In the history of great American leaders, there is a special place for W.E.B. Du Bois. As a civil rights leader from the later nineteenth century, he led the push for African American recognition at a time of Jim Crow laws, widespread lynching, and the first generation of African Americans to be born as free people in the history of the United States.
His voice and his leadership were significant and determined. Du Bois called for a specific understanding of the future of the African American movement for equality, one based on a very exacting understanding of how movements are build, maintained and led over decades.
Du Bois was no amateur when it came to understanding the ebb and flow of history, either. He understood that for a nation like the United States, steeped in white supremacy and black animus, equality of the races was not something that would come easily, nor would it be granted by the white majority. Du Bois understood well the admonition of Frederick Douglas, who warned that, “power concedes nothing without demand, it never has and it never will.”
In order to demand power from the white majority of the United States, Du Bois formed an advocacy group, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Known more commonly as the N.A.A.C.P. it is the oldest civil rights organization in American History, continuing to fight for minority rights across the country even today. As founder, Du Bois envisioned the organization as spearheading the legal battle against Jim Crow.
He understood that African Americans would have no rights in the United States unless they could claim legal protections. It is likely that his understanding came from his studies at Harvard University, where he graduated as the first African American to ever achieve a PhD from that hallowed institution.
Du Bois saw how the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments gave African Americans freedom from slavery, American citizenship and voting rights when nothing else had been able. The many, many slave rebellions, and even the Civil War had failed to achieve any equality for African Americans.
Like Lincoln before him, Du Bois understood that a nation of laws could only be compelled to equality under the law. Tradition, religion and morality could all be perverted to adhere to racist biases. Under the law, however, African Americans had the opportunity to argue for equality and see it applied through legal decision. Sadly, this was not always the case, but Du Bois understood it to be the best possible opportunity for African Americans. His view was challenged by other African American leaders like Booker T. Washington.
This is the second installment in the Three Great Americans series from HistoryDojo. Please find the fist installment here.
In order to argue for this legal equality in court and elsewhere, Du Bois envisioned a leadership class of African Americans, educated at elite institutions and capable of debating eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe with white elites who might try to deny the equality of his fellow African Americans.
These leaders were to be the top ten percent of all African Americans, a group he dubbed “The Talented Tenth.” His vision came to life with the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, like Representative John Lewis.
One of the most difficult aspects of being African American, and a barrier to the equality that all Americans deserve, was the expectation that African Americans would adhere to white cultural expectations, and not have an identity independent of the white majority.
This expectation is the poster child of white privilege, which assigned alien or dangerous meaning to African American identity because it is different from white identity. In order to succeed in a white dominated society, therefore, African Americans often had to develop a double conspicuousness.
Double Consciousness is a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois to describe an individual whose identity is divided into several facets. As a theoretical tool, “double consciousness” reveals the psycho-social divisions in American society and allows for a full understanding of those divisions. Du Bois’ focus on the specificity of black experience allows for challenging injustice in national and world systems.
The term was first used in an Atlantic Monthly article titled “Strivings of the Negro People” in 1897. It was later republished with minor edits under the title “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” in 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois describes “double consciousness” as follows:
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 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 feels his two-ness, — 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.
The idea of African American identity is described here as having two expressions, a personal expression and an expression placed upon African Americans from outside. This is not an experience that white Americans live through. Sadly it is an experience that African Americans continue to experience. An example of this would be “the talk”, when African American parents sit their children down to explain to them that they must act in a specific manner whenever stopped by police, as it is possible to be killed because of the double consciousness placed upon them by police officers.
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 does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet 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 losing the opportunity of self-development.
This striving is what movements like Black Lives Matter are about. They do not seek to minimize white lives, or blue lives or all lives, yet claims that these other lives matter are often levied as counter claims to the Black Lives Matter movement. Like Du Bois described, African Americans do not seek to change American into their likeness. There is no threat to white society, despite the fear of white Americans that they are discriminated against more frequently than other minorities, a claim that is ridiculous and unsupported by reality.
African Americans continue to seek a way to exist in white dominated America, and white America continues to applied the double consciousness to African Americans. Du Bois saw all this first, and started a movement to address it. He understood the long game of race relations, and helped to foster a leadership class that fought for an American where African Americans would not need a double identity in order to succeed. His dream was the dream of racial equality, long before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave voice to the dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1960.
First things matter. Du Bois was not first to lead the call for equality, but his leadership was a first in many significant ways. He is definitely a great American we all need to know about, as we can still learn from him, even now.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications.