Du Boisian Double Consciousness:
The Unsustainable Argument*
by Ernest Allen, Jr.
To appear in Massachusetts Review (2001). Please do not cite without permission
Ernest Allen, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003-6210. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Du Boisian Double Consciousness:
The Unsustainable Argument*
by Ernest Allen, Jr.
It was in his essay “Strivings of the Negro People,” appearing in The Atlantic Monthly in late 1897, that W. E. B. Du Bois first advanced the notion of Afro-American “double consciousness.” Six years later that same essay, slightly modified and rechristened with the title “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” became the initial chapter of his newly published Souls of Black Folk.1 But then, immediately following that auspicious publishing event, Du Boisian double consciousness was put up for adoption by its creator, sporadically commented upon over the years (mostly by white academicians), and then curiously redeemed by Afro-American scholars in the decades following Du Bois’ departure from this world in 1963.
The present essay is concerned with three main issues: first, what, precisely, was Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness? Secondly, why did he choose to advance that particular notion in 1897 and then subsequently fail to elaborate upon it? And thirdly, if it is true, as I argue in this essay, that Du Bois’ formulation of double consciousness was little more than double slight of hand, what does such a conclusion imply for the actual existence of an Afro-American double consciousness at the turn of the last century—or even today?
Misreadings of Double Consciousness
The first objection to the above characterization will arrive, no doubt, from those who have misconstrued Du Boisian double consciousness as a broad-based Afro-American cultural dilemma. That so many contemporary “blackademics” and others have shown themselves capable of misreading Du Bois’ writings in this fashion is, in itself, a topic worthy of further investigation. Subsequently we shall see that a pattern of misinterpretation extends as far back as the World War I era. A recent example is Gerald Early’s edited work, Lure and Loathing, wherein many of the essays seem to take for granted Early’s assertion that Du Boisian double consciousness refers to a tension between the “nationalist and assimilated collective identity” of Afro-Americans, but where the concept of identity itself is conflated with “culture” drawn in broad, anthropological terms.2 The problem is that late 19th-century Afro-American intellectuals were already culturally assimilated Americans whose nationalist leanings, when expressed in what we today would call “cultural” terms, mainly took the form of vindicationist histories extolling the accomplishments of peoples of African descent. Undergoing expansion during the New Negro Renaissance period, Afro-American cultural nationalism began to find additional expression through the medium of literature and poetry.3 But a broad-based cultural nationalism anchored in the anthropological concept of an Afro-American “way of life”—anticipated, to be sure, in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Paul Robeson during the 1930s—would have to await the outpourings of culturally assimilated Afro-American anti-assimilationists of the 1960s.4 Although it is possible to conceive of an African American double consciousness in a broad anthropological sense—many have done so over the past several decades, and, stripped of its historical context, Du Bois’ work can certainly be read in such a manner today—that is emphatically not how Du Bois himself viewed the matter. Rather, his concerns appear far narrower, focusing instead on what he considered as conflicts engendered by (unspecified) double thoughts, (equally unspecified) double strivings, (vaguely defined) double aims, and (comparatively well articulated) double ideals, a subject to which we shall return. In late 19th-century America, however, there existed no concept to express the kind of cultural conflict that many of today’s academics have tried to impose upon Du Bois’ earlier views of the world. In the English language, for example, the term “culture” at the turn of the last century was overwhelmingly synonymous with two concepts: what we would today call the arts, and with the notion of individual “cultivation” of behavior, dress, and aesthetic taste—hallmarks of civilization—and associated principally with the behavior of elites.5 All else was barbarism. And a moment’s reflection upon the overall value orientation of the educated black elite at the turn of the last century will serve to disabuse oneself of any idea that this class was burdened with a divided cultural consciousness framed by either of these narrow meanings. Sensing little “cultural” identification at all with the lives of the mass of black folk, the so-called Talented Tenth accepted as “universal” a set of values which by the 1930s would be ultimately acknowledged by Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and others as thoroughly Eurocentric.6
Historian Willard B. Gatewood Jr. describes the overriding set of values that governed the behavior of the educated black elite at the turn of the century:
Reared in homes that placed a premium on middle-class values and a Victorian code of behavior, they then often attended schools and colleges in which white New England faculties stressed the same kind of virtues and pieties. The pattern of education found at Oberlin, Fisk, Atlanta University, and Howard also prevailed in numerous other schools, black and white, throughout the nation; the objectives, ideologies, and even faculties were strikingly similar. The curricula devoted virtually no attention to the cultural heritage of Africa, but emphasized Anglo-Saxon or American culture. The educational experience of the black upper class, then, conspired to mold it into a replica of middle- and upper- class white America. Its values, style of living, and patterns of behavior, collectively known as “respectability” and highly prized in the black community, bore a remarkable resemblance to those of “respectable” white Americans. Elite blacks were educated to take a paternalistic view toward blacks less fortunate than themselves, in much the same way as the well-educated, white New England teachers and professors had often manifested toward them. 7
The devalued status of Afro-American life within the university curriculum was also remarked upon by Booker T. Washington following his conversation with a group of some twenty-five black Harvard students:
. . . I found that through their entire course of training, neither in the public schools, nor in the fitting schools, nor in Harvard, had any of them had an opportunity to study the history of their own race. In regard to the people with which they themselves were most closely identified, they were more ignorant than they were in regard to the history of the Germans, the French, or the English.8
Thus any suggestion that members of the tiny, educated elite among Afro-Americans were somehow torn between the values of, on the one hand, upper- or middle-class whites and, on the other, those of black sharecroppers, domestics, and other working people (that is, as one might say today, between a Eurocentric and an Afrocentric cultural orientation) is, quite simply, a proposition unsupported by the evidence.
However, despite the fact that the concept of culture as a “way of life” had not yet entered into the American vocabulary, there did exist at the time a notion of perceived group intrinsicality which eventually came to overlap that of the anthropological construct—and that was the notion of “national character traits.”9 Western thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries commonly assumed that each nationality or race (the terms were commonly interchanged) was enamored of specific traits, generally differing in kind from those of others.10 Echoing this sentiment, James Weldon Johnson, for example, remarked in 1900 that “the Negro and the white race, although they have the same inherent powers, possess widely different characteristics. There are some things which the white race can do better than the Negro, and there are some things which the Negro can do better than the white race. This is no disparagement to either.”11 And it is true that Du Bois occasionally drew salient contrasts between what he perceived as African American character traits and those of the dominant American population. But he held such differences to be complementary rather than incompatible in nature, specifically rejecting the thought that any kind of warring incongruities existed between them. In “Strivings,” for example, Du Bois spoke of
the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to, but in conformity with, the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day, on American soil, two world races may give to each other those characteristics which both so sadly lack.”12
Thus when in 1924 he declared himself in favor of what he termed a “sensuous, tropical love of life” manifested by blacks, and then contrasted that quality to the emotional distancing of a “cool and cautious New England reason,”13 such juxtaposing should not be “ventriloquisted” to say that he considered sensuality to be a constituent element of some warring ideal-pair. Rather—and whatever one may think of such characterizations today—Du Bois treated the contrasting attributes of “black sensuality” and “white reason” as reciprocal qualities. Each group possessed what the other lacked: the Negro “would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.”14 A bridging of the gulf which separated such traits would eventually yield a complex unity of opposites. And since Du Bois failed to view the relationship between such opposing qualities in an antagonistic light, it is difficult to make the case that he envisioned “black sensuality” and “white reason” locked in some kind of life and death struggle inside the brain-pan of the suffering Negro.
Based on such examples of comparative “character traits” which Du Bois detailed some thirty years after the publication of “Strivings,” however, political scientist Adolph L. Reed Jr. recently concluded that Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness was “an expression of his antinomical commitment to what he perceived to be the Dionysian attractions of black culture and the Apollonian virtues of European civilization.”15 While there can be no disagreement with the fact that the Talented Tenth embraced “Apollonian virtues” as a product of their upper-level schooling, that very process of socialization, as historian Willard B. Gatewood Jr. indicated, tended to dispel whatever “Dionysian attractions” such ascribed black character traits may have held for them. But given this lopsided Apollonian victory, how was it possible for the talented ones to experience “two souls dwelling in one”? So much for the cultural interpretations ascribed Du Boisian double consciousness, whether viewed through the optic of dissimilar ways of life, discordant character traits, or differences in artistic production.
Double Consciousness: Literary and Medical Expressions
The concept of double consciousness, of course, was hardly unique to Du Bois. So many scholarly inquiries regarding the topic of blquote doubling” and the “divided self” have been carried out in this area as of recent, that a brief summary is all that is needed here.16 One scholar who has helped to place Du Bois in his 19th-century context is Dickson D. Bruce Jr. Bruce, too, essentially replicates the error of Reed and others when he characterizes Du Boisian double consciousness as an “internal conflict in the African American individual, between what was ‘African’ and what was ‘American’.”ote Bruce, “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness,” 301. See Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., Archibald Grimké: Portrait of a Black Independent (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 204-205, for a slightly different formulation. But his identifying of the two main schools of thought for the concept itself, and of their overarching influence upon Du Bois’ own unique concept continues to provide a useful introduction to the topic. In short, Bruce locates one of those sources in the literary traditions of European Romanticism and American Transcendentalism; the other in the psychological research of the period.
Whether literary or clinical in expression, the growing fascination with the subject of the double and the divided self in Western Europe and the United States throughout the 190th century had mostly to do with formidable physical and spiritual dislocations experienced by individuals at the hands of modernity: industrialization, urbanization, and corresponding cultural changes befitting new modes of social organization. Often drawing upon oppositional constructs inherited from early Christianity, such expressions might assume, as with Paul or St. Augustine, a tension between the flesh and the sacred, or between nature and spirit, respectively.17 Or perhaps a theme rather common to Romanticism: a counterposing of the quotidian to the ethereal, of everyday life to thoughts of the sublime. Such were the plaints, for example, of Goethe’s Faust, wherein lie tantalizing suspicions of a possible forbearer of the Du Boisian version:
Two souls, alas, reside within my breast, and each is eager for a separation: in throes of coarse desire, one grips the earth with all its senses; the other struggles from the dust to rise to high ancestral spheres. If there are spirits in the air who hold domain between this world and heaven—out of your golden haze descend, transport me to a new and brighter life!18
Such Angst was comparable to the phenomenon of religious melancholy noted by William James in his 1902 lecture on “The Divided Self”: “man’s interior is a battle-ground for what he feels to be two deadly hostile selves,” wrote James,” one actual, the other ideal.”19 Ralph Waldo Emerson employed “double consciousness” in a multitude of ways: to signify a felt tension between the individual and society as well as between the oppositional pulls of fate and liberty (or necessity and freedom), and, in a more elevated sense, to signify the division between the mortal and immortal selves of the individual. More descriptively, he also spoke of the “double consciousness” of dreams, as well as instances when “the man and the poet show like a double consciousness20
Widely differing concepts of double consciousness, antagonistic ideals, and psychic despair were all, so to speak, “in the air” at the turn of the 19th century, thereby providing a number of overlapping and sometimes mutually incompatible paradigms for Du Bois to draw upon while executing his own unique take on them. Not only Goethe, but Emerson, James, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot and scores of other 19th-century men (and in the case of Eliot, woman) of letters who engaged the drama of the divided self through literature or psychological discourse. Apart from Goethe’s Faust, one also finds in Du Boisian twoness, for example, echoes of the internally competing psychic states in the medical model of double consciousness elaborated by James and others, where one’s social selves became separated from one another.21 But we also should emphasize that in no ways might Du Boisian double consciousness be reduced to the content of any of its predecessors.
Alternate Source of Anguish: The Agony of Misrecognition
However formulated, what all of these diverse expressions of double consciousness—including that of Du Bois—held in common was a sense of unresolved Angst. Whether African Americans actually suffered a strain of double consciousness is a matter yet to be determined here. But it is essential to point out that an altogether different and powerful source of psychic distress in the souls of black folk could be found in a process of misrecognition, or disrespect encountered on a daily basis—that is, in the general refusal on the part of whites to acknowledge the humanity of blacks. Some of the external prejudices against poor, impoverished Black Americans might even be justified, a conservative-minded Du Bois acknowledged, but the systematic humiliation black people faced on a daily basis was something else again:
But before that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond all this he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all‑pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil,—before this there rises a sickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that black host to whom “discouragement” is an unwritten word.22
This despair was an expression of the anguish experienced by African Americans who could not help but have internalized at least some of the negative sentiments that white society held towards them. The perils of such distorted self-consciousness among blacks did not pass unrecognized by other educated Afro-Americans at the turn of the last century. E. A. Johnson, for example, remarked upon “the danger in teaching a race or an individual to accept the estimate others may put on them.” He noted that the “American system of treating Negroes has made the Negro in many places think he was a good-for-nothing, and he has accepted that classification of himself and seeks in many instances to appear good-for-nothing.”23 Anticipating Carter G. Woodson’s “miseducation of the Negro” thesis by more than a generation, Nathan B. Young singled out for criticism the scholastic training of black youth:
From a tutelage whose spirit, wittingly or unwittingly is anti-Negro, many Negro youths return from college and seminary with despair settled down upon their soul—a despair brooded in a partial, and oftentimes, prejudicial reading and interpretation of philosophical formula and historical data. Their minds are stored with half truths, more mischievous and misleading than bold error. With these as premises, they proceed to argue themselves into the belief that theirs is an impotent race, so conditioned and prescribed by a civilization to which it has made no contribution, that it is impossible to form or to pursue any distinctive race ideal.24
Responding to Young’s analysis, Edward W. Blyden characterized the problem as one of “false consciousness.”25 The agony and despair often resulting from such negative conceptions of self bore a rough resemblance to the clinical version of double consciousness as well. But only Du Bois chose to characterize African American mental distress as consciousness divided.