DuBois' Souls of Black Folk / "Not Just Double Consciousness"

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, 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. One ever feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled [sic] strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

This excerpt may seem vaguely familiar. It is the paragraph in W.E. B. Dubois’ book The Souls of Black Folk that evokes the overly used and often misinterpreted concept of double-consciousness. Double-consciousness is mentioned once on the second page of The Souls of Black Folk and is never brought up again (except in chapter 10 on page 122 where Dr. Dubois talks about a “double life”). If this is accepted as true why is it that whenever The Souls of Black Folk is adverted to only double-consciousness is mentioned? Have we only gotten to the second page? Is this the only valid statement that Dr. Dubois makes in this book? I think not.

The idea of double-consciousness that Dr. Dubois mentions (briefly) in The Souls of Black Folk is a very powerful idea and could arguably summarize the experience of the African in America. However it is not the only idea that Dr. Dubois wanted to convey to his readers. In the subsequent chapters following the chapter (of Our Spiritual Strivings) that double-consciousness is mentioned, there are several ideas and concepts that appeared more important in the eyes of Dr. Dubois.

Of the Wings of Atalanta was a brilliant essay on greed and its haplessness. Dr. Dubois starts the essay by telling the myth of Atalanta: “…[H]ow swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who out-race her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in the way. She fled like a shadow, paused startled over the first apple, but even as he stretched his hand, fled again, hovered over the second, then, slipping from his hot grasp, flew over river, vale and hill; but as she lingered over the third, his arms fell around her,…and they were cursed.” The moral of the story is to warn the masses of greed and its effects. And with America being a capitalist society, superimposing this on the rest of the world, it trains the masses in greed and self-consumption which is antithetical to African people and our cultural disposition. Dr. Dubois offers education as a combatant to the trap of greed: “The Wings of Atalanta are the coming of universities of the south. They alone can bear the maiden past the temptation of golden fruit.”

In the following chapter (Of the Training of Black Men) Dr. Dubois talks about education and its purpose. His claim, juxtaposed to the ideology of Booker T. Washington, was that education should not train money-makers but should “develop men”. Moreover, in the tenth chapter (Of the Sons of Masters and Man) Dr. Dubois paints a vivid picture of “the physical, economic, and political relations of the Negroes and whites in the South.” He addresses in this essay what he evoked in an earlier essay when his opening statement was “THE PROBLEM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is the problem of the color-line.”

To conclude there is more to The Souls of Black Folk than double-consciousness. Dr. Dubois has innumerable books which include: Darkwater, Black Reconstruction in America, The World and Africa, The Gift of Black Folk and countless others. So, in the words of Josh Myers: “One day we’ll read more than Souls of Black Folk.”

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by Michael Leak

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