The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later

By Dolan Hubbard | Go to book overview

W.E.B. Du Bois and the Construction of Whiteness Keith Byerman

W. E. B. Du Bois's construction of blackness through the trope of doubleconsciousness has been much commented on, especially in recent years. Its sources in nineteenth-century philosophy and psychology, its centrality to Du Bois's own thought in other areas, andits continuing relevance to African American experience have been the subject of analysis anddebate.1 But corollary to andinherent in this definition is another, that of whiteness. After all, the “twoness” he describedresultedfrom white attitudes andbehavior; those who looked on “in amused contempt and pity” were being characterized in such a phrase as much as those who were the object of their gaze. And while Du Bois's critics during his life certainly felt they knew his views on the subject of whiteness—he was either white-hating or white-loving—his texts of the early twentieth century in fact reveal considerable subtlety in his representations. This essay focuses on four “moments” of construction of whiteness: the “Forethought and “Afterthought” of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the opening paragraphs of “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” (originally publishedin 1897), andthe essay “The Souls of White Folk” (originally published in 1910). In each of these texts, Du Bois reverses the gaze of racial domination in order to make whites the object rather than the subject of attention. He uses devices of irony, parody, and sarcasm to reconfigure racial power, especially the power of self-definition stolen from blacks in the reality of double-consciousness.

The “Forethought” appears to follow the nineteenth-century genteel convention of apology andapologia for the writer's humble efforts:

____________________
1
See Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); Keith Byerman, Seizing the World: History, Art, and Self in the Works of W. E. B. Du Bois (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994); Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Gerald Early, ed., Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation (New York: Allan Lane/Penguin, 1993); and Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

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