- Soul Texts and the Blackness of Folk
No critical notion has proved more crucial to modern investigations of African American expressive culture than the idea of double consciousness. First employed to depict the consequences of the racial divide in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), double consciousness (together with its variant neologies, “twoness” and “doubleness”) has exhibited a profound degree of interp.retive influence in scholarly studies throughout the twentieth century. The idea of doubleness has remained effective because it describes the tenacity of a racially determined “color line” that affects the deepest layers of American life. At its worst it has sometimes become a kind of theoretical readymade, bestowing upon lesser works the appearance of profundity and insight; but in more subtle reformulations, double consciousness has supplied what is perhaps the fundamental interpretive tool of modern black criticism. While the compelling insights of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Ishmael Reed have suggested new critical maneuvers, they all seem, as Arnold Rampersad observes, “[to] come out of . . . The Souls of Black Folk—and most precisely from Du Bois’s image of the divided souls.” 1
The Souls and its reflections on double consciousness have remained so highly regarded by historians and critics of African American culture because they vividly render the tragic effects of racialist discourses, showing how the difference attributed to the hard-and-fast categories of white and black is imposed upon sentient selves. If African Americans accept the [End Page 71] conditions of the racial divide, they must also deny the equality that their experience determines, and even embrace the mystifications of blackness central to the racial imagination. In the paradox of the doubled soul—”gifted with second-sight [that] . . . only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world”—Du Bois proposes an alternative to this view, one that also upholds the difference of African American identity. 2 Rather than simply inverting racial logic (creating a positivity out of negativity, as negritude and black-arts writers would later attempt), Du Bois celebrates the difference made real in black experience, while simultaneously exposing that realness as a discursive fiction that can be transcended. This paradoxical uncoupling, in turn, is conveyed in the image of the slave spirituals that Du Bois names the “sorrow songs,” those soulful voicings that speak directly and with historical specificity of the slave tragedy even as they trace a sublime ideal of overcoming social determinations and racial bounds. By preceding each chapter with a passage from a sorrow song (together with verse by a white writer), Du Bois extends his use of paradox, reconfiguring doubleness as black sound, whose transcendent properties, in the romantic imagination, implicitly critique the presumed whiteness of the American character. If the sorrow songs, as the “gift” of second-sight, voice the passive sorrow of double consciousness, they also convey, as an expression of coy, elusive resistance, a critical poison (das Gift), with which the bilingual Du Bois, a lover of German and German culture, re-writes the meaning of American existence. 3
The linking of doubleness with the critical power of black music has long been crucial in assessing the place of The Souls in twentieth-century African American criticism. The work is a “key text,” one that “underpins all that follows it, and its importance is marked by the way Du Bois places black music as the central sign of black cultural value, integrity, and autonomy.” 4 Indeed, the musical mark of The Souls stretches across the history of modern African American writing, informing the work of Hughes, Locke, Hurston, Brown, Baldwin, Ellison, and so many others. In the rhapsodic poetry of the black arts movement, moreover, black music’s significance was assigned especially high value, as writers and critics sought to evoke its power in romantic gestures toward an ennobled jazz and blues pantheon. For Stephen Henderson, Jimmy Stewart, Don Lee, Imamu Amiri Baraka and others, African American music signified the very essence of a primordial African-based culture, and accordingly became a crucial element in their definitions of the “black aesthetic.” 5 Yet what these critics ultimately seemed...