“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 the world that looks in on it in an amused contempt and pity.”—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.
W.E.B. Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that African Americans are born with a sort of second-sight for which to understand their position in the world, but particularly in American society. He understood, mostly by his [End Page 65] own experiences as a black man working in the south at the beginning of the twentieth century, and as a trained scholar in history and sociology, that African Americans had the ability to see themselves not only as themselves, but also as outsiders (specifically white people) did. This occurs to him as a result of white people constantly asking him how it felt to be a problem.
Du Bois uses his first essay, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” to explain the danger in maintaining a racial divide in the United States. He immediately draws the reader into the strivings of black American identity. At the heart of this is the peculiar position black people are in, which, in turn, gives them this double consciousness. Du Bois writes, “One ever feels his twoness,—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” (Du Bois, p. 215). Historian David Levering Lewis points out that this was a profoundly radical idea at the time. While Du Bois did not invent double consciousness, his understanding of the concept put him a decade ahead of his time; he might actually have been a century ahead (Levering Lewis, p. 196).
Du Bois believed that African Americans were, “longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self” (Du Bois, p. 215), without compromising their black heritage. He explained, “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 in his face” (Du Bois, p. 215). This marks the start of Du Bois outlining the need for African Americans to gain full equality, which he outlines in his third chapter when he criticizes other black leaders, especially Booker T. Washington, for not pursuing an agenda that includes civic equality.
W.E.B. Du Bois was unwavering in his insistence of black equality. He understood that black people had been denied rights and, thereby, denied citizenship, insisting that black people demand the right to vote, civil equality, and education. He says, “The ballot, which before he had looked upon as a symbol of freedom, he now regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty which war had partially endowed him” (Du Bois, p. 217). For Du Bois, full equality under the law, and educational opportunities, were only the beginning.
He did this not only though his own teaching, but other pursuits like the American Negro Academy, which he co-founded in 1897 in Washington, DC. Its purpose was to promote academic study of African Americans, especially by publishing scholarly works in the field. He also began organizing and co-founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 and the NAACP in 1909, where he edited the organization’s publication, The Crisis Magazine. Du Bois offers a good backdrop for understanding Barack Obama, and his rise to the highest political position in America.
Understanding Du Bois will also allow us to better frame Barack Obama’s rhetoric, his identity, and his...