Du Bois and White Americanism

Throughout his life, Du Bois writes, and educates, studies, liberates, and resists the systemic racism in America until his indictment as a communist in 1951 and subsequent deportation (his white co-conspirators were allowed to remain in the U.S.) So he continues the fight abroad until his death in Ghana 1963 in the midst of the U.S. civil rights movement.  In The Souls of Black Folk,  he writes:

“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.“ – W.E.B. Du Bois

 

Life as one man, with a double consciousness, American and African, is no small task. Given the right set of consequences and an incredible support group, perhaps it is doable. Having access to housing, healthy food, good educators, healthcare, job, mental health professionals, community, equal pay, and time. If you are wealthy, male, and white that is all a given (even after successive failures.) A person of color has to look for opportunities and open the doors to sneak in squeaky clean. Those POC’s are your Talented Tenth. The other ninety percent of blacks scrounge while what culture is left, if it isn’t based in religion or food, is easily appropriated and it’s origins lost and then regurgitated in a mediated manner. Look at the Arts, Architecture, Technology, Science, Math, Entertainment of the past 30 years alone. Lip service holidays, monuments, and street names mean nothing. The capitalist, white way of life has been Africanized, Asianized, Latinized, oversized and continues to attempt to crush alternative culture, community, history and humanity into dust.

Just ask the people still at Standing Rock or better yet ask any person of color, and be willing to listen without judgement. Perhaps that questioning could lead to a conversation. Also question yourself. I do on the daily.

The hard won battles of the civil rights movement led to the desegregation of schools and public places, voting rights, and laws prohibiting discrimination in education, workplace, and the housing market. Every day from then until now the fight for these rights laid out by law must be fought for over and over again. Today we have over 2 million people of color incarcerated and yes we have President Barack Obama, and celebrities like Oprah, Beyonce, Kanye… We’ve got black people at the top of capitalism’s high spires and still millions more people of color and people at the bottom wallowing, scrambling, screaming, and working their fingers to the bone, for what? So that the current President of the United States can help make America great again, by casting out refugees and immigrants, defunding public education, the arts, destroying the environment and putting what little money is leftover from the people’s federal tax dollars into buffering the military, privatizing prisons, and spreading corporate globalisation?

What does America have to teach the world? Perhaps innovation, cohabitation, acceptance, resilience, bravery, and full transparency if we can get there without imploding first. As for the concept of double consciousness, if Du Bois were alive I would be bold enough to ask is there a 3rd, 4th, or 5th consciousness. Are these splits in consciousness being acknowledged and exploited? I ask this because as the categories of identity increase it sometimes feels like having to work through several layers of veils to see that the one white way isn’t the only way.

 

~This is a part of a series following a W.E.B Du Bois reading group in Philadelphia, moderated by Dr. Anthony Monteiro. Following each meeting of the group, we’ll post a reflection by one of the members. If you’re in the Philadelphia area and would like to join the group for the next session,  go to the Facebook group  and join us for the next meeting.   

This reflection on the Du Bois reading group was written by Anita Holland.  Anita Holland is a multiracial artist and human being residing in what is currently Philadelphia,  PA. Today’s platitude of choice: “Let me answer your question with a question.” You can follow her on Twitter at: @AMSunshin3.

Introduction to Souls: W.E.B Du Bois Reading Group

 

(Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk)

As a Jewish child growing up in Israel, I was obsessed with the holocaust. Many nights I couldn’t sleep, afraid of nightmares. I vividly remember the repeating thought in my head: if I was born just a few decades ago, I would have been considered a problem. A problem so threatening that it must be killed or at least controlled.  As I grew up, I learned of Apartheid South Africa, of the conditions of those living in occupied Palestine, and about the ongoing segregation and oppression of people of color in the United States. I realized that although I could have potentially been a problem, many people are living their entire live as a problem. Of course as a kid lying awake at night in Tel Aviv I didn’t know to articulate the issue in these exact words. It was only when I finished the first paragraph of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk when the words “who does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word” made my fears connect to others’ struggles. It is this kind of connections that make political education, like this reading group about Du Bois so important to resistance today.

A few of us are gathering in Philadelphia to read Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk with Dr. Anthony Montiero. I think It is especially important that we read the revolutionary words of Du Bois to be able to criticize, and resist, and find our place in this moment in the movement. In all that, it is also important to remember that our fight is worth it, because “America has too much to teach the world” and perhaps, at this time, what we America needs to teach is resistance by example.

 

 

(Du Bois Reading Group in action)

 

There are few pieces of writing so packed with ideas and concepts as are the first few pages of The Souls of Black Folk , W.E.B Du Bois’ communist manifesto, published in 1903.

The first phrase of Souls is revolutionary, “between me and the other world.” To this day the default in any racial binary is white. The non-white is the other, the minority, the different. However, Du Bois turns the paradigm on its head. Du Bois’ world, the black world, is the true world and whites live in another world.  Whites live in a world where Du Bois is a problem. He learns by the way whites look at him that he is a problem. He sees their racial gaze, but Du Bois finds time for irony, “being a problem is a strange experience.” From the concept of the problem, Du Bois moves to the concept that Dr. Anthony Monteiro calls “the most profound concept of race in the world,” the concept of the Veil.  There is a veil between Du Bois and the other world. Du Bois sees the world through the Veil, which like the veil of a bride on their wedding day, means that he sees through the Veil better than the person on the outside looking in at him. This is a strong statement for policymakers, social scientists, ethnographers, and any observer of Du Bois saying, “I see you. I see you better than you think I see you. I also see my fellow folk behind the Veil. It is me, not you, who should study my social condition, and perhaps yours.” After the Veil, Du Bois gets to the concept of Double Consciousness. He sees racism, he sees race, he sees blackness for its beauty, however, he also sees and hears the stereotypes. This “two-ness” makes Du Bois measure himself by the stereotypes of the white world. In another revolutionary statement, Du Bois wishes to be “both a Negro and an American.” Both a Black man and a Human, as Monteiro complements. All of this is happening before Du Bois reaches page three.

In an autobiography published in 1940, Du Bois calls the writing of Souls “a cry in the middle of the night.” Indeed, the 35-year-old scholar had reasons to be frustrated.

Du Bois was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard. To achieve this feat he needed to complete not one but two  bachelor’s degrees and almost two doctorates degrees just to be counted among those worthy of a Harvard graduate education. Du Bois by 1903 would already have two publications: his doctoral thesis in history from Harvard which was published in 1896 and The Philadelphia Negro, the first empirical sociology study in the United States, published in 1899. Because of discrimination, Du Bois couldn’t teach in the institutions that he was affiliated with, such as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, although he was more qualified than many of the faculty.  He went to teach at Wilberforce, an historically black college (for more on Du Bois’ career, see Alton Morris’ A Scholar Denied). 

The period of time when Du Bois was beginning his teaching career overlapped with a period of time some have called a “nadir of American race relations.”  The emancipation of enslaved people in 1863 and the end of the civil war in 1865 kindled hope and movement towards reconstruction. After only three years these hard fought bureaus and committees were disbanded and replaced with the 13th amendment, Jim Crow laws, and the ruling in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing black Americans as legally inferior to blacks. This may seem bleak; yet, at the beginning of that ‘cry into the night’ for Du Bois who (at this time) maintains hope that “America has too much to teach the world.”

 

 

~This is a part of a six-post series following a W.E.B Du Bois reading group in Philadelphia, moderated by Dr. Anthony Monteiro. Following each meeting of the group, we’ll post a reflection by one of the members. If you’re in the Philadelphia area and would like to join the group for the next session,  go to the Facebook group  and join us for the next meeting.  

This reflection was written by Abraham Gutman.  Abraham is originally from Tel Aviv and currently living in Philadelphia. He holds an MA in economics from Hunter College. He is an aspiring sociologist interested in race, policing, housing, and all types of football. You can contact him on Twitter @abgutman.