Double consciousness

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Double consciousness is a term describing the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society. It was coined by W. E. B. Du Bois with reference to African American "double consciousness," including his own, and published in the autoethnographic work, The Souls of Black Folk. The term originally referred to the psychological challenge of "always looking at one's self through the eyes" of a racist white society, and "measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt". The term also referred to Du Bois' experiences of reconciling his African heritage with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.[1] The term has since been applied to numerous situations of social inequality, notably women living in patriarchal societies.


The term originated from an Atlantic Monthly article of Du Bois's titled "Strivings of the Negro People." 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.”[2]

The African American experience with double consciousness[edit]

African Americans struggle with a multi-faceted conception of self, a double consciousness. They are constantly trying to reconcile the two cultures that compose their identity. Early African Americans saw Africa as their homeland and the place they belonged while they saw America as the land they were brought to against their will in order to be enslaved. This led to the idea that all African Americans should one day return to their rightful home, Africa. However, as a result of the experiences of slavery and southern acculturation, early African Americans' ideas of both of their identities were greatly distorted. The American plantation system created slave populations that mixed Africans from different ethnic groups and discouraged African cultural practices in attempts to prevent slave revolts. As slaves, Africans were forbidden to speak their original languages, stripped of their original African names, converted to Christianity, discouraged from dancing, and not allowed to use drums.[3] Such practices ensured the distortion of the African cultural legacy and that the same legacy would be severely impaired, if not lost completely, among later generations of African Americans. It also prohibited them from gaining the same cultural experience in America that white people received, creating a situation exclusively unique to African Americans.

In Philippe Wamba’s novel, Kinship, Wamba writes of his first-hand experience with the complex theory of double consciousness. His dual-identity was constructed from his experiences as both an African American living in California and attending Harvard, and being raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The greatest struggle he experienced while attempting to overcome the feeling of disconnection between his two cultures was confronting the myths and idealizations African Americans and Africans had created about one another. The most common issues from the African American perspective are the associations and ideas that Africa seems to embody. “Words like jungle, strange, ancient, mysterious, and heathen” often reflect the ignorance that is imbedded in the construction of Americans image of Africa.[4] Likewise, Africans are unaware of the extent of racism within the United States that still even plagues the nation to this day in more subtle ways. Having been isolated from full integration into either culture, double consciousness helped Wamba and his family cope with the inability to find a sense of belonging. His family’s unique experience of challenging and debunking these myths directly and in an extremely personal way completely changed his perspective on his diverse ancestry. The assumption that kinship was purely linked to racial similarities fueled his own initial delusions about the interconnectedness of his background. Each nation and its citizens possess drastically different narratives detailing their attachments and familiarity with their homeland, and Wamba stresses how his ability to discover what each of those origins meant to him personally furthered his ability to grasp the notion of double consciousness. Reconciling his feelings about his identity and heritage promoted an acceptance of his cultures without any misconceptions and allowed him to achieve a complete understanding of W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of “double consciousness.”

The result of this cultural destruction and reeducation was the development of the African myth. Due to their harsh experience in slavery, as well as the distortion and weakening of their cultural identity, African Americans began to hold an idealized view of the African homeland as one promising freedom and a better life. Evidence of this can be found in early African American folklore and folksongs, such as the legend of the "Myth of the Flying Africans"[5] and the famous spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", respectively.

In his book Kinship, Philippe Wamba describes the myth of the flying Africans:

Legends in the culturally rich Sea Islands of Georgia tell of a group of African "Ibos" led by a powerful sorceress who flew home to Africa from a slave ship moored at a site still known as Ibo Landing. Elsewhere, the story goes that field slaves on southern plantations believed that they would be able to fly home if they gave up salt in their diets, but that those who did so were forced to leave without their wives and children, who were fed salty food when they worked in the master's house.[6]

The chorus of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" goes as follows:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

For many African Americans, including poet Phillis Wheatley, the attempt to reconcile historical ties to Africa with experiences in American culture became efforts to transcend the original African identity.[7] The idea of returning home to Africa began to morph into one of rescuing Africa. African Americans now believed that they had Western expertise that Africa could benefit from and that they should return home not just to return home, but to repair Africa and bring her out of her backwards ways.

The ultimate result is a cultural disparity and identity crisis between Africans and African Americans that still persists for many African Americans. They are thus constantly aware of how much their own sense of identity and value conflicts with the identity and value imposed upon them by white America. African slaves were torn away from their homeland and struggling to now define themselves as African American, even though they are not treated the same as other Americans. They had to see themselves not only through their own eyes, but through the eyes of the whites who for centuries had legal control over their lives.

This "two-ness" of being African and as well as American leads to psycho-social tensions in which individuals or groups are forced into identifying themselves into two social worlds and viewing themselves as insider and outsider refers to their split consciousness and disadvantageous social position. Having such consciousness can harm the mind as this dual existence is damaging to their sense of morality. "Double consciousnesses,” according to Du Bois, means a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others in the mirror.”[8] Du Bois's viewed the history of the American Negro as the history of this strife, a longing to attain self-conscious manhood, and to merge his double self into a better and truer self.

Racism and double consciousness[edit]

Du Bois saw double consciousness as a useful theoretical model for understanding the psycho-social divisions existing in the American society. He has asserted that these conflicts often occurred at both individual and group levels. Du Bois saw the prevalence of racism and figured out that sometimes peoples internalized their oppression. He called that having a double consciousness. "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-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."[2] This double consciousness lets the person see themselves through the revelation of the other world. Their behavior is influenced by what the other people think and is distorted through others’ negative image of their race. This leads to low self-esteem because of the racism. Du Bois saw the color line as a scale that divides the people and because of this distinction, people are prejudiced and stereotyped.

Uses outside of Du Bois[edit]

Double Consciousness in Women's Studies is the idea that a woman is not only oppressed for being a woman but also for another factor in her life such as race, sexual orientation, or class combined. This idea of Double Consciousness towards women was first introduced by Frances Beale in 1969 during the Second Wave of feminism in a pamphlet titled Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female. Beale was a founding member of the Women's Liberation Committee of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later a member of the Third World Women's Alliance. According to Beale, women who are also African American have a closer tie to men in their fight for oppression than with white women because often white women have a lack of attention to economic issues such as Black women and men do.

Later at the 1977 National Women's Conference we saw women experiencing "double burden" and fighting for their rights amongst and alongside women of different ethnicities, sexual orientation and other oppressing factors. The Equal Rights Amendment was the product of tireless collaboration of voices and demands of women of color and white women.

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).[9]

Double consciousness in relation to women and feminism[edit]

"To try and understand the situation of Black women is a pot of misconceptions, distortions of fact and defensive attitudes from many people. The system of Capitalism (and its afterbirth...racism) under which we all live, has attempted by many devious ways and means to destroy the humanity of all people, and particularly the humanity of Black people" and their Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.

"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 Right's 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 history of White women and Black women is also very different because Black women did not have the option to not do their housework as they were enslaved and it was their actual job to do so in the 18th century. Also it is predominant today and in history that Black women provide for their families in the sense of home care and labor for money, whereas in the past White women had not experienced that double duty. Despite these differences Black women today "have urged that the two groups attempt to negotiate their differences and find common cause."

Another way at looking at Double Consciousness is as a "Double Burden" as quoted by Shulamith Firestone in her book The Dialectic of Sex. Her take is that "sexism is racism extended".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wamba, Philippe (1999). Kinship. New York, New York: Penguin Group. p. 82. ISBN 0-525-94387-0. 
  2. ^ a b Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books; 1994
  3. ^ Wamba, Philippe (1999). Kinship. New York, New York: Penguin Group. p. 81. ISBN 0-525-94387-0. 
  4. ^ Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America, Dutton/Penguin, 1999.
  5. ^ Powell, Timothy. "History & Archaeology: Ebos Landing". The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 4, 2013. 
  6. ^ Wamba, Philippe (1999). Kinship. New York, New York: Penguin Group. pp. 80–81. ISBN 0-525-94387-0. 
  7. ^ Wamba, Philippe (1999). Kinship. New York, New York: Penguin Group. p. 84. ISBN 0-525-94387-0. 
  8. ^ Edles, Laura Desfor, and Scott Appelrouth. Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2005
  9. ^ Nehring, Cristina. "Shakespeare in Love, or in Context". The Atlantic. Retrieved 30 April 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness / Paul Gilroy.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

External links[edit]