What if Du Bois’ Talented Tenth Replaced Isolation With Hope?

A contemporary view of W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness is revisited with a perspective from writer Ralph Ellison.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer who describes himself as an “upper-middle-class black male.” He recently claimed in The Atlantic that an unintended consequence of a burgeoning group of “college-educated, middle-class black folks”—whom W.E.B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth—has been their break from the wider black community while still not being accepted by the white majority. To Johnson, this plight is a bleak, no-man’s-land.

“How does it feel to be a solution? It feels like social carpetbagging, always code-switching to blend in with whichever environ we happen to be in. This is more than just a social survival skill; it’s become a matter of identity. There is no turning it off, only tuning the rheostat. We will never completely fit in America, and will always be confronted by preconceived notions. Du Bois charged us with relieving the burdens of ‘an historic race, in the name of this the land of their fathers’ fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.’ Yet, we are an exercise in insufficiency.”

Johnson encases his lonely statement of betwixt-and-between-ness in a concept used by Du Bois in 1897: double consciousness. Johnson recalls being teased as an “Oreo” by black folks bused in from the “other side of town.” Plus he was called “a raisin in a bowl of milk” in honors classes as well as in the suburban area in which he was raised.

If he says that was his experience, I’ll take him at his word. Yet Du Bois’ description was based on the legal, material and social restrictions imposed by the “gaze” of white supremacy. Johnson’s updated version, instead, involves an insecure feeling of tacit rejection by fellow blacks as well as whites, and psychic angst arising from a belief that you don’t fit anywhere.

For the sake of argument, let's say that indeed some, even many, black folks who've succeeded in career and financial terms feel anxious and uneasy because of remaining social divisions based on race, compounded by education and class status. Even so, I contend, there are better ways than complaining about eternal insufficiency, like a black Sisyphus tasked with the responsibility to rescue “my nation from its problem and my race from itself,” yet withering under the weight and failing time and time again.

Instead of identifying with a dejected “double consciousness” based on race (white vs. black) and class (inner city vs. suburbs), the novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison posed in an essay titled, The World and the Jug, what he called the “uneasy burden and occasional joy of a complex double vision” of black Americans. This tool for insight is “a fluid, ambivalent response to men and events which represents, at its finest, a profoundly civilized adjustment to the cost of being human in this modern world.”

Though Ellison reframes Du Bois’ idea, it comports with the original formulation. Du Bois began the historic passage by stating that American Negroes were “gifted with second sight.” The goal, he wrote, was simply 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 losing the opportunity of self-development. This is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, and to husband and use his best powers.”

In a 1958 interview, four years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and with the civil rights movement gaining momentum, Ellison agreed with Du Bois that “the point of our struggle was to be both Negro and American and to bring about that condition in American society in which this would be possible .... When we achieve the right of full participation in American life, what we will make of it will depend upon our sense of cultural values and our creative use of freedom, not upon our racial identification.”

Note that Du Bois and Ellison both point to culture as a key aspect of the struggle and our advance. For Ellison, our black American cultural expression was best exemplified by the blues and jazz, musical representations of hope amid sorrow that project our improvisational, tragicomic attitude toward life. Ellison—who via the work of scholars such as Danielle S. Allen, Lucas Morel and Timothy Parrish is finally being recognized as a great 20th-century American political theorist and civic statesman—never shied away from the harsh facts of our sojourn in the U.S. Neither should we. But how we frame today’s issues can point to strategies to confront the pain and struggle of black folks as cited in statistical studies which reveal just how far we have to go to fulfill our nation’s democratic ideals.  

Johnson’s narrative style and attitude, at least in the essay that prompted this rebuttal, is pessimistic, leading all too likely to resignation and despair. This is unfortunate and surprising from a brother who has taught military strategy—i.e., how do you fight and even win in the face of seeming defeat—and who elsewhere advocates for the power of “exploring lessons learned from the inspiring stories of [American] citizens.”

To face our 21st-century struggles, don’t we need writers to identify problems as well as provide a vision of possibilities and solutions? As the Bible says, without vision, the people perish. Writers provide vision.

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