An Analysis of Double Consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, a Book by W. E. B. Du Bois
At the heart of W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness lies Saussure’s structuralism. At one point in time, society decided that a person with light skin would be called a white person, therefore giving the color of someone’s skin a sign, white, thus the signifying aspect being the lightness of their skin. Therefore the “other” were those with darker skin, who in America throughout much of the the 19th, 20th, and indeed 21st century were the black people. Based upon their intrinsic differences, the white society has placed a negative connotation to those with darker skin, which has resulted in blatant racism and many microaggressions that have manifested into double consciousness. The black people of America feel the otherness of their sign of blackness much more than the white people of America, who benefit fully (and oftentimes unknowingly) from the positive connotation of their sign. In this, the black people of America see the world differently as their situation requires them to. As W.E.B DuBois puts, living in America is like a prison house, “walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night” (DuBois). There is a constant uphill battle based upon the otherness of a black person’s skin and their relation to American society as a whole. Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, a short story about a Nigerian woman moving to America, is a real life tell about that examines how structuralism has led to double consciousness.
Not even 5 paragraphs into Adichie’s story, does the audience see exactly what it means to be black in America as she puts the audience in her shoes. Her time in America can almost best be summarized by her experience at the local community college in an all-white town. Here, she is “gawped at” (Adichie,) because her hair is different. The white woman want to know if it stood up or if she used a comb, they wanted to know if she had lived in a real house in Africa or ever seen a car. This creates two interesting levels of double consciousness. First, is the one that W.E.B DuBois knew so well of just being a black person in America, as seen by the white people’s microaggressions towards her hair, in which they (most likely) unawaringly point out their differences and inherent sense of superiority by pointing out that her hair is different and unlike theirs. With this the character in Adichie’s short story has to face head-on the fact that she is different because her hair is unlike theirs, which brings it back to structuralism. The character in Adichie’s story also faces another layering of double consciousness, that of being an African black woman. She faces the ignorance of white Americans who believe she wouldn’t have lived in a “real house” in Africa or have ever seen a car, because again structuralism. Long ago, America was given the name of the United States of America, which is signified as the great land of the free, an amazing country. Whereas, Africa is not America, therefore, in the eyes of many Americans it is not a great country just because it has differences. While this is undoubtedly not true, these higher education level women do not understand how Adichie’s character must feel to know that she comes from a place deemed less civilized and modern. From this, she knows she will always be viewed as lesser.
DuBois faced a different kind of double consciousness than Adichie’s character. He faced white discrimination as a black man, a much different specimen than as a black woman. While both are equally as a wrong, they definitely have different aspects to it. This can be seen even within the own black community as evident by Adichie’s character’s interaction with her “uncle,” in which he tries to force himself upon her. She doesn’t allow this to happen, to which he replies, “If you let him he would do many things for you. Smart women did it all the time. How did you think those women back home in Lagos with well-paying jobs made it? Even those in New York” (Adichie, 117). The uncle is implying that as a woman, no less a black woman, she is already disadvantaged as is, therefore the only way to become on equal playing grounds is to utilize her sexuality. Here she adds a new layer to her understanding of double consciousness. Not only does she have to see the world through the eyes of a black person, but also a black woman. She is different and mistreated because of her skin color, but also sexualized and repressed because of her sex.
After the incident with her uncle, Adichie’s character fled to connecticut and became a waitress. Here she faced much more discrimination as a person of color. The most alarming incident she mentions is that everyone thought she was Jamaican, as she snarkily comments, “because they thought every black person with a foreign accent was Jamaican” (119). However, not every encounter at the restaurant is negative like this one as she meets a man that will become her significant other for sometime. The only thing worth mentioning of this man is that he is rich and white, therefore has travelled the world, spending a considerable amount of time in Africa, which is how he initially impresses her by asking if she is Igbo or Yoruba. From there, he pursued her and finally she allotted him a date, which began an interesting relationship. When in public, Adichie’s character claims that they were an abnormality based on everyone’s reactions, whether it be old white men and women showing disgust, young white men and women showing support to showcase their open-mindedness, and even discontent or signs of solidarity from within the black community. Her relationship with this rich, white man falls into double consciousness as she is viewed through the frameworks of a black woman in an interracial relationship. The world sees her as different because it is not the normal relationship the world has signified, white with white, black with black. This is something different and some view it as negative and others view it through a forced positivity.
The rich, white man is not perfect as it is inferred through the short story that, while he does have feelings of some sort for her, he is also infatuated with her just based on the fact that she is an African woman, an exotic trophy. In some instances, he tries to pander to her by bringing her to an African shop and telling the store owner he is African. It cannot be argued that he doesn’t have good intentions, but as she points out, they are often times self-righteous. Even in her most comfortable relationship, she must view the world through the lens as a black African woman that is being romanticized based upon her ethnicity and color, thus meaning she will never fully feel comfortable in America, which is ultimately why she left without him to go back to Africa.
Double consciousness through structuralism has created a hard world many people of color in America. They are viewed as different based on arbitrary signs that were put in place years before their time. This has led to a feeling of unease and discomfort based upon this inherent prejudice for being darker skinned as the lighter skinned humans have all of the more positive connotations in America. The character in Adichie’s story “That Thing Around Your Neck” details this concept perfectly, unfortunately, as she struggles in America to find her footing as she is either ogled at or romanticized for being this different skin color. She is forced to view the world through the lens of someone else’s eyes, with a double consciousness.
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