A Discussion of “Two-Ness” in The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Dubois

W.E.B. DuBois builds his claim about the two-ness of black men and women through his book The Souls of the Black Folk. This is not a central focus of his book until “Chapter Ten: Of the Faith of the Fathers” in which he spells out his claim that “From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and as an American” (731).  This double life is the central focus of the remaining chapters of his book in which he highlights the way that the double life affects black people’s views of personal faith, the influence of this double life on the next generation, and the tragic story of men like John who struggle against this double life.  

DuBois asserts the fact that this double life influences the way in which black people saw their own personal faith.  He explains that there are two different ways that people respond to religion due to this twoness.  He writes that “the danger of the one lies in anarchy, that of the other in hypocrisy” (731).  He explains further that this may cause people to sense their lack of power in regard to the world around them and so they become “bitter and vindictive” (731). He then uses a series of contrasts explaining that “his religion, instead of a worship, is a complaint and a curse, a wail rather than a hope, a sneer rather than a faith” (731).  Because black people were unable to express their sorrows and struggles openly in society, this caused some to lash out not at other people but at their own sense of God and faith.

In “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” DuBois presents his personal experience with the loss of his son, Burghardt, who died at only eighteen months old after a ten day illness. In this chapter, he highlights his hopes that the next generation will not live under the Veil that his own generation had experienced.  He explains that “the world loved him” and “he knew no color-line…the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yet darkened half his sun” (735).  Even though Burghardt’s death was because “no white physicians were willing to treat a black child” (“DuBois, Burghardt”), DuBois reflects on his son’s passing with some sense of consolation since his son did not have to experience the double life that other black children would more than likely have to experience in their lives.  He reflects that “No bitter meanness now shall sicken his baby heart til it die a living death, no taunt shall madden his happy boyhood” (736).  This memory of his son’s birth, illness, and death presents the tragedy that the next generation will also experience life behind the Veil and a double life.

The final, and most tragic example, of the double life of black people is DuBois’s description of John who struggles against his desire to be educated and his desire to be happy. Unfortunately for John, once he is educated, he is able to see the injustices of the world, especially those that are present in his hometown.  He avoids going home for several years because he does not want to face the racism that is present at home.  When he finally goes home, his main concern is for helping his people, but all of his efforts are futile because of the influence of whites like the Judge who are unwilling to allow men like John to educate black people outside of teaching them “to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were” (749).  The most tragic part of John’s story is not when he is facing his death after killing the white John from his hometown but when he is in the theater in New York, reflecting on his own desires and his own struggle with this double life of being black at this time.  DuBois describes “a deep longing” that “swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled” (746).  Even before returning home, John knew that his efforts at rising above his status as a black man were futile. 

DuBois, W.E.B.  “The Souls of Black Folk.”  The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Volume 1, Third Edition, Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith.  Norton, 2014, pp. 687-760. 

“DuBois, Burghardt.”  Duboisopedia.  Electronically accessed at http://scua.library.umass.edu/duboisopedia/doku.php?id=about:du_bois_burghardt, 7 March 2018. 

If you are interested in reading The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Dubois, go to the link below from Project Gutenberg.

Published by bagmac77

I am a high school English teacher, wife, and mother. I love writing about the ways in which faith intersects our modern world.

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