Week Three: Dunbar

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/

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask.” Poets.org – Poetry, Poems, Bios & More. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “An Ante-Bellum Sermon.” An Ante-Bellum Sermon by Dunbar. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
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11 thoughts on “Week Three: Dunbar

  1. I completely agree with your post! The idea of double consciousness can be interpreted in different ways and you explained those ways throughout your post and provided examples of the readings that we read! Great post!

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  2. I think that your post is really great. It is great that you are able to express to others who do not share the same experiences that you have and create the conversation of understanding and empathy. I love Du Bois he is great at evoking connective images across race relations. I think that in American culture there is so much pressure on equality that people interpret equality as being like white people, when in reality it realizing that differences enrich our culture. African American vernacular and rap music is descendant from the experiences of slaves and is of vital importance to our culture. We need to embrace this difference. I think the double consciousness can also be felt by women, of course the experiences and oppression are quite different, but there is the idea that we act one way to men and another to women, or are perceived as “slutty” or “prudish” and constantly criticized by not being what white male society expects us to be and how blacks are criticized for not conforming to white “normalized” society.

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  3. I like that your post brings up both sides of a issue. The problem with double consciousness is that African American’s feel like they’re the outcast in a white mans world, but then amongst each other they have their own way of communicating. But no one should have to conform to fit the norms of society. To me this is like Mexican family speaking Spanish in their household but when they go out in public they speak English or Spanglish. But this is a more obvious difference and this is immigration. But when generations after generations of American’s have been raised and grown up in America, everyone should feel like they are American’s. not like they are foreigners in their own country just based on their race.

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  4. I agree with your conclusion because when I was reading Dunbar I came to the same conclusion of the “Double Conscious” that Dunbar shares with Du Bois in their writings.

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  5. ” . . . how the outside world perceives black people” and how they perceive the “outside world” — to me it is a shame that we continue to be in this place of alienation. As a white person I am both intrigued and skeptical to learn what is behind this “mask.” Placing human beings into these categories creates a tension in my worldview, yet I cannot deny that these categories exist.

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  6. This post brought up a lot about double consciousness in African-Americans today that I do not think that we were totally aware of. It has become so habitual that we did not know we have been engaging in it. For example with the idea that African American hair is “messy” when it is natural, like with Gabby Douglas. We do so much to change it, to make it look more European or white. We will perm and press our hair with dangerous chemicals and heat. We cover our hair with extension instead of letting it be free and natural. Not to say that all people do these things to look more white. But it makes you think. Why do take me more seriously when my hair is straight rather than natural. Just a thought.

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  7. I completely agree that black people are always encouraged to hide how they speak , how they wear their hair and what clothes they wear. The military had a certain rule against natural hair and so do most professional work places. Also, since black women are seen to be more curvy, black women are not able to wear certain outfits in a professional setting like other women. Since black people are usually discouraged from ” being themselves” it is only natural that black people will exclude themselves and group together because in a way they are being pushed away from the society they live in.

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  8. I enjoyed reading your piece. There were some things that I agreed with, and 1 or 2 that I did not necessarily come to see eye to eye with you on. I really liked your introduction and reflection on Du Bois’ work. However, on thing I did not necessarily agree with was the issue of the “veil” Du Bois talks about as it relates to the “mask” Dunbar speaks of. You mentioned they were the same thing, when, as we discussed in class, it could be seen another way: the mask a way to “blend in”, and the veil that keeps us from getting in. Besides that, one of the points I especially cared for your break down of “Double Consciousness” in the second paragraph, and how you used that theme to tie together both pieces. I think you did a good job and making your post coherent and relevant.

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