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Education as an Opportunity for Revolutionary Discontentment

The Unknown's picture

W.E.B. Du Bois recognizes in “The Souls of Black Folk” a complex and paradoxical process of defining the struggles and achievements of “Negroes.” Du Bois endeavors to articulate the racism inflicted upon and experienced by “Negroes” and the meanings and shapes it takes in “American” culture and society, while not categorizing and attributing specific attributes to particular races. It is essential for Du Bois to focus on racial divides in order to recognize that certain people experience violence and hatred more often than others because of how their skin color is perceived. Du Bois uses this argument to demonstrate that no matter how hard “Negroes” have worked and how determined they have been, “Negroes,” are not seen as equals in society. Du Bois claims that people must value personal generosity and righteousness over racial disparities, yet he complicates this notion because one cannot emphasize similarities in a world where people’s lifestyle and rights are defined by their perceived skin color and persecuted or not because of their race.

Du Bois argues that the greatest challenge of the Twentieth Century is the “problem of the color line” (Du Bois 3). The color line illustrates the brutality and oppression that the “Negro” confronted, challenged, interpreted, and tried to understand in the 18th and 19th Century. The color line divides the white race from the black race. The color line is a symbolic and metaphorical indication of the disconnection and division between these two races. The color line manifests itself in gentrification based on skin tone. White people have limited the possibilities of mobility for black people by over incarcerating them and inflicting violence upon them, which has sustained the color line.

Though white and black people reside in the United States, their experiences are extremely different due to the existence of the color line. “Negroes” are choked into their subordinate positions to supposedly maintain “peace” and “balance” in society. According to this justification, one’s oppression is necessary for another person to succeed. With the preservation of the color line, the challenge for African-Americans to achieve social mobility and advancement comparable to the white race seems almost unthinkable. To preserve and strengthen the color line, white people support and create systems that hinder “Negroes’” access to a diverse, thoughtful, and flexible educational system (Du Bois 177). Du Bois argues that through education “Negroes” will be able to emancipate themselves from their inferior position in society.

Du Bois introduces the idea of “double consciousness” to explain people who have two identities that are in conflict (Du Bois 8). Any “Negro” living in “America” is juxtaposed between the “Negro” identity and all of its complexities and the “American” identity. According to Du Bois in “The Souls of Black Folk,” the Negro is burdened with merging two opposing identities: “One ever feels his two-ness, - 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 8-9).  The “Negro” is forced to accept the “American” identity in some forms when he/she/they arrive/s to or lives in the United States. In order to maneuver and understand the complexities of “American” society, one must go through some process of assimilation. Yet at the same time, the “American Negro” does not want to lose his/her/their connection to his/her/their past in the process of changing him/her/theirself to fit into and be accepted into the “American” mold.

Du Bois argues that one cannot be an “American” and a “Negro.” The United States’ society rejects the duality of personalities and identities. He elicits that “Negroes” cannot fully embody being an “American,” because part of being an “American” entails being white. The rights and privileges of society are only given to those with a light skin tone. At the same time, one cannot only be a “Negro” in “American” society because that would entail “Africaniz[ing] America, …[and] America has too much to teach the world and Africa” (Du Bois 9). Du Bois regularly calls attention to the struggles to assimilate the two juxtaposing identities for the African-American, especially in a land that was not created to fulfill “Negroes’” needs and desires. Du Bois hopes it could be possible for a “man” to be a “Negro” and an “American,” without being oppressed in every aspect of his/her/their life/lives and for “Negroes” to have the freedom to obtain social mobility.

W.E.B. Du Bois in “The Souls of Black Folk” argues that black men’s contribution to the history of the United States has been greatly misrepresented and erased. W.E.B. Du Bois explains in “The Souls of Black Folk” how Alexander Crummel embodied courage and devotion:

And yet the fire through which Alexander Crummell went did not burn in vain. Slowly and more soberly he took up again his plan of life. More critically he studied the situation. Deep down below the slavery and servitude of the Negro people he saw their fatal weaknesses, which long years of mistreatment had emphasized. The dearth of strong moral character, of unbending righteousness, he felt, was their great shortcoming, and here he would begin (158).

Crummel examined the “attributes of the “Negro people,” and their propensities throughout slavery. To equip the “Negro” people with tools and an approach to overcome and prevail over their misery and persecution, Crummel first maintained that “Negro” people had an unmistakable ethical disposition. He argued that their innate righteousness confirmed the necessity for “Negroes” to participate equally in society. Crummel’s devotion to religion and his dissemination of his beliefs and fidelity enabled “Negroes” to locate themselves in society. According to Crummel, Negroes’ presence, being ideally accepted, would be the ultimate freedom for “Negroes.”

Du Bois outlines Booker T. Washington and Alexander Crummel’s, two prominent black leaders and scholars, main arguments. Though Washington and Crummel experienced the subjection and brutality of the veil, they could oppose and resist it until they achieved distinguished roles within society. These two black trailblazers embodied the development and change that “Negroes” were experiencing; “Negroes” were at one time a persecuted and helpless feature of American experiences and society and were now emancipating themselves from metaphorical and literal servitude. Washington and Crummel gave hope to “Negroes.” Booker-T-Washington and Alexander Crummell, two noteworthy "Negros" of the time endowed “Negroes” with an understanding of the experience of being prosperous and black.

Du Bois employs the symbol of “The Veil” to demonstrate how “Negroes” cannot reflect and define themselves, but rather can only understand themselves through a white lens. “The Veil” divides black and white people and forces “Negroes” to live within the veil. The “Negroes” struggle to fight brutality, persecution, and racism from within this veil. Though “Negroes” can interpret society from within, as well as outside the veil, white people cannot intimately or thoroughly fathom or perceive the abuse inflicted upon the black race from within the veil. As stated in “The Souls of Black Folk,” when Du Bois was young, he was not aware of the presence of the veil:

He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been granted with a laugh (169).

The “Negro” cannot be separated from the veil. As Du Bois grew to experience and interpret the racial meanings of the veil, he began to scrutinize the experience of living within its confines. Du Bois learned the varying shapes of oppression from within the veil. Not only does the veil act as an enclosure for black folk’s experience of injustice and suffering, but also, through the veil one accesses the lives of the “Negroes.”

The veil prevents white people from relating to or being able to understand racism because they have not experienced the many forms of racism or discrimination present in society. White people are inherently racist and therefore they cannot understand black people’s thoughts. There is very little interchange of ideas, thoughts, morals, and reactions between blacks and whites because of the veil. White people’s privilege veils them from relating to slavery or other manifestations of racism.

Racism cannot be avoided or ignored in American society. Du Bois discusses racial inequalities, prejudice, and persecution throughout “The Souls of Black Folk”:

It is, then, the strife of all honorable men and women of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of the races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and imprudence and cruelty (119-120).

Du Bois asserts that society should focus on valuing personal generosity and righteousness over racial disparities. Du Bois also complicates this notion of focusing on people’s virtues because one cannot emphasize similarities in a world where people’s lifestyles and rights are defined by their perceived skin color and therefore differences. Racism defines the lives and opportunities of black people, yet the conceptions of racism and categorizing people are grounded in social constructions that have attributed certain characteristics to specific skin tones, and these ascribed characteristics are not always grounded in reality or truth. Claiming that one’s experiences are defined by one’s perceived race is therefore a more complicated statement than might be presumed.

Du Bois acknowledges that one cannot categorize and attribute certain characteristics to specific races, and at the same time recognizes that society’s propensity towards racism is extremely embedded into “American” attitudes and culture. It is important that people recognize the injustice and discrimination inflicted upon certain people daily because of their perceived race. Despite the complexities of recognizing racial differences, it is essential that society acknowledges that certain people are privileged based on their assumed race. Du Bois argues that these racial prejudices could be eliminated and that liberty, opportunities, and achievements could be determined by one’s character and principles rather than by skin color.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W. E B. "The Forethought, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, Of the Dawn of Freedom, Of Alexander Crummel, Of the Coming of John, The Sorrow Songs, The       After-Thought." The Souls of Black Folk. N.p.: Paperback Classics, 1990. 3+. Print.

            The writing process was by far the most fruitful aspect of trying to analyze and understand what Du Bois was articulating when he used language that generalizes, but also complicate aspects of race. I realized that in many ways Du Bois does challenges and is toiling with the complexities and limitations of language and holding contrasting ideas in one space. Du Bois is wrestling with one of the fundamental challenges in my life, the dangers and necessities of constantly assigning race and recognizing racism. I must acknowledge the shared experiences among people that are perceived as having the same skin tones and also recognize that one’s skin tone does not define a person or a personality trait. One’s skin tone does not automatically mean that one possesses the same characteristics as someone who has a similar skin tone.

            This paper was so difficult to write, because each time I felt inclined to write a strong, one-sided statement, there seemed to be a quote a few pages further into the book that complicated my initial understanding of what Du Bois was trying to say. When do we focus on similarities versus differences? I am clawing in discomfort in the middle of these juxtaposing, but essential views. I was surprised at how much more I learned and appreciated about Du Bois’ tremendous undertaking after I enlisted myself in the task of critiquing his work. I also became more intrigued with his use of language and I wonder if he would change or seek to modernize his work if he was still alive.





















jschlosser's picture

This essay does a terrific job unpacking the logic of DuBois's argument, especially the paradox of his (one the one hand) insisting on the importance and substance of what "Negroes" can contribute to American civilization and (on the other hand) pointing out that race is a "social construction," as you put it -- something that we ought to abolish.

I titled this comment "white hegemony" because I do think there's something missing in your analysis: a confrontation with the structures of power that have constructed whiteness as a category. White hegemony isn't just a social construction -- it's a discourse of power that creates certain privileges for some and disadvantages for others.

I'd recommend looking more closely at Joel Olson's "The Abolition of White Democracy" -- the chapter I assigned, a PDF of which is here as well as the whole book. Olson both shows how DuBois dealt more with power in his book "Black Reconstruction" (which would also be worth examining) as well as how whiteness was created during the period of Reconstruction to foster hegemony of a certain class of people.