`Double Consciousness` in DuBois’s essay “The Souls of Black Folk”
Published 14 Mar 2017
The existence of every human being is defined by the fact that people are social creatures. Those, who surround us, whom we see everyday at our college, working place, at home or on the TV screens and pages of fashion magazines are actually our mirrors, our measuring criteria. Every day looking at other people we ask themselves “Am I good enough?”. And this is inevitable, as it is in the nature of humans to compare themselves to other people, to let them become a criterion one should look at. But the results one gets from this comparison depend mostly on the attitudes these mirrors share towards her. If they perceive this person as an equal, her self-appreciation is quite high, but when their attitudes are contemptuous or indulgent the picture individual gets about herself, and the surrounding world is strained and artificial.
This is the situation DuBois describes in his book The Souls of Black Folk introducing the term “double-consciousness” talking about African Americans. The blacks have for centuries been perceived as somehow “lower”, worse than people of other races. Numerous theories were developed to justify this attitude. Social scientists proved that people of black race had lower intelligence, were more aggressive, less compassionate than the whites. The blacks were accused of being emotionally dumb, unable to control negative emotions and feelings. For centuries Westerners justified the treatment Africans got from them, and the situation they were in by inventing theories about Western races superiority. Besides from pseudo-scientific there were religious arguments that also explained why the blacks should be treated as slaves. The opinion that there were some people who had been born to be slaves, to serve their masters and obey them was shared by hundreds of thousands of Christians all over the world.
The quantity of explanations and justifications that existed at those times proved that slavery was not perceived totally normal. Slavery was comfortable, but it was not normal, and Western civilization tried to justify the order of things that existed because it was economically and politically profitable. Nevertheless the wrongness of this situation had become obvious, and the process of giving freedom to the blacks began.
The way from slavery towards freedom was had been complicated and long, and even when African Americans got their human rights, dozens of years passed and hundreds of people died to prove that African Americans are no worse than other U.S citizens, and should have equal rights.
And this battle is not yet finished, as, despite of the fact that African Americans have the same rights as other Americans on paper, racial discrimination is still present. Unfortunately it will exist for as long as people exist who believe that their complexion, hair color and origin guarantee them the position in superior social group, and gives them the right to demonstrate superiority towards those who belong to other ethnicity or race.
The fact that stereotypes still often determine behaviors of individuals and even social groups is undeniable. The negative stereotype of African American that exists in the U.S is that he is a criminal, often takes drugs, is emotionally dumb and usually solves his problems by using force. And people cannot be blamed for having this image – indeed there are lots of African American youngsters who rob stores, smoke marijuana and attack bypassers just because they do not like their looks.
The fact is that society rewards those, who act according to the expectations it has of its members, and punishes the ones that do not is proved. African American teen who robs drugstores is perceived as a normal phenomenon, while a seeing a doctor, or a lawyer whose complexion is black surprises many people, and arouses suspects that he has taken benefit of college African American quotas for reaching his present position.
The problem in this situation is that African American community still has not got the apprehension of what they are. On one hand they are Americans, but on the other their cultural heritage is different than that of the other U.S dwellers. And the worse thing is that because of absence of this common apprehension many African Americans use negative stereotypes some representatives of the non-black community have of them. This is the phenomenon Du Bois named “double-consciousness”. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness”, he wrote, “this sense of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”.
One of the crucial facts for understanding human personality is that a person can not keep thinking of herself as “bad” without serious psychological problems occurring. To avoid this painful situation human brain sometimes may even create two personalities, one of which impersonates everything bad, a personal Mr. Hyde, an the other is Dr.Jekyll – a “good” one. And DuBois wrote about “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
The situation when people do not understand each other is quite a stressful one, but it is much worse when one can not understand herself. This is a situation DuBois is talking about; being unable to tell ones good doings from wrong ones, failing to evaluate them critically, waiting for someone to interpret them, and accepting this interpretation to act according to it.
There is no wonder this trouble exist in African-American society. For thousands of years people had someone to make decisions for them, to tell what is good and what is bad, who punished and rewarded them. Building ethnical identity is a complicated process, a thorny path African-Americans will have to pass in order to understand whom they are. Of course the situation became much better in the last dozen of years, as negative stereotypes began to be substituted by positive ones, but there are still lots of things to find out, and matters to think over.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Modern Library; New Ed edition, 2001.