The Movement of Du Bois’ Double-Consciousness

The notion of “double consciousness” introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) continues to be explored in sociology, race studies, philosophy, and many other disciplines. This term is broadly understood as a problematic psychological state of African Americans that denies them access to any real sense of identity or selfhood. Du Bois offers the notion of “double consciousness” as a response to the complex question that faces colored people, namely: “How does it feel to be a problem?” (Du Bois 2). So this “double consciousness” is an impediment for the mindset of African Americans because it disallows flourishing in that it causes African Americans to view themselves through the eyes of others and then internalize these damaging views. Although Du Bois initially presents “double consciousness” as a problem, he maintains hope that one can possess a “double consciousness” without it necessarily being problematic. This dual representation of “double consciousness” leads me to the question I aim to investigate: What does the movement of an unproblematic “double consciousness” look like and can it be maintained? In this paper I will first draw a basic outline of “double consciousness” and then follow it with a discussion of its natural, problematic effects. Next, the movement of “double consciousness” will be examined through the lens of William James’ notions of “flights” and “perchings,” in order to better inform our conceptualization of its motion and possible solutions. Last, I will offer a remedied motion of “double consciousness” and briefly sketch out what is necessary for it to be actualized. I argue that an individual can maintain a “double consciousness” so long as it operates in the background as a sense of awareness that still allows for a stable, central self. This may only be accomplished with the coordination of both the individual, the self, in communication with its external factors, society at large.

Du Bois’ notion of “double consciousness” must be understood as one of the multiple forms of twonesses directly caused by the casting of the veil. This twoness also refers to being a Negro and an American with double thoughts, double duties, double social classes, and double ideals (Du Bois 142). The veil is described as sweeping across individuals, namely African Americans, originally at birth and represents “the color line that divides and separates…perceptions and communications between those divided” (Blau and Brown 221). The veil essentially serves as a barrier between two worlds and is generally agreed upon by Du Bois readers as being “a metaphor for racial division, which thereby denies the black community of any flourishing or seizing of opportunities in modern society (Blau and Brown 230). While the veil arrives for young black people upon their realization that something is different for them or respect to their experience, it is also depicted as being to a great extent situational, brought about by external factors. This is clear in that the veil is not ever stagnant once its existence is realized, but rather incessantly shutting black people out of longed for opportunities. Thus it is reinforced continuously based on social, external situations. Du Bois supplies us with a personal example to make this point. While he was a Fisk student, Du Bois spent a summer teaching in Tennessee along with peers and some of them were invited to dinner at the country school-commissioner’s house one evening. Du Bois states:

I remember the day I rode horseback out to the commissioner’s house with a pleasant young white fellow who wanted the white school. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed and the water jingled, and we rode on. “Come in,” said the commissioner, – “come in. Have a seat. Yes, that certificate will do. Stay to dinner. What do you want a month?” “Oh,” thought I, “this is lucky”; but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for they ate first, then I – alone. (Du Bois 45)
It was the act of the white men eating before him, a black man, that swept the veil across him again or readjusted itself in its preexisting place; never leaving but remaining in a perpetual motion that affirms itself repeatedly.

The veil, which is repeatedly draped over individuals due to situations external to oneself, is not something that can be merely torn down. Instead, it serves as a framework in which one that possesses it must then half-heartedly operate within, through its darkness. Otherwise put, this situationally reaffirmed veil becomes internalized. This internalization “yields [the self] no true self-consciousness, but only lets [it] see [itself] through the revelation of the other world (Du Bois 3). This veil that constructs a barrier, a division of worlds based on race, directly causes “double consciousness.” The exclusion, division, outcasting, et cetera, continuously frustrates for black peoples’ ability to actually succeed.

Alternatively, black people who want to succeed in this society cannot be frank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather [they are] daily tempted to be silent and wary, politic and sly; [they] must flatter and be pleasant, endure petty insults with a smile, shut [their] eyes to wrong; in too many cases [they see] positive personal advantage in deception and lying. [Their] real thoughts, [their] real aspirations must be guarded in whispers; [they] must not criticize, [they] must not complain. Patience, humility, and adroitness must, in these growing black youth, replace impulse, manliness, and courage (Du Bois 144).

This description clarifies the felt effects of the “double consciousness” Du Bois presents. This psychological can be broken down into more detail. If there are two states of consciousness existing in opposition within a single being, then they must differ from one another. Thus the first state takes on the harmful perspectives of others. It is the consciousness that sees “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” (Kirkland 139). This first consciousness interacts in a process of becoming object to oneself, becoming other.

The second consciousness that makes it doubled, is different in that it “refers to a black person’s felt awareness of the harmfully comparative measures of others on [their] character and self-esteem, by which [they] take [themselves] to be a problem in and of a social arrangement permitting such measures or obliging them” (Kirkland 144). So this consciousness is not actually taking on another’s perspective, but is an internalizing and substantial consideration of it. Thereby making it the case that an African American generates a self-estrangement by striving to please others, rather than being their true selves (Kirkland 141). These two factors are what make up the “double consciousness,” in which there is no space for a “true self-consciousness” or purer identity (Du Bois 3).

Thus, the possession of a harmed personality with a “double consciousness” comes about by:

1. Noticing others’ perspective and situation, behind the veil and then
2. Internalizing this division and operating within the veil’s framework and only being capable
of seeing oneself through this veil

Moreover, not only does the casting of the veil lack a simple solution, but also there is a need for it to be maintained. Du Bois expresses the need to maintain a “double consciousness” when he states, “There are too many ugly facts for everything to be thus easily explained away. We feel and know that there are many delicate differences in race psychology, numberless changes that our crude social measurements are not yet able to follow minutely, which explain much of history and social development” (Du Bois 115). Hence a solution is more complex than a simple removal of the veil. In addition to this, Du Bois notes in The Souls of Black Folk that a possible solution to this debilitating experience of “double consciousness” for African Americans is “to merge [their] double self into a better and truer self. In this merging [they wish for] neither of the older selves to be lost” (Du Bois 3). Further, to be really true, all these ideals must be melted and welded into one so as to avoid the contradiction of double aims or two warring ideals (Du Bois 3). To help conceptualize what an unproblematic maintaining of a “double consciousness” might look like, I turn to William James, who was an influential teacher to Du Bois. William James’ notions of “flights” and “perchings” in his chapter titled “The Stream of Thought” from The Principles of Psychology help explicate the movement of Du Bois’ “double consciousness.”

In this chapter, James offers a metaphor to describe the motion of the human stream of consciousness. The pace of our conscious stream of thoughts, like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alteration of “flights” and “perchings” (James 36). On that note,
When the rate is slow we are aware of the object of our thought in a comparatively restful and stable way, When rapid, we are aware of a passage, a relation, a transition from it, or between it and something else (James 36).

The parts of our stream of thoughts called “flights” are the transitive parts, places “filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest” (James 36). And our “flights” are always directed to a conclusion (James 36). Inversely, “perchings,” resting places, or the substantive parts of our thought “are usually occupied by sensorial imagination of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing” (James 37). Considering this movement in terms of sentence structure, we can deem every place where thought is expressed in a sentence as “flight” and every place where a sentence is closed by a period, a “perching” (James 37). This reveals that introspection of a transitive act or partial thought is difficult to analyze without allowing it to finish or reach its end.

Taking James’ account of our stream of consciousness as consisting of “flights” and “perchings” into consideration, we can return to the dilemma of how an individual can maintain a “double consciousness,” a “double self” within a better and truer self unproblematically. I take the issue to be that a “double consciousness” does not allow for the creation of a central self, which further implies that there is no resting or “perching” place for the soul with “double consciousness.” This seems to me the case insofar as one who is in a constant state of objectification and tearing of oneself as a result of the prejudice of others, their external, social situation on the whole is in an endless state of transition or “flight.” More specifically, the “contradiction of double aims” that are solely determined by others and not the individual the perceptions exist in are always in flux insofar as opinions change from person to person, from one context to another, even if only slightly.

This malleable set of aims determined outside of the individual experiencer’s control implies a perpetual state of motion, of forced alteration. So while on one hand, “double consciousness” via the veil can be judged as a way of boxing someone up or pinning them down, the actual movement of a doubled stream of consciousness suggests otherwise. It is not so much a single or even repeated pinning down process, but more so a reoccurring, forced adjustment to the damaging views of others’ prejudices — which can focus on one matter today and focus on another matter the next. If one is bending to the perceptions of a plurality of externals, then their psyche is in a flux without hope for stabilization. There is no self-determination or even a central self to be able to take control, which is equivalent to there being no “perching” place for the mind to contemplate or reflect i.e. zero opportunity to look internally, to oneself. This is the movement of “double consciousness in its problematic state that demands a stabilization as a remedy.

If as Du Bois suggests, there can be a merging of the “double consciousness” into a better and truer self that still allows for the maintaining of the “double consciousness,” it must necessarily take a backseat position in the mind. By this I mean that in order for a self-consciousness to exist and function simultaneously with a “double consciousness,” the “double consciousness” must do its work in the background of the dominant, more central self-consciousness. To that end, this maintained twoness might be better understood as becoming an awareness of potential divisions and a history that plays a crucial role in African American identity. Therefore, the individual’s soul is not in a state of war without room for a self, but maintains this sense of awareness, this twoness, in the background of a self with its own self-consciousness taking the lead.

Using James’ language, “double consciousness” would be habitually felt with everything else and must form a liaison between itself and all the things of which we become successively aware within our truer selves (James 35). Due to the complex movement of a “double consciousness,” that is ultimately dictated by outside factors rather than the experiencer’s own efforts, an individual can only maintain a “double consciousness” so long as it operates in the background as a sense of awareness that still allows for a stable, central self. It should be noted that this possible psychological form of maintaining a “double consciousness” can only arrive through a joint effort on the part of the self i.e. the experiencer as well as the self taking into consideration its external factors i.e. institutions, others, and overall context. “Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent” (Du Bois 131). Otherwise put, since it is the external factors that constitute the “double consciousness” entirely, even if this “double consciousness” is being maintained in the background of a truer self-consciousness, the effects can continue to be damaging for the personality. Thus the remedy can only come about via a collaborative effort on the part of society as well as the individual possessing this doubled consciousness; there must be progress on both sides of the color-line.

Works Cited:

Blau, Judith and Brown, Eric. “Du Bois and Diasporic Identity: The Veil and the Unveiling Project.” Sociological Theory. Vol. 19, No. 2. American Sociological Association, 2001. 219-233. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classics, 1989. Print.
James, William. “The Stream of Thought.” The Writings of William James. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago & London: University of Chicago, 1977. 21-74. Print.
Kirkland, Frank M. “On Du Bois’ Notion of Double Consciousness.” Philosophy Compass: Blackwell, 2013. Print.

+ There are no comments

Add yours