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W. E. B. Du Bois

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W.E.B. Du Bois
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The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.
—Excerpt from Du Bois' book John Brown: A Biography.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, also known as W. E. B. DuBois, (1868–1963) was an American sociologist born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and was the first African American to attain a Ph.D. in America, going to Harvard law school during his youth. Growing up around predominantly white institutions, he received an education in a geography that had more resources than their black counterparts at the time. In 1885, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he observed the more overt effects of Jim Crow legislation and segregation. Subsequently, after attaining his Ph.D at Harvard, he studied abroad in Germany with other more prominent social sciences (since at the time they were predominantly located in Europe) and attained the perspectives that would influence his thought for the rest of his life.[1]

DuBois and Washington[edit]

During his life, W.E.B. DuBois lived in an era where the debate about race was a major prospect of political and economic life. Stemming from that, there were multiple thinkers who were advocating for differing solutions to the inequalities that existed during that time. While DuBois was one of them, another major thinker was Booker T. WashingtonWikipedia, also of African descent, who advocated for a political route that differed greatly from what DuBois would espouse, garnering criticism later in their relationship. Washington advocated for a form of racial solidarity, placing responsibility on the 'black folks' to work for the approval of the 'whites'. This garnered criticism from DuBois's camp because it did not address the systemic inequality that existed at the time, instead espousing ideas that stemmed from the assumption that it was the 'blacks' who needed to do all the work to achieve equality.[2]

Despite DuBois' acknowledgments for the work that he saw Washington try to do to heal the divide between races at the time, his criticisms were nevertheless continuous, creating a political divide between 'conservative' blacks and 'radical' ones, if you will. While Washington accepted racial segregation under the pretense of a anti-universal/universal norms, pushing for an increase in education in line with his ideas of blacks supporting blacks, DuBois fundamentally disagreed, instead postulating that segregation must be rectified first, thus starting the building blocks necessary to attaining racial equality, hopefully doing away with race-based thought all together. Co-founding the NAACP, he tried to promote suffrage for educated blacks at the time, believing that whatever economic and cultural gains that they made would be for naught if they had no political power in tandem.[3]

Overall, both Washington and DuBois tried to fix the problems as they saw it within their own viewpoints, and overall can both be credited with being a stepping stone towards closing the racial divide. Even though they seem to be contrary to the other's stances, they both still agreed on certain things, such as being against lynching or racially-motivated violence in general. In addition, they both were in favor of improving living and working conditions, reducing economic disparity, and increasing education amongst African Americans. The only thing that really differs between the two of them were the routes that they wanted to take in attaining that goal.[4]

Reflecting upon this, DuBois in particular would go on to write about his views of African American culture, placing an emphasis on 'the black church', and identifying and defining the color line as it existed.

The 'souls' of White and Black Folk[edit]

Throughout his life, DuBois started out with the assumption that the 'white folk' needed to be educated about black culture, as the lack of education about their culture was one of the driving factors behind the existing segregation. He reasoned that if they learned about them, they would be more accepting of the differing culture and be more open to the idea of institutional and legislative freedom between both races. In this journey, he went on to write two of his early works, the souls of black/white folk, which were works attempting to identify characteristics of the people of the certain 'races', in an effort to help each side understand each other better. Both works are not written as academic journals, but instead as story-like accessories with a narrative structure with the purpose of connecting to a common person in contrast to an academically minded one.

The Souls of Black Folk[edit]

In "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903), Dubois writes in a series of sections specifically laying out his perspective of the "black souls", as in a personification of black culture at the time, within the context of 20th century America.

Throughout the wake of slavery's emancipation, DuBois spells out how despite there being systemic change for black people at the time, there remained a blatant distinction in society as a whole that extended beyond the institution of slavery. Indeed, he references other groups and happenings such as the KKK and "the holocaust of war", where despite the votes removing slavery from legality, black people still held no economic nor political power in the mainstream society, despite there seemingly being strides to attempt to achieve that very thing. Thus, Dubois starts his essay about the plights of his people from the perspective of his community.

Repeatedly throughout this essay, DuBois references a term he coined called the 'color line', an abstract explanation of the social hierarchy of races within the country and communities to demonstrate a sort of 'social slavery' that people still resided in. Despite major systemic change, cultural ideas stemming from that systemic injustice heavily remained, causing a "segregated servile caste, with restricted rights and privileges". Despite legal freedom, the common black person was in fact "not free", as even without slavery the common jobs for African Americans at the time were agricultural-type jobs, those that slaves used to work in based on their work capability. An "Economic slavery, [escapable via] death or the penitentiary."

He then talks about the following of Booker T. Washington, as previously discussed, and criticized him from the perspective that his rhetoric, while not directly encouraging this, is enabling systemic functions where areas with a large population of black people would be severely economically malnourished, ranging from lacking political power to lacking in education. Even though Washington was popular and had attained a solid number of supporters, he nevertheless garnered criticisms from DuBois, possibly because he wasn't radical enough to fight for the rights of African Americans at the time. That being said, DuBois still recognizes the achievements that Washington has attained, and the intentions that he believes Washington to have in the first place.

It is after this section that DuBois starts discussing the Black Church and its role in empowering the black community that existed at the time. During slavery, the slave-owners pushed their christianity onto their slaves for them to worship, but the African American population at the time adopted and changed those beliefs in order to create their own community-garnering set of beliefs that would have a long-term effect of empowering them. In particular, one very important that DuBois makes is that the Black Church is the only place that existed at the time that was untouched by colorism, the color line, and/or other types of discrimination outside of the place: it was the one and only cultural and institutional truly safe space for this community. The sermons from the preachers give them hope and idealism for the future under the concepts of God, Jesus, etc. and consequently were simultaneously geographical catalysts for political action and institutional establishments of empowerment. To phrase it bluntly, the Black Church was their only solace from 'real life'.

The Double Consciousness is a topic that is brought up during this section, where DuBois points out the contradiction between being "Black" and an "American". With the abolishment of slavery came with a slight problem: the fact that black people now had two identities, one as a prior slave/slave race, and one as a free american. These two types of identities clash because of the "Negro problem" that was widespread at the time, causing black people to discuss the topic both as actors within the definition of the problem and as actors identifying the problem from the outside.

His final point is to illustrate the differences between the North and South blacks. He mentions that how in a hierarchy like this one, blacks cannot be outspoken lest they get pushed down. Instead, they must unfortunately enact deception(read: participate in society correctly) in order to carry on day by day as a free black American. There, it seems to be a necessary evil in order to have a higher chance of gaining access to the resources that may be cut of if they riot. In short, "The price of culture is a Lie." The North, in contrast, features a group of African Americans that, instead of submitting and going along with 'white culture' to attain economic advantages, tended to be more radical, going so far as to negate(rather than reject) the "birthright in the South". The world they live in is one in which it is very difficult for them to work, but easy to get them into education. Thus, afterwards, they would separate themselves from the white community and instead attempt to do it on their own(with mixed results), knowing no other way to coeexist with whites.

This essay is an attempt at getting white people to understand the perspective of the African Americans that had been recently liberated and able to vote in elections. DuBois strongly believed in radical political action(more so after he got older) and spake his arguments as such. Especially taking religion into account, he understands and is able to identify a rough sketch of the problem of race in the US.[5]

The Souls of White Folk[edit]

In "The Souls of White Folk" (1920), W.E.B. DuBois is writing many years after his first work, above, after a lack of perceived change in the social sphere he resided in. Thus, he wrote this work as a way to establish and expose the tendencies and thoughts of the 'white folk' at the time, essentially describing what he perceived as why segregation, slavery, and racism existed at the time.

This work demonstrated many different things in it, starting off with a declaration of who DuBois is, having grown up in a predominantly white geography. He makes statements about how he was exposed to and was aware of the white perspective, saying, "I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language." "I see the workings of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know." He is explaining that he is ultimately aware of how the colorism that exists at that time came to be, and sees through the facade of racial judgments based on a historical context.

He then continues to demonstrate the double standard that is held to white and black people, citing examples of multiple happenings where: He explains how knowledge, ideas, and history based on white people is considered "great", where when a black person may even suggest that they will not accept the white person's "charity" or "title", then the "spell is suddenly broken" and, for lack of a better phrase, all hell breaks loose. In addition, he talks about a time where a white man berated and yelled at a black girl for going into the wrong waiting-room, where she was simply looking for her mother, and finally discussing about when violent crimes are committed, white people were forgiven and looked over whilst black people were harshly judged, where "the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world." Showing the 'true colors' of the class warfare that is happening between races.

Finally, DuBois then expands on the historical avenue of racism, talking about how it wasn't always this particular way, but class struggles have always existed. With the ever-increasing prominence of "education, political power, and increased knowledge of the technique and meaning of the industrial process", more and more non-nobles were attaining economic, and therefore social, power. Now, instead of simply the small upper class exploiting the labor of the middle and lower classes, even middle-classmen would be able to exploit labor of the lower classes, utilizing the idea of race to justify the treatment of the lower classes. "These men may be used down to the very bone, and shot and maimed in 'punitive' expeditions when they revolt."

It is here, then, where "white masters" are able to take advantage of this racial divide to attain power for themselves, reaping the rewards of the resources taken from colonization and conquest from African regions of the continent, potentially preparing for war. It is the racial divide that allows and legitimizes this seizure of resources, property, and people, with the express intent to 'save' them from barbarianism, perhaps, but with the actual effect being subjugation and sublimation of an entire group of people, defining a class that is meant for charity and labor, instead of education and power.[6]

The Color Line and the Double Consciousness[edit]

In his works, DuBois referenced a few phrases that are a good place-mark for what he is talking about.

The Color Line[edit]

The Color line is an abstract 'yardstick' that you can use to establish a social hierarchy of race. For instance, the cultural differences between the time's white and black culture caused there to be a disconnect of community, based on how they defined themselves based on their color. The Color Line is used as a reference to how there is an inequality between the races, and how the inter-relational dynamics of the races between each other define the situation of where on the social ladder each races resides. It is because of this unequal leveling of where the races are that DuBois considers this the main problem, in that different people will evaluate the races differently, causing institutional and cultural discrimination.

The Double Consciousness[edit]

The Double Consciousness refers to the idea that, as a free black American, the identities of being black and being an American differ greatly, potentially causing contradictions in the roles that one enacts as these two things. In this specific context, it refers to the reference of the "Negro problem", where black people must simultaneously: view it from a black perspective, being categorized as the 'other' and therefore the subject of the problem, and also view it from an American perspective, viewing the problem also from the outside, being categorized as the 'us', and attempting to navigate through social life including problems that may encompass a part of that person's identity.

Another more recent example you could say is about Latin America and Central Americans and immigration reform. A Hispanic person in the US may experience a double consciousness, where they must simultaneously view the perceived problem of Mexican immigrants including themselves in that social group, thus identifying with the immigrants, whilst also identifying as an American, attempting to find a solution to the perceived problem of illegal immigration. It is this disconnect that happens within a person that exemplifies the harm that race does to people, in that a person will hold expectations and value statements about their particular race, and potentially having two contradictory consciousnesses dictating their life. Only when one attains more education are they able to mitigate the problem of the Color line and the Double Consciousness.

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