Double Consciousness

One thing I want to do on this blog is think out loud about texts which I think are central to pluralism. Often these will be texts I haven’t read, or read carefully, before. So I am not an expert on these texts and what I say about them is not in any way exhaustive. If any reader find errors in what I way, I am grateful to have it pointed out in the comments. I write about these texts simply because I am drawn to them in my own thinking, and because they seem to me incredibly philosophically fertile. In what ways fertile exactly, and how that relates to pluralism, is what I try to understand as I read the texts.

The first text is W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and in this post I focus on Chapter 1 of the book.

In thinking of Du Bois’ book, even before picking it up, one question presents itself: “Is this philosophy? In particular, is it universally applicable to all human beings?” The title itself seems to announce its limitations: The Souls of Black Folk. So is this book mainly about, or for, blacks? What can, say, an Indian-American such an myself gain about his life and his philosophical interests by reading it? Does the book translate beyond African-Americans to all people in the way philosophy purports to?

One way to make the book universal is to read it simply as history and a document of protest, as a book which inspired the civil rights movement. Then one can take an attitude of admiration for how advanced Du Bois was in his own time, so far before the rest of America came to think similarly.

This kind of admiration, while seeming generous and even socially pious, in another way vastly underestimates the book. To appreciate a text as philosophy is to see something of the general human condition in the text, and the greater it is able to speak to our time from across time, the greater is the text. Plato’s Republic evokes philosophical wonder because, across the centuries and cultures, it is able to tap into issues which are still live for us. Is Du Bois’ text alive like that for us? Can it be?

Because I assumed the answer was “no”, because I assumed it was a text of black history and could not speak to my life, I never picked up the book, even though I came across it here and there. I could not have been more wrong. The Souls of Black Folk is the quintessential text for pluralism. To dismiss it as history is like dismissing Plato’s Apology as just a historical document of a trial.

This isn’t to deny the enormous influence Du Bois’ text had in the last century. But it is to say that influence does not define the text. There is more to the text than has been integrated even in the civil rights movement. For ultimately what Du Bois was seeking was an intellectual and educational equality which clearly ending segregation did not by itself achieve.

Like any great text, the power of Du Bois’ text resides not in the answers he give, though those are fascinating, but in the depth and freshness of the question he raises. It is the foundational question he raises which speaks to me, even though I am an Indian-Amerian and my cultural experiences are different from Du Bois’. He articulated with intellectual clarity and moral fortitude a question which gets to the heart of the possibilities for pluralistic philosophy.

What is that question? It is implicit in the famous “double consciousness” passage in the first chapter:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—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.

When Du Bois wrote this in 1903 a part of him might have thought that “double consciousness” is a feature only of African-Americans. That “the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian” have a sort of wholeness, perhaps founded on written philosophical traditions, which give them a “unified” consciousness, a self-respect born of seeing themselves in the public, cultural artifacts in their society. Seen from this angle, double consciousness is the black person’s awareness of a lack which people of other cultures, confident in their public self-representation, might not lack.

But, as is evident in the very next passage after the above passage, Du Bois saw double consciousness in another way, as a necessary stepping stone to develop a more unified, pluralistic identity:

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.

I have not seen a better statement of pluralism! Du Bois doesn’t want to give up his Africanness or his Americanness, but he also cannot rest content with how the two are juxtaposed against each other and even hidden from each other. From this angle, double consciousness is not a sign of inferiority, as if a unified white or black consciousness by themselves is the best way to be. To the contrary, having double consciousness is a requisite to growing as an individal. Both the white person who doesn’t see that “Negro blood has a message for the world” and a black person who doesn’t see that “America has too much to teach the world and Africa” are missing out on their potential as human beings. One has to confront the double consciousness and then seek to move beyond it. Avoiding it gives only an illusion of wholeness. But what does a synthesis beyond double conscoiousness look like? This is the central question of the text, and the rest of the text works through different attempts at an answer.

One cannot predict the forces of change. Could Du Bois have envisioned that a century after his book was published, a non-black man would find in Du-Bois’ words the articulation of his own Indian-American double-consciousness, and think of Du Bois as an intellectual ancestor? Could Du Bois have imagined that his words could ring true not only to blacks, but to whites, Asians and Latinos as well? That society would transform so deeply that in a pluralistic society “double-consciousness” is a universal fact of life, since there are no longer unified, clearly demarcated white, black, or Indian cultures? I am not sure, though I suspect he did.

But as I identify with Du Bois, and see in his words my own life project, a question nags at me: “By appropriating Du Bois in this way to my needs and my situation, am I plundering the African-American tradition and so subverting its needs and its reality? Is a non-black person who finds inspiration in Du Bois like a philosophical Elvis Presley or Eminem, appropriating black traditions and in the process making it harder for blacks to articulate their unique struggle?”

This is a worry to be constantly mindful of. Still, Elvis Presly or Eminem didn’t do anything wrong by taking on, and finding inspiration in, black music. Each person has to follow their muse, no matter where that muse comes from. That Eminem so deeply identifies with music that originated as urban, African-American protest songs doesn’t mean that he is trying to steal their cultural heritage, as much as it means that for Eminem rap music has become a universal medium for expressing modern conditions. It is an implicit acknowledgement of the universality of the rap medium.

The concern, though, persists. As long as black intellectual history itself is not seen in such a universal light, and as long as it is seen that the only mediums in which blacks have transcended their culture and have become global are arts and sports, then the white or Indian person who is rapping along with Jay Z is implicitly reaffirming the intellectual cultural boundedness of blacks, as if what blacks have done with music and sports, only Europeans and Asians have done with science and philosophy. That just as whites are showing they are committed to pluralism by accepting Tupac as a universal aesthetic ideal, so it is expected that blacks should show their commitment to pluralism by accepting Kant as a universal intellectual ideal.

So isn’t it even worse to appropriate the African-American intellectual tradition than its artistic traditions? When there is already so little public recognition of that intellectual tradition, wouldn’t it become watered down if non-whites try to become a part of it? This is a thorny question, which gets to the heart of the issues between minority cultures in America. Especially as in American public culture Asian-Americans are often more easily treated, than blacks or Latinos, as intellectually oriented.

I can’t say what an African-American should feel about my identifying with Du Bois. But I can say this: I am inspired by Du Bois just the way I am inspired by Dewey or Radhakrishnan. Not out of pity or condescending admiration for Du Bois, but because I sense in his writing – the very writing which is through and through those of an African-American and steeped in those experiences – a universal voice of humankind. Because I sense that a person can speak fully from their African-American experience without seeming as if they are limiting themselves to their own culture. Du Bois, like other great philosophers, transformed his cultural context into a universal context such that it is possible to go back and forth between the two without downgrading either.

Here we come to the deepest assumptions of philosophical racism. Can it be accepted that the African-American experience can be a window into universal experiences? The fact that one experiences Du Bois’ text as just history, or even a wonderful moral sermon, shows the extent to which one is committed to eurocentrism (or, relatedly, asiocentrism). Can a white or an Asian person read a text of the African-American intellectual tradition and see it as universal, as speaking not just to the African-American experience but, through the African-American experience, speaking to the human condition? As raising not only historical or activist questions, but as articulating philosophical questions and as opening a philosophical landscape in which every human being can find a reflection of their own philosophical trajectory and growth?

Du Bois was a sociologist. And yes, there is a lot of history and sociology in the text. But does that make it any less pregnant with philosophical ideas? No. In any philosophical text one has to learn to see through some context to highlight its universal dimensions. This potential for philosophy might not jump out to every reader on a cursory reading. The text might not wear its philosophical nature on its sleeve, using words like “transcendental” or “philosophy” in its chapter headings. Even a professional philosopher might miss the potential, just as a professional philosopher might miss what is of value in Bradley or Brentano or Dewey. To keep it alive all that is needed is for some people to find the text alive with philosophical potential and potency, and to explore that potential as they feel inspired to.

When I think of The Souls of Black Folk, that is what I now feel: that it is a rich landscape which I have just come to (and which others have already discovered long ago), and which I can go back to, over and over again, in order to better understand my own intellectual and philosophical growth. That it is a foundational text of pluralistic philosophy, which has its place in the global pantheon, along with other black, white, Asian and other texts from around the world.

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