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READ: Dual Consciousness

This article helps students understand the cultural and psychological effects of racism and colonialism. It places W.E.B. DuBois’s work, including his idea of “double consciousness,” in the context of transnational connections between colonized peoples.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is “double consciousness”?
  2. What is one way that Indian nationalists sought to limit the effects of racism and colonialism on their culture?
  3. How did networks help people of color survive and flourish? Give two examples of networks.
  4. What was Fanon’s view on the origin of racial categories?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. According to the author, “the experience of oppression can ‘split’ one’s consciousness, or one’s sense of self,” which helps us see that “we ourselves may behave differently in different situations, ‘performing’ an identity for others, and how these performances are affected by power.” Can you give an example, from this course, other studies, or your own life, of how a person or group may perform an identity or split consciousness in response to power?
  2. Is the concept of dual consciousness usable to help explain our world today? Is this a legacy of colonialism?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Dual Consciousness

Black and white photograph of people marching in protest down the street. Four men in front carry drums, and behind them a line of children walk. One child holds up a sign that reads “Thou shalt not kill”.
By Amy Elizabeth Robinson
This article helps students understand the cultural and psychological effects of racism and colonialism. It places W.E.B. DuBois’s work, including his idea of “double consciousness,” in the context of transnational connections between colonized peoples.
Imperialism can be understood as the practice of a powerful nation politically and economically controlling less powerful regions and peoples. Sometimes imperialism involves colonization (settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people) and sometimes it does not. Regardless, the effects of imperialism and colonialism are not just political and economic. Peoples drawn into extensive trade networks or occupied by a colonizing power also experience cultural, emotional, and psychological consequences. As industrial imperialism intensified over the course of the nineteenth century, and as it relied more and more on the ideology of scientific racism, leading intellectuals of color began to talk about these arguably deeper effects of imperial power, especially as they related to race and racism. Two of these intellectuals were W.E.B. DuBois, an African-American scholar, and Frantz Fanon, a psychologist from the colony of French Martinique in the Caribbean, who became involved in the Algerian War for Independence.

W.E.B. DuBois, racism, and double consciousness

W.E.B. DuBois was a sociologist, historian, and author, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was born in Massachusetts in 1868, just after the end of the U.S. Civil War. He worked and traveled extensively in both the United States and Europe, and died in Ghana in 1963.
Photograph of W.E.B DuBois, taken of his profile. He is wearing a black jacket and white collared shirt.
W.E.B. DuBois, 1904. By James E. Purdy, Public Domain.
In 1905 DuBois published a book, The Souls of Black Folk, that had a lasting impact on how people across the world think about the effects of racism. In the introduction to the book he wrote, "I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive." The term that he used to discuss this spiritual world of black Americans, many of whom still remembered the experience of enslavement, was "double consciousness."start superscript, 1, end superscript He sometimes illustrated this concept using the metaphor of a "veil" dividing the world of black Americans from that of white Americans. On one side of the veil (curtain), among themselves, people of color felt comfortable being themselves: dreaming dreams, making music, expressing their full humanity. But on the other side of the veil, confronted with racism, they lived with "a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment."
The long passage below further explains his idea of double consciousness. (In the passage, DuBois uses terms for "racial" or historical groups that were common at the time he wrote—for example, "Egyptian" instead of "Arab," "Teuton" instead of "northern European," "Mongolian" instead of "Asian," "Negro" instead of "African" or "black.")
After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the 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…in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
DuBois discussed in depth the psychology of racism, but he also discussed political issues. He contested the work of another leading black intellectual, Booker T. Washington. Washington stressed technical education and "racial uplift," but refused to engage in struggles for civil and political rights. DuBois admitted that Washington's approach was popular in the industrializing society of the American South. "This very singleness of vision and thorough oneness with his age is a mark of the successful man," he wrote. But for DuBois, this wasn't true freedom, and it wasn't enough. "It is as though Nature must needs make men narrow," he wrote sadly, "in order to give them force."
DuBois developed a sense that the "whole story" of a society or culture could not be told if any part of it was left out. Black Americans, "gifted with second sight" because of their dual consciousness, had much to teach white Americans and the world. He also wrote about the way in which other stories were excluded and erased from history. For example, he openly talked about the exclusion of black women from the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century women's movement, at a time when speaking out about this topic was unusual. "As I look about me today in this veiled world of mine," he wrote in an article in 1919, "despite the noisier and more spectacular advance of my brothers, I instinctively feel and know that it is the five million women of my race who really count."
DuBois's attention to black women's experience may have been influenced by his friendship with Anna Julia Cooper, a leading black woman intellectual who wrote A Voice from the South in 1892. Just as DuBois set out to depict the particular spiritual life of black Americans in a racist political and economic system, Cooper set out to present "an intelligent and sympathetic comprehension of the interests and special needs of the Negro." But, unlike DuBois in Souls of Black Folk, she included "the real and special influence of woman." "'Tis woman's strongest vindication [defense] for speaking," she wrote, "that the world needs to hear her voice." In 1896 Cooper helped to found the National Association of Colored Women, whose motto—"Lift as we climb"—combined the uplift of Washington with the activism of DuBois.
A portrait of an African American woman, wearing a long black dress. She is seated, with one arm resting on a table. Beside her is a stack of books.
Anna Julia Cooper, 1892. Photograph from her book A Voice from the South. By Unknown, PublicdDomain.

Colonialism, culture, and dual consciousness

In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois wrote famously that "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." Indeed, by the early twentieth century, people of color around the world were thinking internationally, and connecting their struggles and their work. DuBois attended the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900. The congress was organized by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams, and attracted participants from Africa, the West Indies, the U.S., and Britain. One attendee was Dadabhai Naoroji, the only British Indian member of Parliament and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress.
While many Pan-African Congress participants focused on political and economic rights, they also explored the effects of racism and colonialism on culture and psychology. Indian nationalists, for example, were very interested in reasserting local languages and traditions. In the 1830s the British in India had established a system of education that required instruction in English alone, and Indian poets and scholars like Rabindranath Tagore insisted this was part of the damage of colonialism. "To break the lamp of any people is to deprive it of its rightful place in the world festival," Tagore said in a 1919 lecture. "He who has no light is unfortunate enough, but utterly miserable is he who, having it, has been deprived of it, or has forgotten all about it."
Women of color were also building new global networks. In 1920, black women from the U.S., including Booker T. Washington's widow, Margaret Murray Washington, founded the International Council of Women from the Darker Races. They wanted to learn about and connect directly with women of color who lived under colonialism. They saw similarities between their own experience, as descendants of people who were enslaved and treated as commoditiessquared, and that of other colonized peoples.
A photograph of a large group of people, mostly seated, in a meeting room. They are all facing in the same general direction, and some are smiling.
Attendees at the Pan-African Congress meeting in Paris, 1919. Photograph originally printed in “Crisis, A Record of the Darker Races” (Volume 18, no. 1, May 1919). By Unknown, Public Domain.
In 1952 the concept of dual consciousness was raised again, in a book called Black Skin, White Masks by French Caribbean psychologist Frantz Fanon. In this work Fanon attempted "to discover the various mental attitudes the black man adopts in the face of white civilization." Like DuBois, Fanon recognized that people of color had a divided sense of self. "The black man possesses two dimensions: one with his fellow Blacks, the other with the Whites. A black man behaves differently with a white man than he does with another black man. There is no doubt whatsoever that this fissiparousnesscubed is a direct consequence of the colonial undertaking." The very idea of "blackness," of being black, Fanon argued, was a product of white minds: "Whether he likes it or not, the black man has to wear the liverystart superscript, 4, end superscript the white man has fabricated for him."
Fanon's experiences in his home of French Martinique, as a student in Paris, and as a doctor in Algeria while the French violently attempted to end the Algerian independence movement, all contributed to his understanding of race and colonialism. He believed the invented categories of race affected not only black- white relationships but also relationships between different "racial" groups worldwide. He discussed how people of color tried to position themselves along a scale of race, culture, or civilization that was actually invented by dominant groups. Remember DuBois lamenting that a black man measures his "soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity"? This is what Fanon was talking about. He also warned against simplifying the experience of racism and colonialism into one "black" experience, as some figures in the Pan-African or Negritude movement did, while also writing: "Is there in fact any difference between one racism and another? Don't we encounter the same downfall, the same failure of man?"
A portrait of French Caribbean psychologist Frantz Fanon. He is wearing a suit and tie and looking just past the camera.
Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). By Pacha J. Willka, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Together, DuBois, Fanon, and other people of color who spoke out about the effects of racism and colonialism during the era of industrial imperialism help us understand how the experience of oppression "splits" one's consciousness, or one's sense of self. They also help us understand the ways that we ourselves may behave differently in different situations, "performing" an identity for others, and how these performances are affected by power.
Author bio
Amy Elizabeth Robinson is a freelance writer, editor, and historian with a Ph.D. in the History of Britain and the British Empire. She has taught at Sonoma State University and Stanford University.

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