Talking about Du Bois

Janette and I enjoyed spending time at the Center for Marxist Education. I was able to discuss my passion for Du Bois and African-American Studies in relation to racism, radicalism, classism, and religion. That is a bit for one talk, but expansive as I think about the recent work I have started on Du Bois. CME Talk II Here is just the intro to my lecture:

“Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” W.E.B Du Bois exclaimed in his essay, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, as he pondered being a problem: a seventh son after other civilizations. The Negro watched Indians, Romans, Greeks, and Mongolians take a position of authority over the simple Negro. This white world reminded Negros of their inferiority, yet promised them a place with God if they behaved. Du Bois, the prodigy of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was set to challenge the constructs put in place by WASPs. As a child in the Berkshires, he was reminded of his identity, particularly when it came to his encounters on the schoolyard with white females. Interracial companionship has always been one of the first casualties of puberty, as noted by historian David Lewis of Du Bois. And though early playground rejections would impact his later pathology toward Negro radicalism, it was his sense of understanding that equality in America could be achieved, though by his death Du Bois concluded America was not ready for the Negro. In Of Our Spiritual Strivings, Du Bois wrote…

“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 ever 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 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 wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has 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 having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Du Bois shaped this double-consciousness as a sense of racial awareness regarding the veil; it was within this metaphorical Veil that black people faced oppression. In order to deal with oppression and themselves as a race, Negros must become aware of the Veil. This point seems silly in that who would be unaware of their oppression; however, Du Bois speaks to years of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and tenant farming in which the Negro’s labor and welfare were exploited. Du Bois’s Veil was expressed in the literary piece, Invisible Man; here, Ralph Ellison introduces the American conscious to a Negro mind that becomes aware of why he is oppressed. Ellison wrote,

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

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2 thoughts on “Talking about Du Bois

  1. Thanks for the update; glad to hear it went well. Does this center have any affiliation with or relationship to Herbert Aptheker’s Center for Marxist Studies located in NYC (when it was active)? Just curious. Is the talk available online?

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