PHILOSOPHY, BIPOC

The Genesis of the ‚ÄúActing White‚ÄĚ Epithet

by MERCY FERRARS

William Frantz Ele¬≠men¬≠tary School, New Orleans, 1960. ‚ÄúAfter a Fed¬≠er¬≠al court ordered the deseg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion of schools in the South, U.S. Mar¬≠shals escort¬≠ed a young Black girl, Ruby Bridges, to school.‚ÄĚ PHOTO U.S. Fed¬≠er¬≠al Government/Public Domain

07/04/2022

It is high time to debunk a racial myth which has been up to mis¬≠chief for much too long. The con¬≠de¬≠scend¬≠ing epi¬≠thet of ‚Äėact¬≠ing white‚Äô is vio¬≠lent. Deeply root¬≠ed in African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can his¬≠to¬≠ry, it spans cul¬≠tur¬≠al and polit¬≠i¬≠cal aggres¬≠sions towards Black cit¬≠i¬≠zens in the States for hun¬≠dreds of years, from the days of slav¬≠ery to the era of Jim Crow laws to mod¬≠ern day efforts in keep¬≠ing iden¬≠ti¬≠ties fixed and sep¬≠a¬≠rat¬≠ed. Orig¬≠i¬≠nal¬≠ly born from its out¬≠er polit¬≠i¬≠cal cir¬≠cum¬≠stances, it has since seeped into cul¬≠tur¬≠al nar¬≠ra¬≠tives and intro- and extro¬≠spec¬≠tive con¬≠vic¬≠tions about one¬≠self and the oth¬≠er. It is being cul¬≠ti¬≠vat¬≠ed and repro¬≠duced in the cul¬≠tur¬≠al panop¬≠ti¬≠con. These bru¬≠tal and vio¬≠lent cul¬≠tur¬≠al myths with¬≠stand the progress of time like ivory on the brick walls of most Cau¬≠casian main¬≠stream societies. 

Unsur¬≠pris¬≠ing¬≠ly, in the begin¬≠ning, there was aggres¬≠sion. A slur born from vio¬≠lence will always per¬≠pet¬≠u¬≠ate such vio¬≠lence and car¬≠ry it on all its trav¬≠els. It pass¬≠es through all social class¬≠es, pro¬≠fes¬≠sions and it tra¬≠vers¬≠es all lev¬≠els of pres¬≠tige and splen¬≠dour. From the anony¬≠mous cit¬≠i¬≠zen to Pres¬≠i¬≠dent Oba¬≠ma, accu¬≠sa¬≠tions of ‚Äėact¬≠ing white‚Äô have and will con¬≠tin¬≠ue to run riot. 
The emer¬≠gence of the epi¬≠thet and the sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant imprint it has on Black iden¬≠ti¬≠ty occurs in three phas¬≠es through¬≠out Amer¬≠i¬≠can his¬≠to¬≠ry: Dur¬≠ing slav¬≠ery and the pub¬≠li¬≠ca¬≠tion of Uncle Tom‚Äôs Cab¬≠in between rough¬≠ly 1850 to 1861; dur¬≠ing racial seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion between 1877 and the 1960s; and last¬≠ly through¬≠out the turn of the cen¬≠tu¬≠ry reper¬≠cus¬≠sions these racialised pol¬≠i¬≠tics fostered. 

Under the pre¬≠sump¬≠tion that the idea of ‚Äėact¬≠ing white‚Äô is his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly grown and spilled from pol¬≠i¬≠tics to cul¬≠tur¬≠al con¬≠scious¬≠ness, Har¬≠ri¬≠et Beech¬≠er Stowe‚Äôs abo¬≠li¬≠tion¬≠ist nov¬≠el Uncle Tom‚Äôs Cab¬≠in serves as the set out for our ven¬≠ture. Stowe‚Äôs nov¬≠el was potent in pro¬≠duc¬≠ing the myth of Uncle Tom: orig¬≠i¬≠nal¬≠ly imag¬≠ined as a noble char¬≠ac¬≠ter full of moral appeal, the char¬≠ac¬≠ter sub¬≠se¬≠quent¬≠ly became the cul¬≠tur¬≠al reg¬≠is¬≠ter by which African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans who engaged in white-gat¬≠ed behav¬≠iour¬≠al and iden¬≠ti¬≠ty clus¬≠ters were appraised. Fol¬≠low¬≠ing Uncle Tom, the fur¬≠ther ampli¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tion and repli¬≠ca¬≠tion of racial flag¬≠ging and com¬≠part¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠i¬≠sa¬≠tion of cer¬≠tain behav¬≠iour¬≠al pat¬≠terns, speech acts, or affec¬≠tive expres¬≠sions pro¬≠lif¬≠er¬≠at¬≠ed through heat¬≠ed dis¬≠cus¬≠sions between Book¬≠er T. Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton and W.E.B. Du Bois‚ÄĒa strug¬≠gle woven into civ¬≠il rights dis¬≠course. Du Bois‚Äô pro¬≠vides a pow¬≠er¬≠ful metaphor to flesh out the insuf¬≠fi¬≠cient racial com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tion of a seg¬≠re¬≠gat¬≠ed Amer¬≠i¬≠can soci¬≠ety: the ‚Äúveil,‚ÄĚ under¬≠stood as the racial divi¬≠sion block¬≠ing com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tion and approx¬≠i¬≠ma¬≠tion of the races post-slavery. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

In the Amer¬≠i¬≠ca of the 1850s, one of the world‚Äôs most famous nov¬≠els saw the light of day. Amid South¬≠ern slav¬≠ery, author Har¬≠ri¬≠et Beech¬≠er Stowe lit a fire of abo¬≠li¬≠tion¬≠ism that swept across the coun¬≠try and, accord¬≠ing to some beliefs, even prompt¬≠ed the Civ¬≠il War of 1861. Her 1852 nov¬≠el, Uncle Tom‚Äôs Cab¬≠in, was born into a momen¬≠tous era. Not only did the nov¬≠el lit¬≠er¬≠ar¬≠i¬≠ly fol¬≠low the birth hours of the New York Times and Moby Dick, but it also inten¬≠si¬≠fied the polit¬≠i¬≠cal con¬≠flicts between the North¬≠ern states unit¬≠ed in the Union and the Con¬≠fed¬≠er¬≠ate South¬≠ern states. The con¬≠flicts were caused, on the one hand, by the elec¬≠tion of Abra¬≠ham Lin¬≠coln as pres¬≠i¬≠dent and, on the oth¬≠er, by the con¬≠tro¬≠ver¬≠sy over the econ¬≠o¬≠my of slav¬≠ery in the South¬≠ern states. Only two years ear¬≠li¬≠er, the Fugi¬≠tive Slave Act had been passed, which ensured that slaves who had escaped to the North¬≠ern states had to be ‚Äėreturned.‚Äô 

Stowe‚Äôs nov¬≠el was an anti-slav¬≠ery nov¬≠el; its intent was to appeal to the morals of whites‚ÄĒfostering hope that slav¬≠ery would be abol¬≠ished. At the time of Uncle Tom‚Äôs pub¬≠li¬≠ca¬≠tion, African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans were pro¬≠hib¬≠it¬≠ed from edu¬≠cat¬≠ing them¬≠selves, from learn¬≠ing to read or write. For those who did edu¬≠cate African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans, severe penal¬≠ties fol¬≠lowed. Con¬≠se¬≠quent¬≠ly, edu¬≠ca¬≠tion and the pres¬≠tige and aspi¬≠ra¬≠tions that came with it were legal¬≠ly reserved for whites. Ini¬≠tial¬≠ly enshrined in law, this belief grad¬≠u¬≠al¬≠ly seeped into soci¬≠ety and nat¬≠u¬≠ralised into a blan¬≠ket judge¬≠ment: an African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can who was lit¬≠er¬≠ate or oth¬≠er¬≠wise showed char¬≠ac¬≠ter traits which did not agree with com¬≠mon law behaved ‚Äėwhite.‚Äô Para¬≠dox¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly, the African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties were not immune from adapt¬≠ing this judgement.

Stowe‚Äôs pro¬≠tag¬≠o¬≠nist was con¬≠ceived by her as a hero who stood up to fierce mas¬≠ters and died pro¬≠tect¬≠ing his own. He was to be an icon of pride and strength, of loy¬≠al¬≠ty and faith. But opin¬≠ions on the char¬≠ac¬≠ter Uncle Tom dif¬≠fered, some argu¬≠ing that at many points in the nov¬≠el Uncle Tom sub¬≠mits to his white mas¬≠ters, tries to befriend them and some¬≠times favours them over his fam¬≠i¬≠ly.1 Oth¬≠ers point out that the count¬≠less plays that fol¬≠lowed the book grad¬≠u¬≠al¬≠ly cast the char¬≠ac¬≠ter in a bad light.2 The fol¬≠low¬≠ing decades would not oblit¬≠er¬≠ate the solid¬≠i¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tion of Uncle Tom as a dero¬≠gat¬≠ing by-name. They would how¬≠ev¬≠er intro¬≠duce two key fig¬≠ures in African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can eman¬≠ci¬≠pa¬≠tion, one of which rose to fame fac¬≠ing strong oppo¬≠si¬≠tion by his own peo¬≠ple: Book¬≠er T. Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton, the South‚Äôs assim¬≠i¬≠la¬≠tion¬≠ist con¬≠cil¬≠ia¬≠tor and his coun¬≠ter¬≠part, W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Abolition, Segregation and Booker T. Washington

The Civ¬≠il War last¬≠ing from 1861 to 1865 came and went. After the North¬≠ern states were vic¬≠to¬≠ri¬≠ous over the South, the lat¬≠ter was incor¬≠po¬≠rat¬≠ed back into the Union. Slav¬≠ery was abol¬≠ished through¬≠out the States, and mil¬≠i¬≠tary, eco¬≠nom¬≠ic and cul¬≠tur¬≠al Recon¬≠struc¬≠tion was ini¬≠ti¬≠at¬≠ed. But the next can¬≠cer was already grow¬≠ing in the South. One to which the offi¬≠cial abo¬≠li¬≠tion of slav¬≠ery was a thorn in the side, and which aimed to con¬≠tin¬≠ue oppress¬≠ing new¬≠ly freed African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans despite their adju¬≠di¬≠cat¬≠ed civ¬≠il rights anchored in the 14th and 15th amendments. 

First, in 1865, the white suprema¬≠cist Ku Klux Klan emerged, whose goal was not only to intim¬≠i¬≠date but also to attack and lynch African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans. Sec¬≠ond, the so-called Jim Crow laws (named after a racist dance per¬≠formed in black¬≠face by come¬≠di¬≠an Thomas D. Rice) came into effect in the South¬≠ern states. The begin¬≠ning of the Jim Crow laws were the Black Codes, which spec¬≠i¬≠fied where and how for¬≠mer enslaved peo¬≠ple were allowed to work and how they were com¬≠pen¬≠sat¬≠ed for it. Of course, these reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tions also affect¬≠ed where they lived and how they travelled. 

Read: A Brief His¬≠to¬≠ry of African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can influ¬≠ence on Rock & Roll

The Jim Crow laws spread the racial seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion of or respec¬≠tive¬≠ly denied African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans access to most pub¬≠lic places. These pro¬≠hi¬≠bi¬≠tions and seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tions affect¬≠ed places such as homes, schools, bus¬≠es, and hos¬≠pi¬≠tals. In 1896, the Unit¬≠ed States Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Fer¬≠gu¬≠son that these laws did not con¬≠tra¬≠dict the U.S. Con¬≠sti¬≠tu¬≠tion if they fol¬≠lowed the prin¬≠ci¬≠ple of ‚Äėsep¬≠a¬≠rate but equal.‚Äô In real¬≠i¬≠ty, ‚Äėcoloured‚Äô insti¬≠tu¬≠tions and areas were sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant¬≠ly worse endowed and equal¬≠i¬≠ty applied bare¬≠ly on paper. After part of the Black dias¬≠poric iden¬≠ti¬≠ty was shaped and warped by slav¬≠ery, Jim Crow laws fol¬≠lowed suit. Seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion seeped into all sorts of cul¬≠tur¬≠al areas, includ¬≠ing rock & roll in the ear¬≠ly 20th cen¬≠tu¬≠ry. It poi¬≠soned music, dance, lit¬≠er¬≠a¬≠ture and art, edu¬≠ca¬≠tion and pro¬≠fes¬≠sion, health and wealth with stereo¬≠types built around white¬≠ness and Black¬≠ness; it seg¬≠re¬≠gat¬≠ed, defined and affect¬≠ed a trou¬≠bled post-war soci¬≠ety that demon¬≠strat¬≠ed sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant refusal in uni¬≠fy¬≠ing itself. But it also oppressed on a more sub¬≠tle lev¬≠el: by nul¬≠li¬≠fy¬≠ing and negat¬≠ing African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can influ¬≠ence on what was under¬≠stood to be ‚ÄėAmer¬≠i¬≠can‚Äô culture. 

Pho¬≠to¬≠graph of Book¬≠er T. Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton tak¬≠en some¬≠time between 1905 and 1915 (dig¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ly retouched).

Book¬≠er T. Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton (1856‚Äď1915) was born into slav¬≠ery. He moved on to become his era‚Äôs most esteemed pub¬≠lic speak¬≠er, an edu¬≠ca¬≠tor at Tuskegee Insti¬≠tute, and was close¬≠ly affil¬≠i¬≠at¬≠ed to sev¬≠er¬≠al Amer¬≠i¬≠can pres¬≠i¬≠dents after the Civ¬≠il War had come to an end in 1865 and seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion had begun. Today, he is known as a his¬≠toric leader of the African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty. But both then and now, Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton rep¬≠re¬≠sents two sides of the same coin. 

His posi¬≠tion as a high¬≠ly esteemed intel¬≠lec¬≠tu¬≠al and his net¬≠work¬≠ing with the state elite was dis¬≠pro¬≠por¬≠tion¬≠ate to his time. Yet he acquired this posi¬≠tion by pro¬≠mot¬≠ing con¬≠ser¬≠v¬≠a¬≠tive views that urged African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans in the South to bow to whites and to sub¬≠mit to seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion. He achieved statewide fame in the Atlanta Expo¬≠si¬≠tion in 1895, in which the South, hav¬≠ing been eco¬≠nom¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly set back by the abo¬≠li¬≠tion of slav¬≠ery, was to show¬≠case its progress and present itself as an attrac¬≠tive ter¬≠ri¬≠to¬≠ry in the pub¬≠lic eye. This includ¬≠ed a state¬≠ment on race, and so Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton was cho¬≠sen as a rep¬≠re¬≠sen¬≠ta¬≠tive spokesman for African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans, not least because of his con¬≠ser¬≠v¬≠a¬≠tive views. He spoke to a pre¬≠dom¬≠i¬≠nant¬≠ly white audi¬≠ence and found all sorts of approval there, as he sup¬≠port¬≠ed racial seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion and advised his fel¬≠low suf¬≠fer¬≠ers to defer to white suprema¬≠cy and Jim Crow laws. Instead of demand¬≠ing rad¬≠i¬≠cal equal¬≠i¬≠ty, he advised peo¬≠ple to focus on edu¬≠cat¬≠ing them¬≠selves, imply¬≠ing that it was everyone‚Äôs own respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty to shape their fate. 

‚ÄúIn all things that are pure¬≠ly social we can be as sep¬≠a¬≠rate as the fin¬≠gers, yet one as the hand in all things essen¬≠tial to mutu¬≠al progress,‚ÄĚ 

he famous¬≠ly promised3, fur¬≠ther strength¬≠en¬≠ing the legit¬≠i¬≠ma¬≠cy of racial seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion in the hopes for a ‚Äėwin‚Äô for both races. In his assim¬≠i¬≠la¬≠tion strat¬≠e¬≠gy he appeased con¬≠ser¬≠v¬≠a¬≠tives, but in the eyes of his com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty he sur¬≠ren¬≠dered social and polit¬≠i¬≠cal equal¬≠i¬≠ty.4 Despite prompt¬≠ing African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans to suc¬≠cumb to white soci¬≠ety, he did not fol¬≠low his own doc¬≠trine. ‚ÄúFar from seg¬≠re¬≠gat¬≠ing him¬≠self from the com¬≠pa¬≠ny of whites as he encour¬≠aged oth¬≠er blacks to do, Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton active¬≠ly sought to be in their com¬≠pa¬≠ny and con¬≠fi¬≠dence at the high¬≠est social and polit¬≠i¬≠cal cir¬≠cles. [‚Ķ] Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton pro¬≠mot¬≠ed a tran¬≠quil Amer¬≠i¬≠can soci¬≠ety with blacks act¬≠ing sep¬≠a¬≠rate and sub¬≠servient to whites while he could act as freely as whites and con¬≠sid¬≠er him¬≠self their equal,‚ÄĚ writes Ron Christie5

W.E.B. Du Bois‚ÄĒThe Souls of Black Folk (1903): Double-Consciousness, the Veil and opposing Booker T. Washington

Du Bois, W. E. B., ca.1907

Washington‚Äôs doc¬≠trine was met with resis¬≠tance even in high aca¬≠d¬≠e¬≠m¬≠ic cir¬≠cles. Amer¬≠i¬≠can philoso¬≠pher, his¬≠to¬≠ri¬≠an and civ¬≠il rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868‚Äď1963) was among those who heav¬≠i¬≠ly crit¬≠i¬≠cised Washington‚Äôs take on racial eman¬≠ci¬≠pa¬≠tion. In The Souls of Black Folk, pub¬≠lished in 1903, Du Bois designs the project of unveil¬≠ing the dias¬≠poric iden¬≠ti¬≠ty, which finds itself being trapped between two extremes. What does it mean to be Black in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca? Nav¬≠i¬≠gat¬≠ing one‚Äôs own frag¬≠ment¬≠ed iden¬≠ti¬≠ty in the post-slav¬≠ery years was affect¬≠ed by the out¬≠side and the inside. African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans were first being promised the civ¬≠il rights of white Amer¬≠i¬≠cans by proxy of the war amend¬≠ments. The the¬≠atri¬≠cal meta¬≠mor¬≠pho¬≠sis of slav¬≠ery men¬≠tal¬≠i¬≠ty would how¬≠ev¬≠er soon pro¬≠duce the Jim Crow laws which dehu¬≠man¬≠ised African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans once more. All the while, the fire of a dias¬≠poric African core iden¬≠ti¬≠ty kept illu¬≠mi¬≠nat¬≠ing the soul from with¬≠in and it fierce¬≠ly with¬≠stood a white society‚Äôs attempt at forg¬≠ing it into any¬≠thing less. How does one rec¬≠on¬≠cile an African cul¬≠tur¬≠al her¬≠itage with a white colo¬≠nial¬≠ist upbring¬≠ing, blend¬≠ing in one the con¬≠flu¬≠ence of two cul¬≠tures for¬≠eign to one another? 

The nor¬≠mal¬≠i¬≠sa¬≠tion of alleged ‚Äėwhite act¬≠ing‚Äô behav¬≠iour¬≠al grids based on the endur¬≠ing colo¬≠nial Black and white iden¬≠ti¬≠ty clus¬≠ters shows that the same Du Boisian twoness explored in Souls still afflicts and shapes Black iden¬≠ti¬≠ty in this (as mod¬≠ern as can be) age. How does Du Bois sug¬≠gest solv¬≠ing the prob¬≠lem of such twoness? He seeks to unite these two cul¬≠tures tear¬≠ing and pulling at one‚Äôs iden¬≠ti¬≠ty into one while appre¬≠ci¬≠at¬≠ing both. ‚ÄúHis vision for the active con¬≠struc¬≠tion of Self and com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty rest¬≠ed on this dialec¬≠ti¬≠cal ten¬≠sion between par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in the white world and in the black world,‚ÄĚ write Blau and Brown6

‚ÄúIn this merg¬≠ing he wish¬≠es nei¬≠ther of the old¬≠er selves to be lost. He would not African¬≠ize Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, for Amer¬≠i¬≠ca has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Amer¬≠i¬≠can¬≠ism, for he knows that Negro blood has a mes¬≠sage for the world. He sim¬≠ply wish¬≠es to make it pos¬≠si¬≠ble for a man to be both a Negro and an Amer¬≠i¬≠can, with¬≠out being cursed and spit upon by his fel¬≠lows, with¬≠out hav¬≠ing the doors of Oppor¬≠tu¬≠ni¬≠ty closed rough¬≠ly in his face.‚ÄĚ 

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk,
Chap¬≠ter One, ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ7

The Veil and Double-Consciousness 

‚ÄúIn those som¬≠bre forests of his striv¬≠ing his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself,‚ÄĒdarkly as through a veil [‚Ķ]. [‚Ķ] born with a veil, and gift¬≠ed with sec¬≠ond-sight in this Amer¬≠i¬≠can world,‚ÄĒa world which yields him no true self-con¬≠scious¬≠ness, but only lets him see him¬≠self through the rev¬≠e¬≠la¬≠tion of the oth¬≠er world. It is a pecu¬≠liar sen¬≠sa¬≠tion, this dou¬≠ble-con¬≠scious¬≠ness, this sense of always look¬≠ing at one‚Äôs self through the eyes of oth¬≠ers, of mea¬≠sur¬≠ing one‚Äôs soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused con¬≠tempt and pity.‚ÄĚ

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk
Chap¬≠ter One, ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ9

Du Bois uses the metaphor of the veil to describe ‚Äúthe prob¬≠lem of the Twen¬≠ti¬≠eth Cen¬≠tu¬≠ry‚ÄĚ which is the ‚Äúcolour-line.‚ÄĚ 10 The colour-line is what ‚Äúdivides and sep¬≠a¬≠rates [‚Ķ] as an essen¬≠tial aspect of per¬≠cep¬≠tions and com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tions between those divid¬≠ed.‚ÄĚ11 In ‚ÄúThe Fore¬≠thought‚ÄĚ Du Bois makes it clear that Souls is writ¬≠ten from with¬≠in the veil‚ÄĒ‚ÄúI who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live with¬≠in the Veil‚ÄĚ12‚ÄĒ, from out¬≠side the veil, and from ‚Äúwith¬≠in the Veil, rais¬≠ing it that you may view faint¬≠ly its deep¬≠er recesses,‚ÄĒthe mean¬≠ing of its reli¬≠gion, the pas¬≠sion of its human sor¬≠row, and the strug¬≠gle of its greater souls.‚Äú13 Blau and Brown liken it to the Black per¬≠spec¬≠tive, the white per¬≠spec¬≠tive and to an effec¬≠tive com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tor between both worlds when Du Bois rais¬≠es the veil so whites can see the world with¬≠in.11 

The veil is a clear com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tion bar¬≠ri¬≠er, but it is with¬≠out a doubt more obscure to those who look at it from the out¬≠side com¬≠pared to those who wear it.14 Those who wear the veil see the world out¬≠side, grant¬≠ed, dark¬≠er and less detailed, but they can per¬≠ceive the world out¬≠side the veil, which includes how that world looks at them‚ÄĒ under¬≠stand¬≠ing their prac¬≠tices, insti¬≠tu¬≠tions and priv¬≠i¬≠leges. Those look¬≠ing at the veil on the oth¬≠er hand may see faint and dis¬≠tant sketch¬≠es of human faces, a sin¬≠gle tear dis¬≠tort¬≠ed in obscured blur¬≠ri¬≠ness, the bit¬≠ing of a tongue, but the greater human expres¬≠sion is blocked from the out¬≠side person‚Äôs per¬≠cep¬≠tion, effec¬≠tive¬≠ly hin¬≠der¬≠ing the com¬≠pre¬≠hen¬≠sion of their coun¬≠ter¬≠part as a fel¬≠low human. Many stay with¬≠in and out¬≠side the veil in their fixed posi¬≠tions, which fur¬≠ther fos¬≠ters a divi¬≠sion of the races and per¬≠pet¬≠u¬≠ates the racism great¬≠ly root¬≠ed in the suprema¬≠cist thought that only white¬≠ness flesh¬≠es out abstract humanity. 

In the first chap¬≠ter of Souls, ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings,‚ÄĚ Du Bois intro¬≠duces the world with¬≠in the veil. For many Black Amer¬≠i¬≠cans as for Du Bois, the veil is first expe¬≠ri¬≠enced in ear¬≠ly child¬≠hood when one sud¬≠den¬≠ly makes the real¬≠i¬≠sa¬≠tion that one is per¬≠ceived as a ‚Äėprob¬≠lem‚Äô by the out¬≠side world. From there on one feels like see¬≠ing white Amer¬≠i¬≠ca as through a thick veil.15 While mov¬≠ing in white Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, one also cul¬≠ti¬≠vates a Black Amer¬≠i¬≠can iden¬≠ti¬≠ty, and the twoness of that soul presents a con¬≠flict in per¬≠ceiv¬≠ing one‚Äôs own wholeness.

‚ÄúOne ever feels his two-ness,‚Äď‚Äďan Amer¬≠i¬≠can, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unrec¬≠on¬≠ciled striv¬≠ings; two war¬≠ring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asun¬≠der. [‚Ķ] this seek¬≠ing to sat¬≠is¬≠fy two unrec¬≠on¬≠ciled ideals, has wrought sad hav¬≠oc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thou¬≠sand thou¬≠sand peo¬≠ple.‚ÄĚ

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk
Chap¬≠ter One, ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ16

Where such twoness rep¬≠re¬≠sents a soci¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal split into two cul¬≠tur¬≠al halves, Du Boisian dou¬≠ble-con¬≠scious¬≠ness as a phe¬≠nom¬≠e¬≠no¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal divi¬≠sion of the self: ‚ÄúTogeth¬≠er they cap¬≠ture the expe¬≠ri¬≠ences and feel¬≠ings of exclu¬≠sion in white Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, but they also clar¬≠i¬≠fy the com¬≠plex¬≠i¬≠ty of black con¬≠scious¬≠ness.‚ÄĚ14 Twoness also shows as a two-fold¬≠ed iden¬≠ti¬≠ty as the oth¬≠er and the self; the object and the sub¬≠ject. On the one hand a con¬≠fine¬≠ment to imposed tru¬≠isms sprung from colo¬≠nial¬≠ism and white supremacy‚ÄĒfrom which one can¬≠not break out with¬≠out sanc¬≠tions, both cul¬≠tur¬≠al and legislative‚ÄĒand on the oth¬≠er hand, the ful¬≠ly fleshed-out self with all its dreams, expe¬≠ri¬≠ences and phe¬≠nom¬≠e¬≠no¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal riches. 

The task of cul¬≠ti¬≠vat¬≠ing dou¬≠ble-con¬≠scious¬≠ness is no easy endeav¬≠our, to per¬≠ceive the affec¬≠tive shape press¬≠ing on one from the out¬≠side while find¬≠ing the truth with¬≠in one¬≠self and car¬≠ry it proud¬≠ly: ‚ÄúHe began to have a dim feel¬≠ing that, to attain his place in the world, he must be him¬≠self, and not anoth¬≠er.‚ÄĚ17 Blau and Brown point out that ‚ÄúTwoness, in this sense, poten¬≠tial¬≠ly either is debil¬≠i¬≠tat¬≠ing or is the key to syn¬≠thet¬≠ic eman¬≠ci¬≠pa¬≠tion.‚ÄĚ11 Ron Christie remarks: ‚ÄúThe col¬≠or of black accom¬≠plish¬≠ment for Du Bois did not require a reflec¬≠tion of wor¬≠thi¬≠ness first reflect¬≠ed from a white image of suc¬≠cess.‚ÄĚ18 Du Bois calls for self-respect which car¬≠ries such self-real¬≠i¬≠sa¬≠tion. Much of his crit¬≠i¬≠cism of Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton, who found¬≠ed and taught at Tuskegee Insti¬≠tute, will rest upon this call, for he wants to know: ‚Äú[‚Ķ] what need of edu¬≠ca¬≠tion‚ÄĚ there was if one was ‚Äúcon¬≠tent to be ser¬≠vants.‚ÄĚ19 

‚ÄúOf Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others‚ÄĚ

Between Jim Crow laws and Washington‚Äôs appease¬≠ment strategy‚ÄĒbetween sep¬≠a¬≠ra¬≠tion and submission‚ÄĒDu Bois sug¬≠gest¬≠ed a third way: dialec¬≠tic par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in dichoto¬≠mous Amer¬≠i¬≠ca while pre¬≠serv¬≠ing an affir¬≠ma¬≠tive Black iden¬≠ti¬≠ty. In the Du Bois / Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton con¬≠flict, the first grasps the lat¬≠ter as ‚Äúa com¬≠pro¬≠miser between the South, the North, and the Negro.‚ÄĚ20 With Washington‚Äôs ‚Äúpro¬≠gramme of indus¬≠tri¬≠al edu¬≠ca¬≠tion, con¬≠cil¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion of the South, and sub¬≠mis¬≠sion and silence as to civ¬≠il and polit¬≠i¬≠cal rights‚ÄĚ he great¬≠ly mis¬≠rep¬≠re¬≠sents African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans‚Äô desire for sel¬≠f¬≠re¬≠al¬≠i¬≠sa¬≠tion and instead plays into out¬≠dat¬≠ed cul¬≠tur¬≠al myths of infe¬≠ri¬≠or¬≠i¬≠ty. ‚ÄúIs it pos¬≠si¬≠ble, and prob¬≠a¬≠ble, that nine mil¬≠lions of men can make effec¬≠tive progress in eco¬≠nom¬≠ic lines if they are deprived of polit¬≠i¬≠cal rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most mea¬≠gre chance for devel¬≠op¬≠ing their excep¬≠tion¬≠al men?‚ÄĚ20 Du Bois asks right¬≠ful¬≠ly. He con¬≠cludes that Book¬≠er Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton has got¬≠ten him¬≠self into a pre¬≠car¬≠i¬≠ous para¬≠dox that unfolds in jus¬≠ti¬≠fy¬≠ing white suprema¬≠cy, neg¬≠li¬≠gence in iden¬≠ti¬≠fy¬≠ing the real cause of African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans‚Äô unequal social sta¬≠tus and in assert¬≠ing that it is upon every indi¬≠vid¬≠ual them¬≠selves whether they will make it in the future.20 

It is implied in Du Bois‚Äô writ¬≠ing that Book¬≠er T. Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton either com¬≠plete¬≠ly over¬≠looks or bla¬≠tant¬≠ly ignores that both the rea¬≠son for an unequal soci¬≠ety as well as the deter¬≠min¬≠ing fac¬≠tor in non-white indi¬≠vid¬≠u¬≠als‚Äô future prospects are unde¬≠ni¬≠ably bound to the veil; the colour-line; racism. Du Bois crit¬≠i¬≠cis¬≠es the myth Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton had spun to main¬≠tain his own elit¬≠ist social sta¬≠tus as not only unpro¬≠duc¬≠tive to the cause but poten¬≠tial¬≠ly harm¬≠ful to it.20 He asserts that ‚Äú[‚Ķ] slav¬≠ery and race-prej¬≠u¬≠dice are potent if not suf¬≠fi¬≠cient caus¬≠es of the Negro‚Äôs posi¬≠tion‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúit is equal¬≠ly true that unless his striv¬≠ing be not sim¬≠ply sec¬≠ond¬≠ed, but rather aroused and encour¬≠aged [‚Ķ] he can¬≠not hope for great suc¬≠cess.‚ÄĚ20 The effect of the harm caused by Washington‚Äôs poli¬≠cies is that ‚Äúthe bur¬≠den of the Negro prob¬≠lem‚ÄĚ was being shift¬≠ed ‚Äúto the Negro‚Äôs shoul¬≠ders‚ÄĚ while white folk ‚Äústand aside as crit¬≠i¬≠cal and rather pes¬≠simistic spec¬≠ta¬≠tors.‚ÄĚ20 The prob¬≠lem of the colour line how¬≠ev¬≠er is not with¬≠in Black respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty. Bend¬≠ing the truth to fit into a cul¬≠tur¬≠al nar¬≠ra¬≠tive that legit¬≠imizes racist ide¬≠olo¬≠gies; while the vio¬≠lence of slav¬≠ery had not even com¬≠plete¬≠ly evap¬≠o¬≠rat¬≠ed into thin air yet, should be pinned down as a crime against humanity. 

‚ÄėActing White‚Äô Revisited

Are there Black or white ways of behav¬≠ing? The essen¬≠tial¬≠ist answer is no, but the cul¬≠tur¬≠al-his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal answer is also yes. The ‚Äėact¬≠ing white‚Äô epi¬≠thet was born under slav¬≠ery and raised dur¬≠ing seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion. In an arti¬≠cle on the his¬≠to¬≠ry of African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can influ¬≠ence on rock & roll we pub¬≠lished in March, it becomes vis¬≠i¬≠ble how Du Bois‚Äô veil was almost briefly lift¬≠ed when music unit¬≠ed seg¬≠re¬≠gat¬≠ed audi¬≠ences and African-Amer¬≠i¬≠can music found its way into white Amer¬≠i¬≠can homes. How¬≠ev¬≠er, this moment was brief and soon turned asym¬≠met¬≠ri¬≠cal when white mon¬≠ey replaced rock & roll‚Äôs roots and mon¬≠e¬≠tised it into an indus¬≠try mar¬≠ket¬≠ed towards white¬≠ness. After sev¬≠er¬≠al acts were ruled in the 1960s, which even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly abol¬≠ished seg¬≠re¬≠ga¬≠tion, the dam¬≠age was already done. White¬≠ness does not get to mag¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly turn back the clock or reset real¬≠i¬≠ty. Instead of falling back into a colo¬≠nial¬≠ist body of thought and car¬≠ry¬≠ing on a racial¬≠ly flagged cul¬≠tur¬≠al nar¬≠ra¬≠tive, it is white¬≠ness‚Äô respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty to under¬≠stand where cer¬≠tain race myths orig¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed. Once they lay before us stripped of the dif¬≠fu¬≠sion of time and the ide¬≠ol¬≠o¬≠gy of pow¬≠er, they may be crushed with but a fist. 

EDITED BY LARA HELENA.

Mer­cy Fer­rars is a MA grad­u­ate in phi­los­o­phy and writes fic­tion, poet­ry and non-fic­tion essays. She is mad­ly in love with Scot­land, dogs and Bojack Horseman.


Foot­notes

1 Christie, Ron. Act¬≠ing White: The Curi¬≠ous His¬≠to¬≠ry of a Racial Slur. 1st ed., Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin‚Äôs Press, 2010, p. 36‚Äď37
2 ‚ÄúWhy African-Amer¬≠i¬≠cans Loathe ‚ÄėUncle Tom.‚Äô‚ÄĚ NPR, NPR, 30 July 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93059468&t=1648665030166.
3 Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton, Book¬≠er T. ‚Äú‚ÄėAtlanta Com¬≠pro¬≠mise Speech.‚Äô‚ÄĚ https://thehermitage.com/, 1895.
4 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Clas­sics. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.34
5 Christie, Ron. Act­ing White: The Curi­ous His­to­ry of a Racial Slur. 1st ed., Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010, p. 48
6 Blau, Judith R., and Eric S. Brown. ‚ÄúDu Bois and Dias¬≠poric Iden¬≠ti¬≠ty: The Veil and the Unveil¬≠ing Project.‚ÄĚ Soci¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal The¬≠o¬≠ry, vol. 19, no. 2, July 2001, pp. 219‚Äď233., https://doi.org/10.1111/0735‚Äď2751.00137. p.220
7 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Clas­sics. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.8
8 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. ‚ÄúOf Mr. Book¬≠er T. Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton and Oth¬≠ers.‚ÄĚ The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.3
9  Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.8‚Äď11
10  Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.3
11 Blau, Judith R., and Eric S. Brown. ‚ÄúDu Bois and Dias¬≠poric Iden¬≠ti¬≠ty: The Veil and the Unveil¬≠ing Project.‚ÄĚ Soci¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal The¬≠o¬≠ry, vol. 19, no. 2, July 2001, pp. 219‚Äď233. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735‚Äď2751.00137. p.221
12  Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.4
13 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. ‚ÄúOf Our Spir¬≠i¬≠tu¬≠al Striv¬≠ings‚ÄĚ The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.3
14 Blau, Judith R., and Eric S. Brown. ‚ÄúDu Bois and Dias¬≠poric Iden¬≠ti¬≠ty: The Veil and the Unveil¬≠ing Project.‚ÄĚ Soci¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal The¬≠o¬≠ry, vol. 19, no. 2, July 2001, pp. 219‚Äď233. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735‚Äď2751.00137. p.230
15 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p.7‚Äď8
16 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p. 8‚Äď10
17 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Clas­sics. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Inc, 2007, p. 11
18 Christie, Ron. Act¬≠ing White: The Curi¬≠ous His¬≠to¬≠ry of a Racial Slur. 1st ed., Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin‚Äôs Press, 2010, p. 73‚Äď74
19 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Clas­sics. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Inc, 2007, p. 13
20 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World‚Äôs Clas¬≠sics. Oxford Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty Press, Inc, 2007, p. 38; 33; 39‚Äď40; 43; 44

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