In The Souls of Black Folk, written by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, the very first chapter “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” Du Bois elaborates on the difficulties of being a Black- American during a time of extreme turmoil and confusion. This plight was caused by the newly announced emancipation of slaves throughout the United States. Which caused leading African American men, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, to seek answers to questions like: how do African Americans integrate into a caucasian dominated society? Both W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington strove to fight the cultural conflict of prejudice and racial inequality that are still prevalent in today’s society.
Booker T. Washington had a much more passive views towards the cultural conflicts at hand than W.E.B. Du Bois had years later. As expressed in a speech called the Atlanta Compromise, Washington believed that it was of vital importance for Black men to be respected in the workforce and have the same economical power as white men. This would allow their basic rights, such as voting, to come later on. Shortly after his speech Booker T. Washington received praise from many respected individuals; however, that praise was short lived. After the dust of this victory settled and Booker T. Washington’s message could be fully understood it received much criticism, especially from W.E.B. Du Bois. Many of Washington’s critics, including Du Bois, believed that Washington’s approach to racial equality in a post slavery world was far too passive for the hateful and violent world that surrounded them. Du Bois wanted his natural rights protected as it states in the constitution “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Nothing in this statement mentions race; therefore, to Du Bois, Black men should not be excluded from these unalienable rights.
W.E.B. Du Bois seemed to see being Black as a much bigger burden than Booker T. Washington. In fact, Du Bois coined the well known term “double-consciousness” which is defined in the Stanford Encyclopedia as “those whose identity is divided into several facets.” This is a broader and more current definition of the term as it is still a relevant topic today. Du Bois’ definition of double-consciousness was primarily confined to describing Black Americans. He states his own experiences of his self proclaimed “twoness” as “a sense of looking at oneself through the eyes of others.” He sees being a Black and an American as “two unreconciled strivings,” or two different identities that can never be united peacefully. Double consciousness is caused by the separation of races in America, especially after the emancipation proclamation. In the eyes of society, especially at the time, the color of an African American’s skin would forever represent the hardships they faced pre-civil war and the shame of those who inflicted those everlasting wounds. This causes racialized oppression and disapproval of being Black in a white dominated society.
In modern America, this twoness is still prevalent today. In 2013, Barack Obama gave a speech in response to the Trayvon Martin verdict. He mentions that what happened to Trayvon could have easily happened to any Black man, including himself. Obama then notes that “in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Obama shares that all Black men, including himself, experience the effects of double consciousness whether it be being followed in the grocery store or hearing cars be locked as they pass by. In this same speech, Obama recognizes that there “is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.” In comparing this speech with W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk, it easy to see that they are both fighting for the same dream. That dream is to be respected as an equal in the eyes of the law and the United States political system. Although it may not have been simply natural rights that Obama is looking for, he was still striving for fairness on how the law is applied to Black men.
For W.E.B. Du Bois’ 100th birthday Martin Luther King Jr gave a speech called “Honoring Du Bois.” In this speech King mentions the “twisted logic… [that] if a Black man was inferior he was not oppressed,” because where a Black man stood in society was reasonable given his intellect. This is a common justification for the treatment of African Americans throughout the United States. This “twisted logic” justified acts of violence towards African Americans and reinforced the passage of Jim Crow laws among many other disgraceful acts. It can be said that the same justifications are made today. In the same speech for Trayvon given by President Barack Obama he states, “we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys… There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.” It seems likely that this negative reinforcement is due to the prior twisted logic. These boys need to be bolsted due to generations of mistreatment and denial by the government and its people. Du Bois states, “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,” telling his African American readers that the hardships they faced are lesson for the world. The sentiment also suggest that if African Americans can just be accepted by the white community it would be beneficial for the nation as a whole. While addressing the Trayvon Martin verdict Obama asks us to have conversations in homes, churches, workplaces and if we can ask ourselves or eachother, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” because this stems the true root of our nation’s struggle with prejudice and racial inequality.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; [Cambridge]:
University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A., 1903; Bartleby.com, 1999.
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968. Honoring Dr. Du BoisW. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312).
Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on Trayvon Martin.” National Archives and
Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration,
Pittman, John P. “Double Consciousness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford
University, 21 Mar. 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-consciousness/.
Washington, Booker T. “Atlanta Compromise” Cotton States and International Exposition, 18
September 1895, Atlanta, Georgia.