What does Dubois mean under double consciousness

William Edward Burghard Du Bois: The souls of blacks

I have a dream that one day my four young children will live in a nation where they will be judged not by their skin color but by their character.

Words famous around the world: Martin Luther King spoke them on August 19, 1963 on the protest march to Washington. Words that sound like a late echo on William Edward Burghardt Du Bois:

One mighty morning it will be dawn, the veil will be lifted, and the prisoners will be free. I will not live to see it again, I will die in my bonds, but fresh young souls who did not know the night will wake up this morning, on a morning when the question is no longer "Is he white?" “Can he work?” And one no longer asks “Are they black?” But “Are they educated?

Hard-working and educated, that was Du Bois, from whose book "The Souls of Black Folk" the quote comes. We are grateful to the Orange Press publishing house that a German translation of this publication is now available one hundred years after its first publication. It is not only a classic of American literature, but also a milestone for the self-image of blacks in the United States.

Born in the northern United States in 1868, the gifted Du Bois was sent to one of the few black universities in the southern United States. His extraordinary abilities finally gave him access to the elite Harvard University and a scholarship abroad in Berlin, where he won the interest and friendship of the German sociologist Max Weber.

After his doctorate, the first an African-American received in the humanities at Harvard University, he worked as a pioneer in the field of sociology, a science that was hardly recognized in the United States at the time.

The creation of his book "The Souls of the Blacks" is closely linked to the rise of Booker T. Washington to become a black leader. He advocated the renunciation of political participation and equal educational opportunities for blacks. Instead, they should be specifically trained to become industrial workers and craftsmen. Only in this way, Washington believed, could they be integrated into US society. With this thesis he was very successful. Because his attitude of compromise secured him the support of the political and industrial and thus white elite of America. Du Bois objects. He, whose own path in life fundamentally contradicts the ideas of Booker T. Washington, wants equal opportunities for blacks. When a publisher asks him for a collection of articles, he has reason to comment. With sharp words, he rejects Washington’s ideas:

Born of slavery and revived by the insane imperialism of the moment, there is a tendency to view human beings as part of the country's material resources and train them solely for future dividends. The racial prejudice that browns and black people want to keep in their "ancestral places" is a useful ally of such a theory that poisons the hearts of struggling people.
Work, culture, freedom, we need all of that, not individually, but together, not one after the other, but at the same time.


According to Du Bois, those who work but are excluded from education and political participation continue to be among the exploited. He makes it clear that nominal freedom, even access to the ballot box, will not be enough to overcome long periods of discrimination and exclusion:

After all, the brains of an entire race have been knocked out for 250 years. beaten and systematically trained for submission, carelessness and theft.

This explains why most blacks have not yet been able to use their freedom. A short period of personal responsibility is not enough, especially if blacks are granted nothing but freedom. The different performance levels could therefore not be justified by the difference between the races:

The prevailing assumption of our time is tacitly gaining more and more approval that the probationary period of the races is over, that the backward races of today have proven their efficiency and do not deserve to be spared. Such statements document the arrogance of peoples towards history and their ignorance towards the deeds of human hands.

Du Bois finds impressive words and images for his outrage. He skillfully composes a text from individual essays that precisely captures the plight of blacks and at the same time makes it vivid. Melancholy snapshots from the life of blacks in the south alternate with crystal-clear analyzes of their social situation. This puts the reader in the mood for the passionate plea for recognition and equality.

Even if the situation of blacks in the USA has certainly improved since 1903: Du Bois ’book remains up to date. This is not only due to its historical and literary importance. The author makes it clear to his readers what it means to be a member of a minority. He explains how the experience of being a stranger or being different leads to self-alienation if ethnicity is not understood as an enrichment but as a flaw. Du Bois finds a convincing image of this alienation that runs as a leitmotif through the entire book: It is the image of the veil. With it he illustrates the forced schizophrenia of the African American: The black is ...

... born with a veil and a special gift - the second face - into this American world, which gives him no real self-confidence. It is strange to have this double consciousness, this feeling of perceiving yourself only through the eyes of others, to apply your own soul to the standard of a world that only has mockery and pity for you. You always feel your duality, as an American and as a Negro.

By the way, Du Bois consistently uses the word "Negro" - negro, a neutral term for black people in his day. -
Du Bois died in Ghana on August 18, 1963. It is the eve of the March on Washington, a crucial black movement rally. Du Bois ’demand for action becomes Martin Luther King’s prophecy:

Today I tell you, my friends, despite the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I have a dream. It is a dream that is deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live according to the true meaning of its creed: ‘We take this truth for granted that all people are created equal.

Du Bois ’book is an important text and we can thank the publisher for the German edition. The foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. is dedicated to the impact of the book in the USA. In the afterword, the translator, Jürgen Meyer-Wendt, tries to prove the influence of Hegelian philosophy on Du Bois. Documents and photographs from the civil rights activist's estate complete the book. Unfortunately, the translation does not always do justice to the stylistically brilliant original, and the comments are too short.