The Souls of Black Folk

The Negro . . . [is] 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 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.

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

This is the first book I finished on my study leave.  

I have meant to read it for some time, and it did not disappoint.  

I learned that this formidable black intellectual saw that the world looked on his people “in amused contempt or pity.”  He could have Tweeted many of his pithy observations and critiques at #blacksoulsmatter.

I learned that this sociologist understood the complicated “twoness” of the black people, born with a veil that was the color line, which was both a curse and a special giftedness, yielding a double-consciousness that is both wise and maddening.  Such observations have amazing staying power, as I have heard black friends speak of this same “twoness” and the challenge of being true to their blackness even as they make progress in assimilating.  I do feel that they see the world in a way I never will--that is a statement of fact, and not a value judgment.

I learned a lot about African American education in the era of Reconstruction.  I was struck by the parallels to our current situation, where huge deficits were addressed with big investments.  The Achievement Gap goes way back.  Note to self: If anyone wanted to learn from history what works and what doesn’t in addressing such dire challenges, we might learn something from the Reconstruction experiments.  

I also found DuBois on education in general inspiring and wise.  His defense of a liberal education was not popular in his day, when so many were enthralled by the more limited but practical vision of Booker T. Washington.  But as I read DuBois I found myself re-committed to an education of the soul, the kind of formation that a classical education brings.  (At the same time, I did find in DuBois hints of the elitism which has sometimes attended the best of classical educational visions--not unlike Jefferson’s and some of the Ivy elites of the 20th century.  I am always torn by this argument.  DuBois wanted to find his 1/10 of the African American population that could be truly educated and bring the rest up.  Somewhere between that and “a liberal education for all” is probably the best goal.  In a democracy, surely we need more that 10% with the kind of education DuBois had and wanted to offer to others?)

Finally, I’ve read the sequel to this book, the story of DuBois’ life.  It makes me sad to see how hard he worked and agitated and how disillusioned he became by the end of his life, dying in Ghana having renounced his American citizenship.  This is racial progress one step forward and three steps back.  Sobering.  


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