A Dialectic of Doubleness

The strangeness and audacity of W.E.B. Du Bois and his work.

By Sean Wilentz

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

W.E.B. Du Bois with the Fisk University class of 1888.

W.E.B. Du Bois (second from left) with the Fisk University class of 1888, c. 1888. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

From the moment it appeared in April 1903, The Souls of Black Folk caused a sensation. Among black readers, James Weldon Johnson later claimed, it had the greatest impact of any book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. William James, W.E.B. Du Bois’ undergraduate mentor at Harvard, dispatched a copy to his brother Henry, who privately praised it (a little backhandedly) as “the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction published in many a year.” In Germany, Max Weber, whose lectures Du Bois attended while a student in Berlin, pronounced it a “splendid” effort and went to work finding a translator. Within two months, Du Bois’ American publishers had to arrange for a third printing, as the book became the subject of discussion in periodicals across the country, with the conspicuous exception of most white Southern newspapers and those controlled by the friends and supporters of Du Bois’ antagonist, Booker T. Washington. For a collection of mainly reworked, previously published essays on race relations and the Negro by a young black sociologist and historian at Atlanta University, it was an extraordinary success, unprecedented in the history of American letters.

The flashpoint of controversy was the book’s third essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Du Bois had once been an admirer of Washington—he had praised him for his famous Atlanta Compromise speech urging racial accommodation in 1895—but he had moved in a more radical direction over the previous five years. Du Bois’ objections were political: he was scornful of Washington’s circumspection about racial equality. But they were also cultural. Like Washington, Du Bois was dismayed by the debased condition of the Negro masses, barely one generation out of slavery, but Washington’s view was tainted by a fundamental pessimism about the worth of black people’s cultural resources. He had little faith that their potential extended beyond gaining the most practical knowledge about raising pigs and getting on in the world. To Du Bois, who was all for practical knowledge, Washington’s pessimism was a lie, elevating a philistine materialism that denied black folks’ soul.

Or, more precisely, their souls. The plural was critical to the book’s larger purpose of establishing black America’s cultural presence and identity. Du Bois was very exact about the title: The Souls of Black Folk, not The Soul of Black Folks. “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian,” he asserted in the book’s most cited passage:

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, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

These are heartfelt, brave, and seductive words, an anatomy of racial alienation unlike any that preceded it, and they thrilled and persuaded Du Bois’ admirers. Indeed, they are so seductive that even today it is easy to miss their intense ambiguity—and how they blend a painful self-consciousness and stirring forthrightness with a muddled, late-Victorian mysticism.


At the core of Du Bois’ thinking was the fiction of the folk—“the unifying ideal of Race” that would elevate the Negro people and redeem America. In his early writings, Du Bois’ racialist categories were deeply beholden to racial science, reinforced by his reading in the Anglo-Saxon school of American historiography and in the German Romantic nationalists from Herder to Treitschke, his teacher in Berlin. His first important foray into the subject, in an address to the newly established American Negro Academy in 1897, posited the existence of no fewer than three primordial and eight historic races; by the time he wrote Souls, he had reduced the number to seven.

White racism, he acknowledged, had led many blacks to minimize race distinctions and seek instead full participation in a reformed, color-blind American democracy. But Du Bois thought it was absurd for blacks in America, no less than for Mongolians on the Asian steppes, to deny the realities of race. American blacks could, however, undo the unjust and unnatural subordination of their race.

W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1911.

The themes of racial solidarity and pride, and the rejection of integration and its supposed corollary, assimilationism, were hardly new at the start of the twentieth century. Du Bois’ remarks belonged to a tradition among black writers and activists that stretched back before the Civil War and had become, by Du Bois’ time, two distinct tendencies: an integrationist tendency, upheld most eloquently by the aging Frederick Douglass, and a nationalist tendency, associated with Martin Delany, James Holly, and one of Du Bois’ mentors, the Rev. Alexander Crummell. (Washington, with his outward placating of whites and his ideology of self-help for blacks, stood apart from both.) In his declarations on the indissolubility of race, Du Bois aligned himself with the nationalists, gathering their scattered perceptions into a statement of racial theory, raising that theory to the level of conventional racial philosophy, and then overturning all conventions by celebrating the Negro race’s capacities, achievements, and strivings.

It was in these celebrations that The Souls of Black Folk reached its lyrical heights, foreshadowed by the pairing, as the epigraph of each chapter, of a portion of high verse (from Byron, the Bible, and so on) with a musical transcription from the black spirituals. Writing in a mélange of genres—history, fiction, biography, memoir—Du Bois turned the everyday white racist characterizations of the black peasantry on their heads. Where white Americans (and some blacks) saw indolence, mindless sensuality, and an imitative culture, Du Bois discerned deep spirituality, historical purpose, and sublime artistic gifts, especially in the Negro’s religious music—“the rhythmic cry of the slave” and the plaintive melodies of the spirituals (or Sorrow Songs) which, despite caricature and defilement, remained “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”

Not that Du Bois romanticized black people’s condition, either in the North or in the South. Slavery, he wrote, had bred a “dark fatalism” and “a spirit of revolt and revenge” in the Negro. After Reconstruction’s demise, the despair reappeared, driving the black masses into dissipated self-destructiveness while goading the better-off to flee from any sense of consanguinity and responsibility. It would take extraordinary, cultivated, prophetic heroes such as Crummell (to whom he devoted an essay in Souls) to raise the race.

Separateness was not, however, the only fact of American racial life, as Du Bois beheld America. Instead of settling for a choice of nationalism over assimilation, Du Bois offered his dialectic of doubleness; he wrote of a divided American Negro soul, part American, part Negro, the two parts ever in conflict with each other but headed for an eventual merging.

One influence on Du Bois was Emerson’s 1843 essay “The Transcendentalist,” which had fixed the term “double consciousness” in New England letters as a division between contemplation and the clatter of everyday thought. A more direct influence was almost certainly Du Bois’ beloved William James, whose lectures and writings on psychology used the term in a medical sense (borrowed from the French psychologist Binet) to denote the simultaneous existence of more than one consciousness in a single brain—today known familiarly as a split personality.

Around this ultimately optimistic Sturm und Drang, Du Bois spun a paradoxical racial mysticism, blending Romantic motifs, black folklore, and more—possibly including, as the critic Eric Sundquist has suggested, the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky’s occult bestseller Isis Unveiled, which appeared a quarter-century earlier. As a double-souled self, Du Bois’ Negro was born with a veil, the seventh son of the races, and thus was blessed with second sight, which enabled him to see things denied to other—and to do so, Du Bois implied, with a unique moral acuity. But this was Du Bois’ most poignant point: the veil also blocked the Negro’s sight and strivings, permitting him to see himself reflected only secondhand, “through the revelation of the other world,” the world of whites. Thus the veil was a tragic gift, the mythic rendering of the color line.


When Du Bois spoke of America, he meant white America, by which we would mean white Anglo-Saxon America. In 1903, the United States was still pre-pluralist: the official approving recognition of ethnicity was still half a century away. Instead, a variety of racial categories, not unlike Du Bois’, was spread carelessly over the hordes of immigrants who had arrived from Russia, central and southern Europe, and Asia. Americanness remained reserved to the Anglo-Saxons (or, in some cases, an awkward concession to the second-generation Irish, the Anglo-Saxon-Celts).

Within a decade of Du Bois’ writing, Anglo-Saxon-Celtism would come under assault from numerous directions, as a younger generation of essayists, newspapermen, painters, and bohemians found what Randolph Bourne called “trans-national America” in the immigrant big-city slums and factory towns. With no example to embolden him, Du Bois, the first African American to take a doctorate from Harvard, anticipated this cultural revolt, and he may even have directly helped to inspire it.

The impact of The Souls of Black Folk on black American writing, and on writing about black America, is all the clearer. The descent of the imaginative treatments of two-ness, invisibility, and the magic behind the veil, from Ellison to Baldwin to Morrison, has by now become a stock theme in accounts of modern American literature. But the book’s radicalism, its astonishing precocity, hardly ends there. It would take more than fifty years for mainstream American historical writing to catch up with Du Bois’ insight about the resilience and spiritual depth of the slaves’ culture, and about the benefits of Reconstruction and the ex-slaves’ role in achieving those benefits (matters Du Bois would later develop at length but sketched out in Souls’ second essay, “On the Dawn of Freedom”). And historians have only begun to comprehend and amplify Du Bois’ claim that American culture has been marked, indeed defined, by black people’s presence: “Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here…Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

Still, for all of its radical prescience, The Souls of Black Folk is also an intensely peculiar and Victorian work. Its poetic myth-making provides an alluring cover for ideas bounded in time and by their thinkers’ experience. From the perspective of our identity-obsessed times, even undergraduates can start to pick away at the simplicities of Du Bois’ “double consciousness.” (Why only double? What about black women’s consciousness? Or consciousness of region or class, or skin tone, or sexuality? Or whatever other variable comes to mind?) By such lights, Du Bois was on the right track, but he didn’t get nearly far enough.

If the “folk” part of The Souls of Black Folk was deeply flawed, the part about “souls” was a mighty projection of a racial theme from a more circumscribed set of social and personal concerns. “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question:” Du Bois wrote, “unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it…To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem. I seldom utter a word.” Out of this, he constructed his account of the great black dilemma: the refraction, and the consequent doubling, of consciousness.

But what did the vast majority of American blacks, still living in the rural South in 1903, know of unasked questions, or of existing as a problem, or of any kind of two-ness at all? Identity, for them, as post-Emancipation white supremacy reached its zenith, was fixed by the all too straightforward realities of Southern racism, violence, and poverty. Their collective identity owed little enough to the white man’s world, or to any complicated refraction of it.

Indeed, Du Bois spoke most forcefully for, and to, a tiny segment of black America and not to black America generally—the sorts of people who turn up in Souls as the exemplary leaders of the race, from the educator John Hope to the novelist Charles W. Chesnutt to the anti-lynching organizer Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Most of them had either been born in the North or had resettled there, and had come of age in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Many were college-educated. In adulthood, they formed a small, highly accomplished, professional black upper crust. It was precisely among these professionals that black resentment of Washington’s admixture of uplift and resignation ran deepest, among those who had never flinched from believing that their capacities and achievements and backgrounds made them the equal of any white person. And it was among this minority of the black minority that Du Bois’ theme of doubleness hit a nerve.


The strangeness and the audacity of The Souls of Black Folk arose from the strangeness and audacity of its author. Du Bois pitched his arguments to his intended Talented Tenth, the “quality folk” who prided themselves on being “representative Negroes.” As his ideas took shape, however, the young Du Bois may have been—and may have felt himself to be—the most marginal man in America.

The future prophet of the color line had been born a mulatto (“in blood, about one-half or more Negro and the rest French and Dutch” he claimed in one letter) in Massachusetts, the Northern state widely considered the cradle of abolitionism; but it was a state, he learned early in life, that was hardly free of racial prejudice. At Harvard—only the seventh man of African descent admitted—he won abundant praise from his teachers, but he felt distanced from his fellow students, by his humble class background as well as by his color. He would later write that he was “at but not of” the place.

W.E.B. Du Bois as a young man. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

While studying in Berlin Du Bois soaked up all he could in the classroom, awestruck, proud, determined to make the most of his miraculous if fully merited opportunity. Yet in Germany, the division in Du Bois’ soul deepened, as he heard his teacher Heinrich von Treitschke, one of the intellectual founders of Prussian Aryan nationalism—“the greatest of all the professors,” in Du Bois’ estimation—explode from the lecture podium, “Die Mullatten sind niedrig! Sie fuhlen sich niedrig!” (“The mulattoes are inferior! They feel themselves inferior!”) And then, after his return, and as he completed his doctorate at Harvard, America’s foremost young black scholar found himself confined in his first teaching post to the lower reaches of the black academy, at what was then the third-rate Wilberforce College in Ohio, knowing he would never teach in any white college or university.

Du Bois, in short, suffered a singular fate: raised by his heroic education to scholarly levels unreached by all but a handful of American whites, he still lived in a civilization where his color marked him as a nonperson, one who, when he traveled, rode the Jim Crow car. A man of reason, he would not forsake his reason’s achievements; but the world of reason turned out to be utterly unreasonable, casting him, of all people, as a pariah. Here, with all of its idiosyncrasies, was the matrix of double consciousness, and it was as untypical an experience as could be imagined. But brilliant and arrogant as he was, and with the prestige he could command among his fellow blacks and sympathetic whites, Du Bois was able, in The Souls of Black Folk, to translate his personal dilemma into a universal drama of race, and render it convincing.

And so, with its dated racialism and its mythohistorical fantasies, it will surely endure. In its endurance, however, lie some of its greatest ironies. If, in its own time, Souls was a peculiar thing, Jim Crow’s subsequent demise has made its themes of doubleness and identity far more prominent, not just for black intellectuals but for a newly expanded black middle class, on whom the competing claims of particularism and acceptance in an America where racism powerfully abides bear down all the harder. Du Bois’ double consciousness may prove inadequate to these pressures—simplistic in its dualism, reducing universal ambivalences and anxieties to purely racial terms. But if Souls imparts a heady, uplifting love of blackness and the soul of the Sorrow Songs, it also describes an act of refusal, a refusal to allow alienation to become a surrender to self-reference or to any cramped conception of race.

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aurelius and Aristotle and what soul I will, and they come graciously with no scorn or condescension.

In his reclamation of the spirituality of the oppressed and the despised, Du Bois also wrote a paean to what nowadays is sometimes glibly stigmatized as the culture of the oppressors. For all of their orotund phrasing, it took a beautiful defiance to write these words in 1903. They were an assertion of individuality and genius as well as of race pride. Today, in a very different but still racialized America, their beauty has not dimmed.


Adapted from The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics by Sean Wilentz. Copyright © 2016 by Sean Wilentz. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.