Duality in The Souls of Black Folk

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559

In Du Bois’ ‘‘Forethought’’ to his essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, he entreats the reader to receive his book in an attempt to understand the world of African Americans—in effect the ‘‘souls of black folk.’’ Implicit in this appeal is the assumption that the author is capable of representing an entire ‘‘people.’’ This presumption comes out of Du Bois’ own dual nature as a black man who has lived in the South for a time, yet who is Harvard-educated and cultured in Europe. Du Bois illustrates the duality or ‘‘two-ness,’’ which is the function of his central metaphor, the ‘‘veil’’ that hangs between white America and black; as an African American, he is by definition a participant in two worlds. The form of the text makes evident the author's duality: Du Bois shuttles between voices and media to express this quality of being divided, both for himself as an individual, and for his ‘‘people’’ as a whole. In relaying the story of African-American people, he relies on his own experience and voice and in so doing creates the narrative. Hence the work is as much the story of his soul as it is about the souls of all black folk. Du Bois epitomizes the inseparability of the personal and the political; through the text of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois straddles two worlds and narrates his own experience.

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Du Bois expands on his reference to duality and the ‘‘veil’’ in ‘‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’’ with the explanation, ‘‘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.’’ He goes on to describe ‘‘two-ness’’ as being ‘‘an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.’’ The world of the African American, he asserts, is one split by perception from the exterior of mainstream America and in conflict with the experience of oneself. These conflicting selves result in an obscured sense of identity. Du Bois' use of the ‘‘veil’’ describes an obstacle that prevents white America from true perception of African Americans. The veil is mentioned at least once in each of the essays; Du Bois sees it as inseparable from African-American identity in that blacks live within it, yet also live in America, and thus lead double lives. Arnold Rampersad, in The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, suggests that the word ‘‘‘souls’ in the title is a play on words, referring to the ‘two-ness’ of the black American.’’ His assertion supports areading of Du Bois’ work as aimed not only at addressing the African American as a whole but at addressing his experience as an individual who is inherently divided.

As an active participant in two worlds, Du Bois embodies his assessment of life within the ‘‘veil’’—and to the extreme. Raised in New England and possessed of superior intellect, he completed his undergraduate, master's, and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University and spent several years working on his dissertation in Europe. His extensive education makes him a renowned scholar and a man exceptional for his time; he was the first African American admitted to Harvard. As a student of history and philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century, Du Bois was versed in the classics according to the traditional curriculum of the time. Hence, although the focus of his work is the liberation of African-American people, his academic life was necessarily steeped in Western, and largely white, culture. Because of financial limitations, Du Bois completed the first three years of his undergraduate education at Fisk College in Tennessee and spent his summers teaching deprived southern blacks each of those years, a period that comprises his main experience of the South. Because most of his life was spent in the North, critics of his work at the time called into question his ability to understand the lives of southern African Americans. For example, the 1903 New York Times review of The Souls of Black Folk asserts, ‘‘probably he does not understand his own people in their natural state.’’ Such statements not only support Du Bois’ interpretation of the way African Americans are viewed by white America but also reflect the way he himself was viewed as not a ‘‘natural’’ black man, and, in fact, divided from his people.

Several of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk are delivered in a third-person, rhetorical tone that calls to mind Du Bois’ superior education and attention to the classics. ‘‘Of the Dawn of Freedom’’ and ‘‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others’’ in particular reflect Du Bois’ intellect and ability as on par with white intellectuals, in the forum of white intellectuals. Other first-person narratives, such as ‘‘Of the Meaning of Progress,’’ retain the previous essays’ formality of tone and, in Rampersad's words, mark their ‘‘literary antecedents as clearly classical.’’ Since the goal of the work is to convince mainstream America of the wholeness and humanity of a disenfranchised people, Du Bois clearly seeks to make his work viable in terms of the mainstream and thus uses the language of the mainstream. According to Rampersad,

In its variety and range The Souls of Black Folk indicates Du Bois’ appreciation and mastery of the essay form as practiced in the nineteenth century.... Sensitive to the many purposes to which the form could be put, he used the essay to capture the nuances of his amorphous subject, the multiple disciplines involved in his explication, and the different and sometimes conflicting expressions of his temperament.

His writing is by turns romantic, didactic, passionate, qualitative, poetic and rational; he uses the popular styles of the times to his advantage. These styles do not so much represent the fullness of Du Bois’ experience as an African American as his experience as a nineteenth-century scholar from a white institution. His more personal accounts, however, bridge the gap between his largely white audience and his experience as a black man. For example, in ‘‘Of the Meaning of Progress’’ Du Bois describes the harsh conditions of his students and ultimately the death of a prized pupil. Du Bois generates compassion on the part of the reader by narrating the story as a personal experience, rather than by listing statistics. Similarly, when he describes the impact of the birth and death of his son in ‘‘Of the Passing of the First-Born,’’ he uses language that is stylistically grandiose and formal, atypical of African-American speech and writing at the time. However, he conveys a story that is both extremely intimate and illustrative of his highly developed human emotions. Thus Du Bois uses the personal narrative to bridge the gap between the white world he knows and wishes to inform and the black world of which he is also a part.

Du Bois’ most explicit literary device for demonstrating the dual nature of his world, however, is his use of double epigraphs to begin each essay. With the exception of the last piece, which directly addresses the meaning of sorrow songs in the context of African-American culture, each essay begins with a line of verse from the Western literary canon, followed by a line from African-American song. The effect is double. On one hand, the placement of the contrasting lines puts the sorrow songs on par with the literary canon. On the other hand, the accepted verse appears in English and is easily understandable, while the lesser known songs appear as music scores without lyrics, thus their meaning is less accessible than the lines that precede them. The meaning of the sorrow songs bears explanation, which is provided by Du Bois in the chapter devoted to them: it serves as a metaphor for black culture in general, which also requires an explanation to be understood by the mainstream audience. Of the songs Du Bois writes, ‘‘I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.’’ He attests to their artistic worth when he writes that the music ‘‘remains the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.’’ The contrasting lines of verse and song, although distinct and from separate traditions, are inextricably intertwined, as are the lives of black and white Americans.

Toward the close of ‘‘The Sorrow Songs’’ Du Bois wonders, ‘‘Would America have been America without her Negro people?’’ Apparently he concludes it would not. In his aim to represent the African-American people to mainstream America, Du Bois offers his own narrative, in a variety of voices, to represent the whole. His various means of expression represent his particular experience, which is in many ways exceptional and outside of the norm for his time. This sets him apart from the mainstream of black America, yet also highlights his experience of dualism as an African American. Despite the fact that as a cultured Northerner he has access to the resources of white America, his testimony shows that he is ‘‘bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil.’’

Source: Jennifer Lynch, Critical Essay on The Souls of Black Folk, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Lynch is a writer and teacher in Northern New Mexico.

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