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Until lions tell their tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter

African Proverb

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will

– Frederick Douglass

The most pathetic thing is for a slave who doesn't know that he is a slave

– Malcolm X

Every man is rich in excuses to safeguard his prejudices, his instincts, and his opinions.

– Ancient Egypt

Cowardice asks the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: is it political? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? But conscience asks the question: is it right.

– Dr. Martin L. King, Jr

What kind of world do we live in when the views of the oppressed are expressed at the convenience of their oppressors?

– Owen 'Alik Shahadah

We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us.

– Chester Higgins Jr.

Leave no brother or sister behind the enemy line of poverty.

– Harriet Tubman


Sona Maya Jobarteh
Sona Jobarteh 02-2009

The Souls of Black Folk, written by W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1973), was published in 1903 and remains today one of the most crucial texts to address the sociological, economic, political and historical development of African Americans at the turn of the 20th Century. It stands as a seminal work and a cornerstone of African American philosophy and literary history.


Du Bois’ concept of ‘Double Consciousness’ is a multifaceted one. In this essay we shall seek to examine each of the aspects of this concept and to examine how they are expounded within the book. We shall address the influences on Du Bois’ concept of Double Consciousness, and finally explore the possibility of reconciling this sense of ‘Double Consciousness’ within both the individual and, consequentially, society. However, crucial to an understanding of ‘Double Consciousness’ is Du Bois’ concept of the ‘Veil’, which shall therefore be the starting point of this essay, and serve as the springboard off which the ideas and manifestations of ‘Double Consciousness’ shall leap.


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Du Bois uses the concept of the Veil to allude to the stark and harsh reality of the colour line which drew an unremitting line between blacks and whites in every strata of society in the United States. Du Bois insightfully predicted that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the colour line. The Veil is a theme which runs throughout the book constantly re-appearing, echoing the way in which it served as the constant backdrop to the lives of black people during that time, forever reminding them that their legal freedom was but an illusion; that despite Emancipation, they still had no more rights than they had as slaves, no more hope of liberation than they had as slaves, and no more hope of being considered equal to others than they had as slaves.

The legacy of slavery was still ongoing, further engraining itself into the mentality of the people under the false guise of ‘freedom’ and ‘Emancipation’.

Du Bois’ first personal encounter with the Veil was when he was a young boy; 
“In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy
gorgeous visiting cards – ten cents a package – and exchange. The exchange was merry,
till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, - refused it peremptorily, without a glance.
Then it dawned upon me with a certain sadness that I was different from the others…
shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

In the Chapter ‘Of the Sons of Master and Man’, Du Bois puts forward the idea of a ‘talented tenth’ - a group of educated black people who would be responsible for the education and leadership of the black population, as opposed to leaving this to whites. Later he dedicates a chapter to both Alexander Crummell and to John, and whilst reading these stories one cannot help but feel a sad sense of irony in its resonances with the earlier aspirations voiced through the concept of the ‘talented tenth’. No doubt in the eyes of Du Bois these two figures would have been perfect examples of his ‘talented tenth’, yet just as each stands as a glimmer of light and hope in a dark world, both stories are scarred with poignancy and oppression, as we witness demise after demise. These accounts serve to illustrate how regardless of the individual’s soaring talents and potential successes, each will be cut off from their dreams by the swift and merciless descendance of the Veil; a vast cloud that ‘closes the doors of Opportunity roughly in their faces.’

The story of Du Bois himself which winds its way through the book is also a sad and at times frustrating one. After qualifying from the Teacher’s Institute with high hopes, Du Bois tells of the futile search for a vacancy as a school teacher. The following quote quaintly expresses what he was faced with upon leaving the Institute:
“…the hunting of ducks and bears and men is wonderfully interesting,
but I am sure that the man who has never hunted for a country school has
something to learn from the pleasures of the chase.”
Even when he was to find a school in Nashville the Veil was quick to descend, as a reminder that the Opportunities open to him were not the same as for others on the other side of the Veil.
““Come in”, said the commissioner. “Have a seat…stay to dinner…”
“Oh”, I thought, “this is lucky”, but even then fell the awful shadow
of the Veil, for they ate first, then I
– alone.”
Du Bois refers to the stories of Alexander Crummell and John as ‘a struggle of the human heart and soul’; a statement which emphasizes, perhaps like his title of the book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, the humanity and the souls of black people, which do not differ from those of any other humans, regardless of race, gender or class.

Upon the death of his two year old son Burghardt, when Du Bois had reached the limits of his despair over this heart-wrenching ordeal, he bitterly laments over the dominance of the ‘Veil’ on their lives.  He is driven to the seemingly insane conclusion that his son’s death was a good thing, as it meant he escaped the shadow of the Veil.  He died when he was still pure, and still saw people as “…souls alone, and un-coloured and unclothed.”
“Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bound, but free…well sped my boy
before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had your ideas
unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow…”

In reference to Alexander Crummell, Du Bois clearly regarded that those unable to fulfil their duties on earth suffered the worst death. This also alludes to the death of his son perhaps suggesting that, had he lived a life unable to fulfil his duty as a consequence of the oppression of the Veil, he would have faced an inevitable crushing ‘death’ of mind and spirit - and this death would have been a worse death than the physical death that he suffered when he was still young, untainted by prejudice and degradation.

By vividly exposing to the reader the existence of the ‘Veil’, Du Bois is able to reveal to the white readership a glimpse of the world which lies behind it. To perhaps show that it is the ‘Veil’ which colours and defines what lies behind it.
“Leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the Veil,
raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, the
meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow,
and the struggle of its greater souls.”

Simultaneously I believe that for the black reader, the exposition of the ‘Veil’ helps to decrease its dominance by revealing to them the very roots of its existence. This stems from the idea that by understanding the true workings of a system, one can begin to liberate oneself from it. The ‘insider’ can thus begin to see that the ‘Veil’ and its negativity is not a part of them, but an external imposition upon them. One can then crucially start to distinguish between what are external, false impositions and what are true, internal qualities, traits, or indeed setbacks.

                                                                                             ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊  

Du Bois introduces the concept of ‘Double Consciousness’ to the reader in the first Chapter of the book, ‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’. This description he gives is quite a general one, but very concisely expressed;

“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 oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring ones soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”

Masterfully, however, as the book unfolds this notion of Double Consciousness is illustrated, and filled with the peculiarities of African-American life. It is only when one reaches the end of the book that one looks back and wonders at the amazing skill that has woven this book together, and succeeded in cleverly unfolding the reality of the concepts (such as double consciousness) put forward in the early chapters. 

This concept of Double Consciousness can be addressed from at least three main perspectives. Firstly there is the perspective of the impact of European outlook of black thought. Secondly there is the physical racism encountered by black people on a daily basis, and thirdly the internal conflict of what it means to be an African and an American. One must address each of these uniquely.

The first perspective is essentially the idea of ‘looking at oneself through the eyes of others’, a notion which has also been referred to as “the white supremacist gaze.” In reference to one of the steams of thought that had been handed down since the time when slaves first landed in America (and indeed prior to then), Du Bois illustrates how black people were regarded;
“The idea that God created an inferior race of black men,
a clownish, simple creature, at times even loveable within its
limitations, but sprightly foreordained to walk within the Veil.”

Aime Cesaire states that the derogatory, stereotypical outlook on black people has sunk deep into the souls of the European bourgeoisie. By this, he is not even referring to the overt racism plain to see by anyone, but “…about a reaction caught unawares, a reflex permitted, a piece of cynicism tolerated.” This is an even more cultivated, internalised and sinister racism, that can become accepted or overlooked by many, both black and white. It is this form of racism that remains with us today, unchanged over the years.
Having gone through the subjugating system of slavery, forced into a mentality of submissiveness to white authority, then to be thrown out under the illusion of ‘Emancipation’ into a society which continued to oppress and betray them, black people had been cultivated detrimentally to always see themselves through the eyes of the white society. To this day we still suffer from European outlook shaping the minds of black people. This is implemented through the two perhaps most powerful tools of control – the media and education. These still sustain the general misunderstanding and distortion of black people’s own history, legacy and identity.

However, it is important to note that this idea of ‘looking at oneself through the eyes of others’ is not only a case for black people in the diaspora, but has also embedded itself into the minds of Africans on the continent too. It can be seen that, through the colonisation process, Africans have also become indoctrinated into this mindset. This is explored by Frantz Fanon who states that the degrading stereotype of the black person deployed by the European was internalised by the colonial subjects, creating a “fundamental disjuncture between the black man’s consciousness and his body.” This leads us to realise that this aspect of Double-Consciousness is not simply about being a minority group within a predominantly white racist society. Here we see that in Africa, where Africans are the majority, Double Consciousness has still taken root. This perhaps suggests that the persistence of this aspect of Double Consciousness within black people is the result a slave/colonised mentality rather than being surrounded by a dominant racist discourse.

Du Bois refers to ‘seeing oneself through the eyes of others’ as a “second sight”- something which never really allows one to achieve a true self-consciousness. So why, then, does Du Bois refer to it as a ‘gift’. It could be suggested that ‘second sight’ allows one to see the “distance between the American ideal which they cherish, and the reality of the American practices of systematic racial degradation” which white people are unable and/or unwilling to see. Hence, as well as having its negative effect of seeing “…themselves through the eyes of white people, hence as deformed and inferior”, ‘second sight’ also seems to have a positive effect of allowing them to see things from more than one perspective. It is in fact a double-edged sword.

The second aspect of Double Consciousness was the result of having to cope with the overt and physical racism experienced on a day to day basis. Du Bois was writing the Souls of Black Folk post slavery and post Civil War at the time of reconstruction, when America was still searching for viable ways to channel freed slaves into a system of paid labour and to provide ‘appropriate’ education. Lynching was almost commonplace and blacks faced frequent attacks and injustice everywhere they turned, shut out from the world of opportunity by the colour of their skin. Despite his exceptional talents, Du Bois came to the realisation early on in life that “all their dazzling opportunities were theirs, not mine”. The combination of this, and of the internalised Eurocentric derogatory perspective on black people must have created a context whose persistency might have in dark times tempted even the most radical people to perhaps question their own worth. Du Bois illustrates that these social conditions created a “confused, half-conscious mutter of black men crying, “Liberty, Freedom, Opportunity”. Behind this, too, lurks the afterthought that “suppose the world is right, and we are less than men?” This is “the temptation of Doubt”, something which Du Bois talks of in his Chapter on Alexander Crummell. This is one of the destructive, but inevitable components of Double Consciousness - the plague of self-doubt.


The internal conflict of what it means to an African and an American constitutes the third aspect of Double Consciousness. Du Bois regarded the African consciousness to be endowed in a spirituality which was in turn revealed through African American folklore, and indeed through their music and culture. Du Bois crucially believed that “Negro blood has a message for the world. In other words, their spiritual consciousness could bring a softening influence to a cold and calculating world.” In The Souls of Black Folk he pays particular attention to the Negro Spirituals, an example of where the spirit of Africa, and their African consciousness was kept. Throughout slavery, music was one of the few places where African heritage could be preserved. This identity was unique to them, and could therefore only be truly expressed by them, and Du Bois refers in disappointment to the mass of poor white southern churches that were copying the gospel hymns, saying that they were “debased imitations of Negro melodies made by ears that caught the jingle but not the music, the body but not the souls, of the Jubilee singers.” In other words, it was the African spirit that gave life to these songs and practices within the black churches.
“Du Bois claims that these gifts of black folk have given America its only indigenous music, the material foundations of its empire, and ethical critiques to remind America of its own moral limits.”
Du Bois’ belief that Africans “have artistic, spiritual, cultural, and psychological qualities and abilities which distinguish them from Caucasians” has been criticized by those who object to the idea of attributing different qualities to different races. It is said that this view partakes of the same argument that was used by Europeans to degrade and enslave Africans in the first place, on the grounds of their being of an ‘inferior’ race. However, I might seek to suggest that Du Bois in no way implies any sense of hierarchy of one race over another, simply that one may draw a few distinctions between certain characteristics of one with another, whilst ultimately maintaining that all races are created equal. Understanding differences is far from a negative thing, but in fact opens up the way for mutual respect and acknowledgement – something crucial in the process of reconciling double-consciousness.

Du Bois saw the American white world as being one of commerce and materialism. For him, these two essences of African spirituality and American materialism caused an internal conflict within the black person. On top of this, he puts forward the fact that black people are having to contend with the swathe of rapid development of the 19th century, yet still struggling with the eddies of the 15th century. These two consciousness are changing, but not at the same rate “…and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideas, and tempt the mid to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism”

What has been claimed and explored extensively by many are the links between Du Bois’ concept of Double Consciousness and the American Transcendentalism as well as scientific thought that was ongoing at the time of Du Bois’ writings.
Double-Consciousness had a long history before Bois used the term, and it is said that he deliberately wanted to allude to its older meaning, in order to make his new adaptation of the term more comprehensive to those who would otherwise be totally unfamiliar with his concept. Let us therefore look a little more into older uses of the term ‘double consciousness’.

American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson talked of the existence of a higher spiritual religious realm within the human soul.
“I seek counsel of it in my doubts; I repair to it in my dangers; I pray
to it in my undertakings. It is the door of my access to the Father.”
This realm has very little to do with the physical realm of everyday life, and thus he used the term ‘double consciousness’ to characterize the "distinction of the inner and the outer self", and the state of having to alternate between these two irreconcilable consciousnesses. For Emerson, this ‘double-consciousness’ was a dilemma, and the only solution was to “ride alternately on the horses of [ones] private and public nature."

Although it may be interesting to note possible similarities between Emerson’s and Du Bois’ concepts of Double Consciousness, I do not believe that the similarities offer any further enlightenment on Du Bois’ concept of the term.  If one approaches ‘double consciousness’ in a very general, all-encompassing fashion, Emerson’s concept can be said to contain certain vague resonances with Du Bois. However, when one delves into the specifics of Du Bois’ concept, one finds that they have little in common. Du Bois was talking about the specific experience of the African and the American, whereas Emerson referred to a general human condition, prior to and outside history. Du Bois’ concept of Double Consciousness blocked its victim from attaining “…true self-consciousness”, only letting him “…see himself through the revelation on the other world”, whereas Emerson advocated the acceptance of ‘double consciousness’ in order to attain true self-knowledge and harmony. One could say that Emerson’s ‘double consciousness’ is something that could be experienced by an African American on top of the entirely different Double Consciousness of being and ‘African’ and an ‘American’.

This comparison leads us to suggest that there is often the tendency and the false need to measure African writers, thinkers, philosophers, poets and other Africans who master genres often regarded as the European domain, with European figures of equal success. It seems as though there is the tendency for people of African descent to (many times unwittingly) ‘validate’ their iconic African figures by highlighting their comparisons with other great European figures. Ironically, this serves as an example of the very problem that Du Bois himself laments over – the imperative of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others. Equally, on the other hand, there is often a European tendency to claim that their ideas and concepts can all be traced back to another ‘great’ European figure, in such a way that undermines the originality and therefore authority of great African pioneers.

No doubt, Du Bois was writing about a situation completely unfamiliar to his white readership, and in an attempt to perhaps welcome them in, he did well to use a term previously familiar to many. Beyond this, however, I strongly believe that the concepts of Emerson and Du Bois share little in comparison.

What seems more likely is the influence of scientific thought on the mind of Du Bois. In many ways this provided medical proof of Du Bois’ Double Consciousness. Indeed, during the time Du Bois was formulating his ideas there was a renewed interest in the concept of ‘double consciousness’ as a medical subject. In fact Du Bois’ mentor at Harvard University, William James, realised his work “The Principles of Psychology” at the time when Du Bois was still under his tuition. Although James did not actually use the term ‘double consciousness, his book directly addressed the scientific concept of split-personality, or ‘double-consciousness’. During that time psychologists were exploring the notion of ‘dual personalities’, which were not only different from one another, but inevitably in opposition to one another, confined within one body, and that neither of the two selves could be regarded as the ‘normal’ self. Du Bois seems to take up on this idea of oppositional ‘dual personalities’, as he describes them as “…two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals…”.


It seems that Du Bois’ concept of ‘Double Consciousness’ points to the need for a resolution; a reconciliation of these two ‘warring ideals’ in order to attain a ‘true self consciousness’. Indeed, medical research showed that sufferers of ‘double consciousness’ were in ‘great anguish’ upon the realisation of their condition, and they clearly ‘desired to possess a single individual self’.. Du Bois’ mentor, William James, suggested that the solution to ‘split-personality’ was not the victory of one over the other, but a process whereby “the dissociated systems came together”, resulting in a third, new Self “different from the other two but knowing their object together”. Similarly, Du Bois concludes that one must retain both the older selves in order to create a new truer self;
“…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 Africanise America, for the America has too much to teach the world of 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.”

Here Du Bois also illustrates his rejection of the idea of integration, an idea which he elaborates on in Chapter three, entitled ‘Of Booker T. Washington and Others’. “He could not countenance African-Americans integrated into a culture which he considered in many respect nonexistent, for he believed that white America had produced no art of value, no religion which it believed in, and no human relations which gave authority to counsel others.” He could only accept so-called ‘integration’ so far as it meant an exchange of ideas between whites and blacks. E.V. Wolfenstein states that Double Consciousness is caused by the “individualization” and “internalization” of the Veil, and this problem cannot be overcome by pretending to be either American or African, but by affirming the hyphen between African-American, and by “shouldering the weight of two-ness.” In other-words a third consciousness cannot be borne out of ‘two warring ideals’, but only from a mutual recognition of each, and of an acknowledgement of the two-way exchange that has created American society.  


It is my belief that the book itself, which stands as a monumental work to the history of the economic, political and social development (or perhaps ‘underdevelopment’) of black people after and since the Civil War, offers a strong hope of reconciliation of this ‘double consciousness’. Through his study of the ‘American Negro’, in which he brought out and exposed the false assumptions about ‘Negroes’, Du Bois contributed to an understanding of social theory that has led us today to the point of self-reflexive theory, in which we can accept responsibility for questioning our own cultural baggage and our own denial of where that cultural baggage leads us. I feel that double consciousness is born of the imposition of one people’s philosophy upon another, and the systematic maintenance of that philosophy within the souls of those people, however contrary it is to their true selves.  So a merging of double consciousness to become a better and truer third self can only be achieved through a true understanding of each of the original identities, untainted by misrepresentation, prejudice or supremacy. It must be grounded in the historical facts of the interaction between the African and the European from the time they both landed in the Americas (and indeed before that), and the contributions of both to the formation of that nation, now called America. The Souls of Black Folk is a vital contribution to this understanding, and is thus an important educational text for all people of African descent. Correct education is crucial in the process of self-empowerment, and creating a true self consciousness and Du Bois, like many other key African figures such as Marcus Garvey and Steve Biko, in no way underestimated this fact. If we were provided at every level with unbiased, factual education about all that went into forming the American nation, it would be widely accepted that American society is yet to acknowledge their indebtedness to those Africans who, by will and by force, gave their souls to creating the foundations upon which the American nation now stands.  

“Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here
we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and
song – soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodic land; the gift of sweat
and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this
vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than you weak hands would have done
it… Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves
with the very warp and woof of this nation – we have fought their battles, shared their
sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded
with a head-strong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the
nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been
given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not
this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

The problematics of double consciousness are still with us today, and despite the passing of over 100 years, it is worthy to note how relevant to us The Souls of Black Folk still remains. It is worthwhile meditating on Du Bois’ emphasis on the disabilities that working people labor under, on the shortcomings of a democracy that is too worshipful of money, and on his ominous predictions of the future of African American  people if things were not to change. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it again and again, and The Souls of Black Folk is one of the vital means we have of remembering how far we’ve come, how difficult it was to get there, and what price was paid along the way. Following on from here, it must surely show us how we need to proceed, in order to secure a future of progress instead of regression. As time passes, we are encouraged to forget history more and more, and thus to become less and less critical of our present status in society. It is one thing to be oppressed, but another not to challenge this oppression due to a lack of sufficient historical education, and to bow down and accept things simply as “just the way things are”.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois. 2003 p.4.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois. 2003 p.63

Ibid. p.65

Ibid. p.213-214

Ibid. p.214

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois. 1994 Introduction p.V

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois. 2003 p.5

African American Review, S.M. Smith. 2000, p.581

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois. 2003 p.90

Discourse on Colonialism, by A. Cesaire. p.26-27

Frantz Fanon by J. Poulos. 1996, p.2

Political Theory, L. Balfour, 1998 p.351

A Gift of Spirit by E.V. Wolfenstein.  2007 p.9  

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois. 2003 p.4

Ibid. p.90

Ibid. p.224

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, 1999 p.238-239

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, 2003. p.194

African Intellectual Heritage, Ed. by M.K Asante, 1996. p.587

W.E.B Du Bois by K.O Pobi-Asamani, 1975. p.23

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, 2003. p.202-203

W.E.B Du Bois and American Political Thought by A. Reed, 1999. p.98

Ibid. p.98

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, 2003. p.5

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, 2003. p.5

W.E.B Du Bois and American Political Thought by A. Reed, 1999. p.101

Ibid. p.6

W.E.B.Du Bois. By K. Pobi-Asamani, 1975. P. 25.

A Gift of Spirit, by E.V. Wolfenstein, 2007. p.23

Ibid.  p.23

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, 2003. p.265-266


"white" depends for its stability on its negation, "black." Neither exists without the other, and both come into being at the moment of imperial conquest.
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