Reflection: Strivings of the Negro People
Du Bois’ 1897 essay for The Atlantic is a work of reflection upon his early life which proceeds into 1897, yet is relevant in our 21st Century. His succinct use of English to flesh out the psychological burdens he saw within his black struggle for equal rights interests me (as a white man). His frankness in self-expression as “being a problem,” is in full bloom as he recollects when he was but “a little thing, away up in the hills of New England,” and his offer of a gift to “one girl, a tall newcomer” rejected “with a glance.” Du Bios impresses me as someone with insight into both humanity and sociology — and simple justice and mercy.
Having studied in Germany, he is aware of the contrasting civil injustice between the blacks there and those in America. He says that “being a problem is a strange experience [blacks share] . . . save perhaps [for those blacks living] in Europe.” He was “a problem” back in that “wee wooden schoolhouse” in New England, and he writes of his realization of being “shut out . . . by a vast veil” from the world of the whites. Further, he describes the “double-consciousness” that he experiences.
The veil and the double-consciousness are connected “just as the white girl looking through the veil could not properly see DuBois for who he was beyond his skin, he in turn could not clearly see the whole white race because of his one negative encounter with her as well, which he then projected onto the entire white race. The “double-consciousness,” is the awareness of the two-ness of being an American and a[n African-American]”, and the largely unconscious, almost instinctive movement between these two identities, as needed” (xroads).
Pursuit of higher education is Du Bois’ strategy for blacks to rise above the “pale world” around him. Enlightenment through education and the power of the voting booth are his standards. He experiences “their world” as a “dusty desert of dollars and smartness,” and advocates expression and pride in black culture through education and “work, culture, and liberty . . . [and] traits and talents.”
Du Bois’ presentation 119 years-ago remains relevant today. I am not able to see clearly through the veil between myself and my black neighbors or the double-consciousness with which he says blacks live, although living abroad in Central America years ago, I experienced — even if just for a moment in time — what Du Bois is writing about. The veil between myself and the people of Peru was woven from a sheer fabric of language, culture, and skin color, forcing me to create a persona of meekness and humility of character. This is but threads of the lifelong veil Du Bios writes of, yet maybe through my experience there I am able to empathize—although I know that I may never fully understand— if my understanding must be considered.