me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some
through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly
framing it. All, nevertheless,
flutter round it. They approach me
in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then,
instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know
an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not
these Southern outrages make your blood boil?
At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as
the occasion may require. To the
real question, How does it feel to be a problem?
I answer seldom a word.
yet, being a problem is a strange experience,--peculiar even for one who has
never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.
It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first
bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were.
I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing,
away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between
Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In
a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to
buy gorgeous visiting-cards--ten cents a package--and exchange.
The exchangewas merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,
--refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then
it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the
others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their
world by a vast veil. I had
thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond
it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great
wandering shadows. That sky was
bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a
foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas,
with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for,
and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine.
But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest
from them. Just how I would do it I
could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the
wonderful tales that swam in my head, --some way.
With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth
shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about
them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry,
Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?
The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait
and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to
sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms
against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the
Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight
in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness,
but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.
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 twoness,--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.
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
would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and
Africa. 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. 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.
then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture,
to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his
latent genius. These powers of body
and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten.
The shadow of a mighty Negro past flits through the tale of Ethiopia the
Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Through
history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars,
and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.
Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man's
turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his
very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like
weakness. And yet it is not
weakness,--it is the contradiction of double aims.
The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan--on the one hand to escape
white contempt for a nation of mere
hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail
and dig for a poverty-stricken horde--could only result in making him a poor
craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause.
By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister or doctor
was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of the other
world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks.
The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the
knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while
the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and
blood. The innate love of harmony
and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised
but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed
to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he
could not articulate the message of another people.
This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled
ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten
thousand thousand people,--has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking
false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them
ashamed of themselves.
back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of
all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such
unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.
To him, so far as he thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of
all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; Emancipation
was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the
eyes of wearied Israelites. In song
and exhortation swelled one refrain--Liberty; in his tears and curses the God he
implored had Freedom in his right hand. At
last it came,--suddenly, fearfully, like a dream.
With one wild carnival of blood and passion came the message in his own
"Shout, O children!
Shout, you're free!
For God has bought your liberty!"
have passed away since then,--ten, twenty, forty; forty years of national life,
forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthy spectre sits in its
accustomed seat at the Nation's feast. In
vain do we cry to this our vastest social problem:--
"Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble!"
Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in
freedom his promised land. Whatever
of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep
disappointment rests upon the Negro people,--a disappointment all the more
bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance
of a lowly people.
first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, the boon
that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp,--like a tantalizing
will-o'-the-wisp, maddening and misleading the headless host.
The holocaust of war, the terrors of the Ku-Klux Klan, the lies of
carpet-baggers, the disorganization of industry, and the contradictory advice of
friends and foes, left the bewildered serf with no new watchword beyond the old
cry for freedom. As the time flew,
however, he began to grasp a new idea. The
ideal of liberty demanded for its attainment powerful means, and these the
Fifteenth Amendment gave him. The
ballot, which before he had looked upon as a visible sign of freedom, he now
regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty with which war
had partially endowed him. And why
not? Had not votes made war and
emancipated millions? Had not votes
enfranchised the freedmen? Was
anything impossible to a power that had done all this?
A million black men started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the
kingdom. So the decade flew away, the revolution of 1876 came, and
left the half-free serf weary, wondering, but still inspired. Slowly but steadily, in the following years, a new vision
began gradually to replace the dream of political power,--a powerful movement,
the rise of another ideal to guide the unguided, another pillar of fire by night
after a clouded day. It was the
ideal of "book-learning"; the curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance,
to know and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the
longing to know. Here at last
seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the
highway of Emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to
heights high enough to overlook life.
the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who
have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull
understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how
piteously, this people strove to learn. It
was weary work. The cold
statistician wrote down the inches of progress here and there, noted also where
here and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen.
To the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often
cold, the Canaan was always dim and far away.
If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place,
little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for
reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the
youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect.
In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and
he saw himself,--darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint
revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in
the world, he must be himself, and not another.
For the first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back,
that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named
Negro problem. He felt his poverty;
without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered
into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors.
To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is
the very bottom of hardships. He
felt the weight of his ignorance,--not simply of letters, but of life, of
business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness
of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet.
Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance.
The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal
defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of
ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption
from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.
people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather
allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems.
But alas! while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his
prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the
shadow of a vast despair. Men call
the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture
against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the
"higher" against the "lower" races.
To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much of this strange
prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness,
and progress, he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance. But before that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond all this
he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal
disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion
of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the
boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain
for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil, --before this there rises a
sickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that black
host to whom "discouragement" is an unwritten word.
the facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable
self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever
accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate.
Whisperings and portents came home upon the four winds: Lo! we are
diseased and dying, cried the dark hosts; we cannot write, our voting is vain;
what need of education, since we must always cook and serve?
And the Nation echoed and enforced this self-criticism, saying: Be
content to be servants, and nothing more; what need of higher culture for
half-men? Away with the black man's
ballot, by force or fraud,--and behold the suicide of a race!
Nevertheless, out of the evil came something of good, --the more careful
adjustment of education to real life, the clearer perception of the Negroes'
social responsibilities, and the sobering realization of the meaning of
dawned the time of Sturm und Drang: storm and stress to-day rocks our
little boat on the mad waters of the world-sea; there is within and without the
sound of conflict, the burning of body and rending of soul; inspiration strives
with doubt, and faith with vain questionings.
The bright ideals of the past,--physical freedom, political power, the
training of brains and the training of hands,--all these in turn have waxed and
waned, until even the last grows dim and overcast.
Are they all wrong,--all false? No,
not that, but each alone was over-simple and incomplete,--the dreams of a
credulous race-childhood, or the fond imaginings of the other world which does
not know and does not want to know our power. To be really true, all these ideals must be melted and
welded into one. The training of
the schools we need to-day more than ever,--the training of deft hands, quick
eyes and ears, and above all the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds
and pure hearts. The power of the
ballot we need in sheer self-defence,--else what shall save us from a second
slavery? Freedom, too, the
long-sought, we still seek,--the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work
and think, the freedom to love and aspire.
Work, culture, liberty,--all these we need, not singly but together, not
successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward
that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human
brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering
and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or
contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals
of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two
world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.
We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are
to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of
Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the
wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore
are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of
simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.
Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering
with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit
with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow
a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic is the Negro
Problem, and the spiritual striving of the freedmen's sons is the travail of
souls whose burden is almost beyond the measure of their strength, but who bear
it in the name of an historic race, in the name of this the land of their
fathers' fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.
now what I have briefly sketched in large outline let me on coming pages tell
again in many ways, with loving emphasis and deeper detail, that men may listen
to the striving in the souls of black folk.
From W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903, Chapter I - "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," pp. 1-12.
Back to the Table of Contents
Back to to "The Forethought"
Forward to Chapter II - "Of the Dawn of Freedom"
Back to the Dead Sociologists' Index