W. E. B. Du Bois, Carol Swain, and African-American Duality

Since there were some colorful comments on my previous post about Professor Carol Swain’s visit to Kent State, I thought I would share an assignment that I gave Professor Babacar M’Baye in our African-American Literature seminar:

W.E.B. Du Bois, Carol Swain, and African-American Duality 

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

            After 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 (214-215).

In this passage, Du Bois is laying out his theory of African-American duality.  When he published the collection that this passage is contained in, the use of the word “Negro” to denote persons of African descent did not semantically illustrate the duality Du Bois addresses.  However, the hyphenated identity of African-American came into widespread use during the 1980s, and it encapsulates graphically, on the page and in the mind, the “twoness” that Du Bois describes. 

Even though Du Bois published this work over a hundred years ago, the reality of African-American hybrid identity in the United States is an ongoing pragmatic fact.  The continuity of African-American marginalization from the antebellum era to the present pressures African-Americans to negotiate and maneuver their identity with the white hegemony (government, capital, and social sphere).

Du Bois goes on to write:

            The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-consciousness, 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 or spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face (215).

Du Bois does not desire to dissolve “American Negro” identity, but he desires the freedom to be both without the threat of racist retaliation.  In this passage, he makes a profound observation that white American and African America have knowledges and cultures that can be shared.  This is one of the main arguments for open borders for immigration, because the cross pollination of cultures leads to the synthesis new things that were not possible within the isolated cultures.  As forced immigrants, African-Americans bring their own experiences and heritages from Africa and from their experiences as slaves that can enrich the American experience as a whole. 

Dr. Carol Swain, professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University, recently presented at the Kent State library on the topic, “Immigration, Identity Politics, and the Decline of America: A Challenge for President Obama.”  Her presentation, particularly considering Dr. Swain being African-American, flies in the face of Du Bois’ argument for the maintenance of what we now call African-American identity.  Her presentation was primarily about the problems she sees with immigration in the United States, but at the end, she swung things around to identity politics in general.  She sees America as being a homogenous population with a shared sense of what it is to be American.  She acknowledged that it is a divisive issue between white and racial/ethnic diversity, but she considers assimilation “a good word” (however, she didn’t exactly say what standard folks should assimilate into).  She stated that, “we need to see ourselves as Americans,” and “we need to give up some of that [racial/ethnic] identity and have one identity.”  Interestingly, early in her talk she said, “black men running the two major parties doesn’t solve the race problem.”  So, it seems that she acknowledges that there is a “race problem,” but I cannot agree with her solution taking the United States back to isolationist politics and the farce of the “melting pot.”  Invoking nationalism and a call for national identity in a world of increasing globalization and cosmopolitan movement is an unacceptable retreat into a national tortoise shell.  Dr. Swain’s position is one that will further erode the pragmatic position of the United States within the world body politic, and her desire for the erasure of identities in favor of an essentialized national identity is tantamount to an erasure of history.