Up from `twoness’: Frederick Douglass and the meaning of W.E.B. Doubois’s concept of double consciousness.

Even the educated colored: the long school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that.

Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987

A nation’s identity is derived from the ways in which history has, as it were, counterpointed certain opposite potentialities; the ways in which it lifts this counterpoint to a unique style of civilization, or lets it disintegrate into mere contradiction.

Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 1950

These two quotes from Morrison (with whom we are quite familiar with in this class) and Erikson speak to the double consciousness which is implicit in race relationships.  This term was initially put forth by W.E. Dubois in his seminal 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk in a passage detailing the peculiar African-American dilemma of being “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body. . .”.

As the author here adroitly demonstrates, “harmony in the physical universe so often seems a result of a collision of opposites…extremes of good and evil operating upon one another, so also history is dynamic, shaped by paradox and irony. In any consideration of the individual or collective psyche, therefore, polarities of self-definition–or forms of “double consciousness”–ought perhaps to be expected”.  This might be especially true in the United States, which is “a land where history has forced upon most people a sense of cultural biformily, as well as a positive embrace of change, mobility and literal or symbolic renewal”.  Consequently, “DuBois’s assertion of African-American double consciousness must… be analyzed with caution”. It seems that some critics of his work suggest that the “twoness” concept was simply an expression of DuBois’s own spatio-temporal dilemma, and that as a commentator on black identity, he had misjudged the nineteenth-century experience of his people.  I find this difficult to believe as the accuracy of his neat phrasing continues to ring true in a contemporary setting, despite the apparent ‘advances’ we have made.  Consequently, I completely agree with the author who argues that “DuBois’s concept of double consciousness should be taken seriously, in both its public and private aspects, especially as he himself applied it retrospectively to his nineteenth-century predecessors, as well as inwardly to his own soul”.

This source is not intended to act as an insight into Douglass’ particularly, but more to lay the groundwork for how Dubois idea has been understood and used as a basis for history by the African-American population.  Perhaps this has helped them to form a self-narrative? Or a self-made controlling image?  The article offers an early idea of wokefulness, in that “Reading opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.”