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What is Double Consciousness?

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W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, seems to be speaking for a raceless society where the quality of one’s character was the sole basis for being judged. Yet this is not what Du Bois saw in his day and it is not what we see today. The idea of race is still much distorted in many peoples’ minds, and it leads them to misjudge historical and current phenomena. So it seems that not only was the color line the problem of the twentieth century, as Du Bois claimed, but also of the twenty-first. This is why James Weldon Johnson’s novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still such a relevant work. The novel demonstrates the true meaning of Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness, and it also shows the responses blacks may have to their current state “within the Veil”; further Johnson seems to support both Locke and Du Bois in their reasoning that the ultimate aim should be a society where double consciousness could not exist because the discourse becomes one of absolute equality.

Before The Autobiography can be understood as a representation of double consciousness, the idea itself needs to be examined. As Adolph L. Reed Jr. argues in W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line, this is a crucial first step because the phrase “double consciousness” has been so widely used to represent other ideas that it can become misrepresented. He says, “sundry intellectuals misread Du Bois ahistorically and instead project their own thinking onto him” (92). But it must be remembered that this can be true with any author. In any case, later in Du Bois’ career while he was attending graduate school at Harvard and again in Germany, the academic issue of race became a “matter of culture and cultural history” instead of a pseudoscience that claims a fundamental difference between blacks and whites (124). He came to the same conclusion in his essay, Conservation of Races, which is that race is an inadequate construction, and that its foundation is socioeconomic and ideological, in other words, cultural. What is the idea of double consciousness then? It could be read as a struggle for blacks to settle opposing identities-one as an object of a social problem or simply different, and the other as a person equal in opportunity and potential. Johnson’s novel is able to demonstrate first the foundation of Du Bois’ double consciousness, which is that race is socially constructed, and he also shows the struggle in identity between the two states of mind mentioned above.

The moment of realization of the veil and of a double consciousness is often a monumental event that many authors have written about including Du Bois himself. He says, “I remember well when the shadow swept across me” (694). Johnson’s narrator too has a similar experience. As a young child the narrator identifies with his white peers and fights with “the niggers” until one day his teacher asks for all the white scholars to stand. The narrator stands and the teacher responds, “You sit down for the present and rise with the others” (808). This is when the narrator is made known of his other self, the one, because of social and cultural factors, is seen differently. The narrator says about this early experience:

I have often lived through that hour, that day, that week, in which was wrought the miracle of my transition from one world into another; for I did indeed pass into another world. From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one domination, all-pervading idea. (810)

This not only shows the importance of the event to the narrator as a young child, but also demonstrates very well the idea of double consciousness as Du Bois meant it. The underlying assumption in the novel is that “race” (either being identified as black or white) is seemingly arbitrary. This is shown in the many different times the narrator is able to switch groups quite freely. Obviously, if race were anything more than the way society sees you, this switching would not be quite so possible. In “The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity,” John Sheehy says, “The boy was in a peculiar situation: he could choose his race. This choice of course is not an uncomplicated one” (401). He goes on to argue that the narrator can be seen as “living on the color line” because of the extreme fluidity of his racial identity (406).

In “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” Robert E. Fleming argues that the fact that the narrator is nameless in the novel “underscores the major psychological problem of the novel; that is, in a very real sense the narrator doesn’t know who he is, and his autobiography records his futile search for identity” (121). This is true throughout the novel until the end. Sheehy argues that underneath the representation of race as a dichotomy, black and white, the narrator gives a subtle, subversive note when the narrator says, “I am glad that I am what I am.” This could be seen as the narrator overcoming the simple black/white mindset, and finally choosing an identity for himself that is neither black nor white.

There are many different ways to react to the problem of the double consciousness. Du Bois points out that there are two extreme positions that can be taken. To Africanize America or to “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (695). Neither outcome is desirable; however, Du Bois makes it fairly clear what he thinks would be the best solution. This is when a man can “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 (695). What is being avoided here is the further separation of the races and radicalization of either black or white stances on the issues of race relations.

It can only be supposed that Du Bois saw a future in which people could work together toward common goals, but still resist the temptation of complete integration-a very similar position to Alain Locke’s. Locke also arguably believed that race was an artificial standard as he suggests in The New Negro. He writes that blacks see themselves through the “distorted perspective of a social problem” (985). This is at heart the issue of double consciousness, being seen, treated, and raised not as an equal but an anomaly. Locke also recognizes the fact that this is indeed a distorted perspective as Du Bois argued throughout his career after coming to the conclusion that race is a social construct. The goal then is a society in which race is recognized for what it is-an outdated, discursive lie that has no merit in society today. Of course that is not to say that race relations are unimportant, they are indeed. But they need to be seen for what they are historical social measures that are being perpetuated, unjustifiably today. Further, Johnson is able to help us understand this concept because of the nebulous “race” of the narrator. The response to the problem of double consciousness is also important factor seen in the story. The character’s response was to “pass,” i.e. allow society to take him as a white. So it can be seen then that the idea of race is socially manifested. But the response that all three authors seem to be advocating is the abolishment of racism that has deep social roots and can only be struck down through the very cultural means that built them up.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Souls of Black Folk”. 1903. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Gates et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. 693-766.

Fleeming, Robert E. “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man”. Negro American Literature Forum. (1970): 120-124. JSTOR. Loyola University Library. 6 October 2006 < www.jstor.org>.

Johnson, James Weldon. “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”. 1912. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Gates et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. 803-883.

Locke, Alain. “The New Negro”. 1925. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Gates et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. 984-993.

Reed, Adolph L. Jr. W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1997.

Sheehy, John. “The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity”. African American Review. (1999): 401-415. JSTOR. Loyola University Library. 6 October 2006 < www.jstor.org>.

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