Double consciousness (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of consciousness.

In a patriachal society women have two consciousnesses: one as members of a male dominated system, one as women oppressed by it.

The theory has many precedents, amongst them the Christian injunction to be ‘in the world but not of it’.

Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (London, 1989)


Title page of a 1903 book in which Du Bois’ essay about double-consciousness was re-published

The term originated in an article of Du Bois’s titled “Strivings of the Negro People”, published in the August 1897 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.[3] It was later republished and slightly edited under the title “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois describes double consciousness as follows:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever 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. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.[1]

Gilroy and the “Black Atlantic”

Paul Gilroy applied theories of culture and race to the study and construction of African American intellectual history. He is known especially for marking a turning point in the study of the African diasporas.[4] His book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) introduces the “Black Atlantic” as a source for cultural construction.[5] Gilroy pioneers a shift in contemporary black studies by arguing for a rejection of the notion of a homogeneous nation-state based nationality in favor of analyzing “the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective”.[6] He based this on the Atlantic slave trade and marked it as the foundation for the diaspora. He recognized the significance of European and African transnational travel as a foundation for double consciousness. Gilroy used Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness to suggest there exists an internal struggle to reconcile being both European and Black, which was his main focus in his book.[5] He even characterized the Black Atlantic by the influence of slave trade “routes” on black identity. He aimed to unify black culture with the connection to the homeland as well the cultural exchanges that occurred afterward. He was also influential in the political black British movement, in which he popularized his theories.[7]

Gilroy argues that occupying the space between these two dialectal subjectivities is “viewed as a provocative and even oppositional act of political insubordination”.[6] This means that for black people across diaspora, thinking of the duality in their identity as one is almost paradoxical and conceptualizing and actualizing this is a move of symbolic resistance in modernity.

Frantz Fanon

Very similarly to Du Bois, Frantz Fanon touched upon the term of double consciousness in his life. In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, where he expressed his hopelessness at being neither white nor black. Fanon identifies the double consciousness that African Americans face and its source; he claimed the cultural and social confusions of African Americans were caused by European culture.[8] He gave examples of things that he has encountered that demonstrate the double consciousness. He talks about people who preach about completely conforming to being white and says that they are wrong. He also says that the people who believe that complete rejection of whites are also wrong.[9]

He then proceeds to talk about why black people adopt cultures that are so strange to him. He talks about how when a Black Caribbean leaves for Europe, they come back speaking a language different from their own. He also talks about how Africans, mostly the wealthiest, tend to have insecurities of not being European enough because they are African. This manifests in buying European furniture and buying European clothes.[9]

In addition to this he talks about the way white men talk to African Americans and how it contributes to this problem of double consciousness. He says that when a white man talks to an African American man he is changing his language to a way in which a stereotypical black man would talk, similarly to how one would talk to a child, with different language sophistication and slang. He says that this angers the African American because he feels as though he has been categorized and imprisoned into a box from which he cannot escape due to this judgement. He gives an example of a film where this stereotype is portrayed and then talks about how African Americans need to be educated to not follow the stereotypes displayed by white culture.[10]

Stephen Greenblatt also uses it to describe the peculiar quality of Shakespeare’s consciousness in his biography of the bard, Will in the World (2004).[11]

Triple consciousness

In the 21st century, Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness has been revisited to develop a more inclusive concept of triple consciousness. This triple consciousness may include another intersecting identity that impacts a person’s social experiences. Additional identities that may affect the already present double consciousness experience might include ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. For example, Juan Flores identified ethnicity as a potential aspect that influences double consciousness by speculating Afro-Latinos in the U.S. experienced an added layer of discrimination that combined skin color with ethnicity and nationality.[12] Anna Julia Cooper similarly references the intersectionality of race and gender within her work A Voice from the South where she states: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me”.[13] Finally, Jossianna Arroyo explains that triple consciousness brings “spaces, culture, and skin … [to] re-contextualize blackness”[14] in the case of black Puerto Ricans.

Experiences of women of color

Just like any other thought in critical race analysis, double consciousness theory cannot be divorced from gender. This is where black feminists have introduced their concept of the triple consciousness.[15] Black women not only have to see themselves through the lens of blackness and whiteness, but also through the lens of patriarchy. Whenever they are in black spaces, women still have to situate themselves in the context of patriarchy. Whenever that they are in fem spaces, they must still situate themselves in the context of their blackness. Deborah Gray White puts it best when she writes, “African American women are confronted with an impossible task. If she is rescued from the myth of the negro, the myth of the woman traps her. If she escapes the myth of the women, the myth of the negro still ensnares her”.[16]

Among the double burdens that feminists faced was fighting for women’s rights as well as rights for people of color. Frances M. Beale wrote that the situation of black women was full of misconceptions and distortions of the truth. In her pamphlet Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, she claimed that capitalism was the direct forebearer of racism because the system was indirectly a way to destroy the humanity of black people.[17]

“In any society where men are not yet free, women are less free because we are further enslaved because we [African American women] are enslaved by our sex.” Many African American women turned towards feminism in their fight against oppression because “there was an awareness that they were being treated as second-class citizens within the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s.” Due to this, many women felt that they were being asked to choose between “a Black movement that primarily served the interest of Black male patriarchs, and a women’s movement which primarily served the interests of racist white women.”

The theory of double consciousness is also heavily present for female diasporic artists. These artists are faced with the task of remaining authentic to their roots while still branding themselves in a way to allow international and mainstream popularity. In the music industry, women of color are often stereotyped as being hyper-sexual and aggressive; which in some cases helps their branding, and in other cases, it hurts their branding and the identity they have attempted to create for themselves. Due to this, diasporic female artists are often forced to privilege certain self markers and conceal others depending on the situation; often making them feel as if they can never create one true identity for themselves but must rather change depending on the circumstances present.

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