Du Bois, on the (Denigrations and ) Venerations of the African American Experience

Estimated reading time: 4 min

There is little doubt in reading Du Bois’ “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”, included in his seminal collection The Souls of Black Folk, that he is certain of the virtues of the African American experience: ‘we the darker ones’, he says ‘come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are today no truer exponents of the pure spirit of the declaration of independence than the American Negroes…we Black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness’. 

But even he seems crippled, not in intellect, but in the ability of his mind to find peace. The motif of denigration courses through his work as he speaks of the tendency of intellectuals to ‘gleefully count [the Black man’s] bastards and his prostitutes’. Du Bois laments the incapacity of compassion he sees from the white community. It seems determined to ignore the economic and social stagnation imposed on the African American for the entirety of his existence. Du Bois speaks of the imagined wails of the Black spirits were they to speak, which would surely testify ‘we are diseased and dying…we cannot write, our voting is in vain; what need of education, since we must always cook and serve?’. It is a demoralising refrain.

But what is most striking about Du Bois’ dealing with the theme of denigration is the extent to which it seems to have become internalised in him! He shows this firstly in his ignorance about contemporary and historic African societies. He reduces the virtues of African history to fleeting impressions of greatness in ‘Ethiopia the Shadowy and…Egypt the Sphinx’ as he declares that ‘the powers of single Black men flash here and there like falling stars’. He is sure of the capacity for future greatness of the African American. Still, he cannot see any material greatness in his community and cannot imagine prior greatness since stolen. 

Sergeant A.M. Chandler and Silas Chandler, enslaved, United States, 1860s

But when one considers the prejudice that Du Bois lives under, it is perhaps surprising that he can so confidently believe in the future greatness of his people at all. It is a ‘nameless prejudice’ he says that infects the African American experience. Nameless perhaps because it is characterised by a deep disgust by white America of a condition it created. In effect, in his hatred of the African American, the white American is disgusted with himself, with his own ability to reduce people to as low a level of humanity as the world has ever seen. Du Bois thus laments the ‘personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation’ that pervades all interactions between white and Black Americans. 

It is telling that Du Bois focuses on this aspect of the repression first – mockery, humiliation – not the economic exploitation and the legalised brutality. This is because Du Bois sees repression as, above all, a psychological enterprise. He was the first to give a name to the psychosis of the Black experience, ‘double consciousness’ he called it. He characterises it as a sort of autosarcophagy of esteem in which the Black experience self-denigrates in its own psyche: ‘the facing of so vast a prejudice’ he says, ‘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’. He speaks of the nation echoing and enforcing this ‘self-criticism’ through which Black Americans accepted a lower position in society because of the sheer exhaustion of the fight to be human. 

And the attack is all-pervasive, even backwards-looking, explicitly designed for mental anguish. It manifests in ‘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 distain for everything Black, from Toussaint to the devil.’ What Du Bois describes in the white American consciousness is an aberration of civilisation, a condition anathema to reason and civility. In essence, what Du Bois describes is intellectual and societal barbarism. Barbarism, not because of an inherent simplicity or frenzy, but because of the misappropriation of scientific calculation, the imperviousness to truth and reality, and the blood-lust fervour, ever unrelenting.

Unknown, African American soldier, United States, 1860s

The result is predictable: ’a vast despair…a sickening despair’, the psychological mutilation of a people, their faculties’ wasted, dispersed, or forgotten’. It is overwhelming, and the African American stands ‘helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless’. The African American could defend a thesis on incredulity as the capacity to abuse he witnesses from his neighbours never ceases to amaze him. This is what lets him know he is still alive; he still finds so much about his life disturbing; so much about the incapacities he witnesses disturbing. He bleeds these realisations into his songs and folklore, which Du Bois says are the only authentic music and history of the nation. Through these capacities to possess the nation’s full history in his memory and his speech, the African American transcends the erasure of his lived experience to be a bearer of all antithesis. He becomes the primal protagonist and reveals he is not anathema to goodness as he was previously accused of, but to be the protagonist of humanism. He is the only one with the capacity to cure society’s ills because he was not a protagonist to its corruption. Thus, Du Bois can declare the ‘determined Negro humility’ a cure to the ‘brutal dyspeptic blundering’ of the nation under white consciousness. And with the same zeal, he can declare the African American’s ‘loving, jovial good humour’ a cure to its counterpart’s ‘course and cruel wit’. 

In the end, Du Bois frames the African American experience, however lacking it is in the material and intellectual markers of distinction he so fervently wishes for his people, as in possession of moral and spiritual superiority. It possesses humanity borne of inhumanity that no counterpart in the nation, save the American Indian, can truly possess. And in this way, Du Bois comes to venerate his race, not by finding specific past greatness, not by reading greatness into the contemporary experience in a delusional exercise in positive psychology, but by reading greatness into the countenance of his people, into their emotional capacities, into their spiritual leaning. They are a ‘historic race’, not for their conquests or empires, but for the empires of emotion they conquer each day. 

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