Education, self fulfilment and double consciousness in W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls Of Black Folk
The power of education and the power of the literary form within slave narratives has been a consistent and resounding theme. From Frederick Douglass’ Narratives In The Life Of A Slave to Harriet Beecher Stowe saying in 1879 that “[Freedmen] rushed not to the grog shop but to the school room- they cried for the spelling book as bread, and pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life”. Throughout these works we see repeatedly the value afforded to education as the tool with which slavery and subjugation could be escaped. First published in 1903 by one of few black individuals enjoying a decent standard of life (often attested to his mixed ancestry – his grandfather James Du Bois has been a white French-American), his work The Souls Of Black Folk can be read as a testament from the white community as to what African Americans at the turn of the 20th century could manage with ‘proper education’, as exemplified by his utilisation of the Sorrow Songs across this narrative.
In DuBois’ own words, though he knows little of technical music he found the Sorrow Songs “I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.” and this once more brings up the integral importance of education and it’s value within the black community following emancipation. As James D. Anderson summarises “Blacks emerged from slavery with a strong belief in the desirability of learning to read and write….it was expressed in the intensity and the frequency of their anger at slavery for keeping them illiterate.”, and DuBois was one of a host of black authors attempting to show the potential within his community should they no longer be oppressed. DuBois goes on in this except to consider being told by whites that “…know an excellent colored man in my town,”, which briefly touches on the problematic nature of the ‘Talented Tenth’ concept popularised by DuBois and his contemporaries. This is the notion that the top, educated class of blacks could go on to be leaders in their fields and culture, relegating the other 90% of his community to live under the same oppressive superiority he himself was trying to escape. It can be argued that this approach does injustice to the huge amounts of grassroots work and organisation occurring during the period and highlights the problems of the ‘education is the key to freedom’ ideology.
DuBois’ description of ‘the veil,’ has gone on to become a literary icon in terms of describing the African American experience. At a basic level, the veil describes a simple separation between white and black Americans – they are fundamentally different as described by DuBois when he states “it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil”. It also can be seen as holding deeper significance to race relations; in the same manner a bridal veil obscures the wearer while leaving them free to see beyond it, in essence giving them knowledge of both, black Americans can see the lives they desire beyond the veil while white Americans can’t truly know the horror of being behind it. Through his use of the specific symbol, DuBois’ suggests the fundamentally uneven nature of ‘separate but equal’ ideologies. In aligning himself with the blue sky above and “great wandering shadows”, Dubois suggests that through being able to see both sides of the veil (being both sides of the racial experience) has allowed him to see the faults and shortfalls of whiteness, which was previously viewed as ideal and desirable. We see this in the next lines, DuBois notes the difference in his reaction to the other black boys who “shrunk…into silent hatred of the pale world about them,”. Instead he begins to view his own African lineage as a benefit, a radical notion at a time when African Americans had recently been held as property. DuBois goes onto discuss this concept more thoroughly with the idea of double consciousness, of the warring American and Black identities.
This can be seen in DuBois’ desire to best his peers in spite of his clearly being at a disadvantage. He hoped to “beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads”. This repetition and rule of three has a strong impact upon the reader, especially in the last example as DuBois utilises a double meaning to go beyond wanting to best his peers academically to wanting to commit a violent act upon them. This seems reasonable enough given the abuses and degradation experienced by the black community, which DuBois outlines elsewhere. Beyond this, I feel the recognition of this desire and DuBois’ continued lack of violent outbursts or other aggressive tactics works in tandem with his belief that education alone is the way to equality.
Expressed most poignantly in the line “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” DuBois manages to succinctly and accurately describe the double consciousness to which he refers through the piece, to the innate conflict in being both American and Negro. From it’s founding America was seen as a meritocracy and land of equal opportunity (aka the ‘American Dream’ concept). As early as 1851 F. W. Bogen,writes that “[In America] wealth and possession of real estate confer not the least political right on its owner above what the poorest citizen has…. In such a country the talents, energy and perseverance of a person have far greater opportunity to display”. This can be seen as evidence of traits that became seen as fundamentally American – valuing hard work, self-fulfilment and personal responsibility for improving oneself and one’s situation. In direction opposition to this however there is the ‘Negro’ identity, carrying inferences of property without fundamental human rights, and a lack of ability to work towards self fulfilment and personal gain. In DuBois’ presentation, he attributes the ability to resist this oppression to the strength of character seen in black communities (their ‘dogged strength alone’), and could also be read as viewing this strength in the African American community to have come from the internal struggle of ‘warring ideals,’, placing value on a unique element of the African American experience. This concept of a value beyond blacks relation to whites is also a recurring theme within this extract, and the narrative as a whole.
When considering The Souls of Black Folk it is also of importance to discuss the treatment of black culture as in relation to white culture. In the modern age, we recognise the importance of separating European/colonial mindsets and influences on works created outside of them however we can tell through DuBois’ writing that this was not the case in 1903. He explicitly condemns “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” This critique poignantly identifies the issue with judging the value or validity of one culture through comparing it to another; it assumes one is fundamentally superior or ‘correct,’. In DuBois’ interpretation, judging African American’s through their value to white Americans is at its essence unjust, in that it denies the basic concept of self fulfilment to ex slaves. DuBois goes on to condemn not only oppressive whites but in addition the lack of self worth and value that comes from “this sense of always looking at one’s 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.” Here we see it is not just those at the top of the chain that wish to keep blacks pressed that are problematic, but that it is a layered and nuanced issue, as the gentle hearts looking at aspiring black intellectuals with ‘contempt and pity’ is a problem in and of itself. DuBois cannot completely move away from this structure if he hopes to be accepted as truthful, accurate and successful, however in the body of both this extract and the larger text we see his strives to be considered in and of himself, and for the African American community to be seen from its inherent value and strengths, rather than seen as a poor substitute for whites.
W.E.B. DuBois‘ notion of double consciousness is an important, but controversial, concept that has gone on to find use in not only literary circles but within the wider field of African American/Africana Studies. It was such a powerful device as it helped define the irony of black Americans being forced on the one hands to try to develop self-definitions while at the same time, being assigned hostile and negative identities imposed by the outside society through the racism of many white Americans of the era.
In many ways, the question at the crux of the novel is asked in this passage, and DuBois points out he himself has no good response,:“How does it feel to be a problem?”. The question highlights the ironic treatment of blacks in America in the early 20th century, and particularly the lack of control and support that was felt following Emancipation. A huge percentage of American population had suddenly been given rights, and therein lay the ‘problem’ DuBois speaks of – the discomfort and confusion still felt by many in the white community (as exemplified by the schoolmate turning away his visiting-card), the struggles of attempting to organise and be sustainable as a community having had no education, the desire of blacks to be seen as both different and beneficial to the US as a whole. These were issues that could be brushed off when slavery was enforced however following that, these problematic questions needed very real and tangible answers. In essence, through confronting the duality within himself, DuBois’ blackness and Americanness are being married by education and his ability to express these horrors in an accurate and evocation manner; DuBois is at last “able to penetrate to his own self-conciousness and culture.”
Anderson, James D. The Education Of Blacks In The South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Print.
Bogen, F. W. The German in America, Boston, 1851, as quoted in Ozment, Steven E, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. 2004. Print.
Brodwin, S. The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W. E. B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”. Journal of Black Studies, 2(3), 303–321. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2783720
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library, 1996. Print.
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