William Edward Burghardt Du Bois wrote his American literary classic, The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches, in 1903. More than a century later the testaments of his work can be applied today. Throughout his book, Du Bois shapes the framework of American society from the Negro lens. He addresses the problems faced by the Black race including oppression, racism, and identity. Du Bois takes a unique approach merging sociology and history. He coins new terms such as double-consciousness and the color-line to describe social divisions and racial inequality. In the 1900’s Du Bois lived in an era fresh from slavery. It would be the second generation where Blacks were born free. It represents the era of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws. They were physically free, but had little access to opportunity and civil liberty afforded to their White counterparts. African Americans today live in a much different world as observed throughout history. Society is not segregated by law and violence, and Blacks have basic rights and opportunities. This includes the right to vote, rights against discrimination by race, and other protections. They imply equal access and opportunities to the American dream. However the reality is that African Americans still face heavy injustice and oppression. “For African Americans of the past and present, the burden of being Black in America has been the single most challenging phenomenon throughout their history in the United States” (Wallace 698). Despite the Civil Rights laws and other progressive measures that encourage social inclusion, the problems facing the Negro still exist. This includes issues of double-consciousness. By analyzing and understanding “Our Spiritual Strivings”, the audience can identify with Du Bois message against racism and oppression in today’s world.
The first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, is entitled, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”. In this chapter Du Bois takes “an unbiased consideration of the negro’s emotional nature”, (Griffin 31). He begins the chapter with an anecdote, a personal story about the nature of liberal Whites. Later Du Bois reflects on the moment he first realized he was different. It is inappropriate questions asked by people who feel superior. It is the power of White people to decide what is good, bad, or a problem. It also includes the feelings of being excluded and looked down at for being different. The emotions that Du Bois brought up are not the sole feelings of Black folks. It is the feelings that anyone would have when considered an outsider, against the norm, or heavily stigmatized. “The Negro lives in a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois 3). For people of color, race is significant to themselves. It is identity, language, culture, and community.
According to Du Bois, the Negro holds a mirror and the reflection is based on the thoughts and perceptions of Whites. These perceptions include stereotypes, prejudice, and White privilege that dominate American culture. It is negative assumptions that is held against the Negro that causes this strive. Du Bois describes it as a veil that colored people are forced to live behind. “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” (Du Bois 3). It is an image that appeals to the emotions but also expresses a feeling that many people identify with today. Those who are different are often excluded in ways which measures their worth. Weather one is disabled; Muslim, or immigrant, minorities are stigmatized by how they are viewed by society. These views are often observed throughout the media, where the good guys are White and bad guys are people of color. This can be seen on the news, sit-coms and movies. As a result, race and ethnicity is still significant today. It not only reflects individual identity, but “research confirms that ‘race’ still matters in terms of opportunity, access, treatment, and quality of life” (Barnes 2). Once stigmatized, individuals face a double consciousness, a struggle between the self and society. Although many realize they are a person of value, society says the latter. This causes a struggle between two realities. “The Veil is both a cause and an effect of the color line; the racial ‘imagery’ is propagated by the false dichotomy between self and other” (Igeanta).
While Du Bois uses the Negro as the primary subject of his piece, many of his statements can be applied to Americans across the country in 2016. Double-consciousness works as a social division. It divides the self and the community, against the rest of the society. Du Bois uses different examples in his work to illustrate the oppression of others. This can be seen in his references to poverty and prison, two problems that are both stigmatizing and also a reflection of the Black community today. “He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors” (Du Bois 8). Through poverty, Du Bois relates to the parallels of being poor and the hardships that come with that in Capitalist country. It reflects the oppression individuals face in this situation. The concept that people cannot get a leg-up when forced to do without, shows that poverty is still related to oppression. Today, poverty means poor housing, education, and job opportunities. “Blacks, especially single mothers and their children are at greater risk of poverty…scholars suggests a growing angst in the Black community that cannot be combated without economic redress”, (Barnes 2). Those who are poor are least likely to have a standard quality of life, and this becomes a generational curse. It is not only a problem faced by Blacks but a problem faced by Whites and minorities alike.
Yet double consciousness is also reflected through crime and prison. It is widely argued with America has one of the world’s largest prison population, African American’s making up the majority. Once a crime is committed, an individual is stigmatized for life with a criminal record. Criminal records are reviewed for employment and apartments making it difficult to be successful and sustain a household. “The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above (Du Bois 3). This still holds true today. There has been much attention given to prison reform including excessive use of force by police officers on unarmed black men. It has been the subject of social unrest and political protest for the last few years. As a result, many African Americans of today face a different form of racism. This includes forms of institutional racism and the stigma of criminalization placed on Black men. Many cite the high rate of African American criminals as the subsequent problem. However research states the opposite. “International terrorism, hate crimes, and the prison industrial complex teeming with Black males point to Du Bois observation of the tendency to consider differences with suspicion and mistrust” (Barnes 2).
To combat double-consciousness, Du Bois sends a cry for unity and freedom. He encourages people living under the veil to be themselves and merge their two identities into one. To unite within oneself is to unite with America and to be uniquely American. This can only happen by altering identity.
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” (Du Bois 4).
Although Blacks are physically free, they are not emotionally, intellectually, mentally, or economically free. This is because of the obstacles faced by African Americans through their lack of equal opportunity within American society. In order to gain the freedom promised in the Constitution, Blacks must merge the two parts of themselves. Du Bois encourages the oppressed to find new freedoms in politics and education. He stresses other avenues of life such as family and community. In this era, America has witness great growth and progression. In 2008 Barak Obama became the first Black president in American history. He was able to achieve this success through the unity of the Black community to come together and vote. The young, old, and people of all creeds and kinds came to support Obama and his candidacy. Without the hope of a nation or the courage of a people, this would not have been able to happen. The need to unite is stressed by Du Bois, “Work, culture, liberty, — all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people” (Du Bois 11).
- Barnes, Sandra. “A Sociological Examination of W.E.B Du Bois’ The Soul of Black Folks.” The North Star: A Journal of African American Religious History 7.2 (2003): 1-6. Retrieved from: https://www.princeton.edu/~jweisenf/northstar/volume6/barnes.pdf
- Byerman, Keith. “W.E.B Du Bois and the Construction of Whiteness.” The Souls of Black Folks One Hundred Years Later. Ed. Dolan Hubbard. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003. 161-71. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=lwzJ5NAXPMwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=the+soul+of+black+folk+dubois+today&ots=aJsnZyXnXg&sig=QWA67_C89eep9V9G1vg1coKiBr8#v=onepage&q=merge&f=true
- Du Bois, WEB . The Souls of Black Folk. Philadelphia, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries. 1903. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Souls_of_Black_Folk.html?id=lTXYAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q=truer&f=true
- Griffin, Erica L. “Reviews of The Souls of Black Folk.” The Souls of Black Folks One Hundred Years Later. Ed. Dolan Hubbard. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003. 18-33. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=lwzJ5NAXPMwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=the+soul+of+black+folk+dubois+today&ots=aJsnZyXnXg&sig=QWA67_C89eep9V9G1vg1coKiBr8#v=onepage&q=merge&f=true
- Igeanta, A. “The Souls of Black Folks in ‘Post-Racial’ America. The Daily KOS 18 September 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/9/18/1018014/-
- Wallace, Jeffery. “Ideology vs Reality: The Myth of Equal Opportunity in a Color Blind Society.” Akron Law Review 4 (2003): 693-716. Retrieved from: http://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1350&context=akronlawreview