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Created: September 17, 2000
Latest Update: February 10, 2003
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Site Teaching Modules W.E.B Du Bois and "Double-Consciousness"

Readings on the Web:

  • Double-Consciousness
    Excerpted from the Souls of Black Folks, Site. Link checked February 10, 2003.
  • W.E.B. Du Bois.
    "Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." W.E.B. Du Bois.

    "And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men. —The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois

Teaching Essays:

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. Du Bois Tells It Like It Is in 1903

This essay is based on James Faraganis' Readings on Social Theory. McGraw-Hill. 2000. ISBN: 0-07-230060-4. Chapter 7, pp. 179-190.
Also to be found in Chapter I: Of Our Spiritual Strivings, of the Souls of Black Folks, on the Site.

W.E.B. Du Bois was born and educated in the Northern United States. Despite his recognition as extraordinarily intelligent, and his intense commitment to learning, he was refused admission to Harvard, because his parents could not afford it, and funds could not be raised to send a "Negro" to the top university in the U.S. He later did get to Harvard where he was the first Black to earn a Ph.D.

Against this background, perhaps you will understand better what Du Bois says in the Souls of Black Folk:

"How does it feel to be a problem?" . . .

"I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Haousatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards--ten cents a package--and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my car--refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that i was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their strigy heads. Alas with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities were theirs, not mine."

W.E.B. Du Bois in Faraganis, Chapter 7, pp. 186-187. Or in the first two paragraphs after the poem on Chapter I of the version of Souls of Black Folks.

It would be good to read that whole passage in Farganis' readings, if the text is available to you, or on in the first couple of paragraphs of Chapter 1 of the Souls of Black Folks. But this first bit of it captures the poignancy and the desperation of the child that learns for the first time that he/she is excluded. Du Bois, who is also a poet, captures those feelings in a way we cannot help but feel them with him.

I would like you to think of Fellman on adversarialism particularly as you read this. Adversarialism is that approach we have nurtured that sees all of us as alone against the others, that approach that says "I must win," "I must be the best," and ignores the fact that humans are social animals whose cooperative sharing is what produces family, tribe, neighbrhood, city, global community. Can you identify some details that tell us that Du Bois has just encountered the adversarial paradigm, up front and personal? Consider, for example, DuBois' discovery that the children are not cemented together as one social group, but that there are those who are included and those who are excluded. Why would there be such an exclusion? What could possibly be adversarial with these children, who studied so happily together? Consider that in such youth we are teaching out-of-awareness the social order they will inherit, the social order in which Blacks were excluded..

Discussion Questions
  1. How does the story of W.E.B. Du Bois' discovery of racial difference explain what he describes in "double-consciousness?"

    Consider that what the young Du Bois was explaining was how it felt to discover that he was not included because of his color. "They" didn't want "him," because "he" was "different." Consider how this is part of socialization as "self" and "other." What then were the two consciousnesses that Du Bois had to reconcile? That of an accepted member of the class within the bounds of the classroom. And that of a non-accepted member of the social interaction outside the classroom. A basic conflict that he describes as what it feels like "to be a problem." In his day, in his social setting, Blacks were the primary excluded group. Today, we might consider the whole Third World and exclusion. Or we might consider gangs that exclude right within their own neighborhoods. Or we might consider politics, through which we have managed to exclude whole nations.

    Theories and concepts to consider: Alterity: the Other; inclusion and exclusion; difference and our understanding and social management of that difference; social hierarchy, power and control; dominance, adversarialism, social justice.

  2. Re-interpret W.E.B. Du Bois' explanation of the pain of being black in terms of the adversarial and mutuality paradigms.

    By re-interpret I mean to look at modern expressions of such theories as Fellman proposes, that our society leans far too heavily towards adversarialism and agression, and in the process loses much of what we could produce if we considered cooperation and working together collaboratively instead of always competing with each other. This doesn't mean that Du Bois actually voiced those same ideas, but it does indicate how such ideas have grown from considerations that he brought forth in his work and writings.

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