Working on both Berkshire’s upcoming African American Heritage in the Housatonic Valley and our soon-to-be-ready website, www.duboisweb.org, I’ve been thinking a lot about W. E. B. Du Bois–Great Barrington’s most famous native son. In my book group, we just read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain about a bright, talented black man whose light skin gives him the chance to “pass” as white throughout his life. We discussed the decision that any number of African Americans may have wrestled with through the last century: whether to face a rascist society head-on or grab the chance to live without the barriers that prejudice brings.
None of us was sure what we would actually do if faced with this dilemma. But in his groundbreaking 1903 work, Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois makes it clear where he stands:
“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,â€”a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneâ€™s self through the eyes of others, of measuring oneâ€™s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,â€”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 would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul 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.”
Although clearly wishing for a society in which color made no difference, Du Bois faced the world head on. As Martin Luther King Jr. reflected, “History cannot ignore W. E. B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths.”