1903: The Souls of Black Folk

I’ve previously introduced W.E.B. Du Bois on this blog as an opponent of Booker T. Washington’s, but he deserves significant mention in his own right as an influential and much-admired author, scholar, political organizer and, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “gifted discoverer of social truths.”

A classic of early sociology and African American history, The Souls of Black Folk consists of essays written by Du Bois between 1897 and 1901, essays on the history of the Freedmen’s Bureau; the black cultural milieu he encountered while studying and teaching in the South; the tragic death of his own infant son; the leadership of Washington; and black spirituals, among other topics. The book received mixed reviews when it was first published, but it sold well in its own time and many important contemporary figures, including Barack Obama, have cited Du Bois as an influence.

In the following excerpt, Du Bois raises two of the ideas for which he is best known, that of the ‘veil’ and the ‘double-consciousness’ of his people:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. 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 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 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. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American…

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