of “whiteness” and “blackness” with roots in American slavery is at the heart of the questions that DuBois probes, and his work continues to offer very useful ways of approaching the African-American experience in our own time.

An extremely significant concept that DuBois enters into the American lexicon is the idea of “double consciousness.” Double consciousness is essentially the experience of being hyphenated, having an awareness that one is both within and outside of the American project in some consequential fashion. In the chapter the “Strivings of the Negro People,” DuBois eloquently expresses the poignant dilemma:

One feels his two-ness, — 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. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world.

As extremely contentious debates rage on in the  21st century, political discourse around the way we  teach the way race has influenced our nation’s history, this concept of “double consciousness” takes on yet another dimension. It is as if,as a nation, we our viewing ourselves as two separate, irreconcilable narratives in an existential conflict over what is the “real” narrative and who has the authority to define it. At its most basic and most fundamental, it is an identity crisis that has long been with us. However, DuBois points us to a solution that is different from simply winning or losing. In the image of two-ness painted by DuBois, the pinnacle of the long in the African-American experience is a merging, a reconciliation in which the double self becomes an integrated, better, and truer self without contradiction. This vision is beyond assimilation and beyond separatism – it points to a yet unrealized newness of mutual enrichment aimed at cooperation and not conflict, far removed from the inevitability of a “clash of civilizations vision of racial experience.

For DuBois, this veil that upheld the regime of double consciousness within the African-American person, as well as the society at large, was not only subjective, but also quite physical. At the time of the publishing of The Souls of Black Folks, slavery had fallen, but a new Jim Crow regime was tearing back at the gains that African-Americans had begun to make during the time of Reconstruction, leading to the violent defense of physical segregation. In our own day, there has never been a greater opportunity for Americans of different ethnic backgrounds to learn and interact with each other, the critical foundation for any authentic racial reconciliation. While available metrics do continue to identify that our country is far from racially integrated at a residential level, the United States is more ethnically diverse than ever. The diversity index of the U.S. Census Bureau has increased from 61.1% in 2020 from 54.9% in 2010. It is critical that we listen and engage to the perspectives of our fellow Americans of different backgrounds because their American-ness is bound up with your American-ness, creating the opportunity for a renewed American-ness that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

The contributions of DuBois in The Souls of Black Folks to understanding race are many and continue to offer perspectives that shed light on our current moment. Like many classics of literature, Souls can be approached over and over again, mined for illuminations and insights beyond their time. Rarely can such pieces provide answers, but in presenting more questions, they advance the conversation and free us from being constrained by our narrow slice of the present era.