In W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Strivings of a Negro People”, he explores the idea that African-Americans have a sort of ‘double consciousness’. As he eloquently describes it “One feels his two-ness, 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.” (Du Bois). Now, this week was the first time I read Strivings but I’ve been aware of this ‘double consciousness’ for years. It’s an idea that was deeply rooted in the black American experience during Du Bois’ time and still is today. You can see it in images like the one above. You can hear it in songs like Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man in a White World”. I’ve felt it first-hand. Upon reviewing Paul Laurence Dunbar’s works, I can’t help but notice the theme being explored in “We Wear the Mask” and “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” when read in concert.
Many interpretations can be attached to “We Wear the Mask” but given the context, it is most likely about the black struggle. Race seems to be the subject matter of the bulk of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems, from “Frederick Douglass” to “A Negro Love Song”. The poem details how African-Americans interact in the public sphere. Dunbar reveals the private pain that blacks feel when he writes “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile” (Dunbar) and “We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries to thee from tortured souls arise.” (Dunbar) This goes hand and hand with the idea of double-consciousness and that black people cannot truly be ourselves in public. This rhetoric appears again and again throughout black history. For instance, look at respectability politics. Respectability politics are enforced from within the black community, encouraging that others sync up with the mainstream (i.e. white) populous instead of acting contrary. For example, straightening of naturally curly or kinky hair, not listening to rap or hip-hop music, not speaking in African-American vernacular.
On the other side of the coin, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” examines how the black community can be in private. Dunbar starts the poem with the words “We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs, / In di howlin’ wildaness, / Fu’ to speak some words o comfo’t/ to each othah in distress.” (Dunbar). There are multiple things worth noting even in the preamble. First, the language. Without context to “We Wear the Mask”, one might not know what it’s about. The language in this poem though lines up with the vernacular at the time and makes the blackness impossible to ignore. Second, is that the gathering takes place in the wilderness like many slave sermons did. So they are completely alone and this is when we can see some vulnerability. It is completely private among them and self-contained.
Double-consciousness is all about knowing how the outside world perceives black people. Both poems, emphasize the need to be strong and keep any vulnerability hidden from the world. “We Wear the Mask” illustrates the ‘veil’ that DuBois’ discussed while “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” shows what is underneath and tries to give the black audience the strength to continue this double life.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Strivings of the Negro People.” The Atlantic Monthly. August 1897. http://www.theatlantic.com/author/w-e-burghardt-du-bois/