William Edward Burghardt DuBois had a keen understanding of the spiritual destiny of the United States of America and the descendants of enslaved Africans encased within it. As a historian DuBois understood the ebb and flow of history and its impact on the cultural and spiritual growth of America’s beasts of burden. Astutely, DuBois understood that the real conflict that would sculpt the destiny of Africans in America was a spiritual battle that constantly rages within their hearts and minds. DuBois theorized that the problem of the 20th century would the problem of the color-line. Moreover, he understood that the souls of his people were burdened by a two-ness, that is, a dynamic identity conflict stormed in each American of African descent. This identity conflict was/is in essence a spiritual battle that every African American has to face in order to attain a necessary cultural wholeness. This essay will dissect DuBois’ ideas concerning the spiritual and cultural development of African Americans with particular attention being paid the two-ness of the African American spirit.
DuBois was born three years after the conclusion of the Civil War and in the northern state of Massachusetts. He therefore had the privilege of being beyond the reach of chattel enslavement, both geographically and temporally. However, he was not born beyond the terror of racism, segregation and humiliation that defined the lives of millions of Africans born in America. Instead, DuBois was born into family that was part of a small free-community of African Americans in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. From a young age education was an important aspect of DuBois’ life. In Massachusetts, he attended integrated primary and secondary schools and was recognized by his teachers as a bright flame that needed fanning. When he completed his education in Massachusetts he set off to Fisk University in Tennessee. No doubt this move presented a great cultural change coming from an integrated Northern community to horrors of the segregated South at an Historically Black University.
After finishing at Fisk University, DuBois was accepted into Harvard college, however the credits that he earned from Fisk were not accepted by Harvard, so he was forced to redo much of his undergraduate work. Despite this set back, however, he would go on to earn a second Bachelor’s degree in History, as well he received scholarships to attend graduate school at Harvard where studied sociology. The racism that he experienced in the North compared to the South was different, perhaps a bit less overt, nevertheless, the experience was just as painful and at times a bit more difficult to navigate because of its covert nature. However, the real dynamic cultural change that impacted W. E. B. DuBois was not just his move from the North to the South and back, but instead it was when he had the chance to travel internationally.
DuBois got the opportunity to travel abroad when he received a fellowship to study at the University of Berlin. While immersed in his studies, he was able to observe, experience and reflect on the divergent manner in which he was treated as a human being. He remarks: “I found myself on the outside of the American world, looking in. With me were white folk – students, acquaintances, teachers – who viewed the scene with me. They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world; particularly, the part of the world whence I came.” It was quite obvious to him that America’s racism was not something that was shared by all white people, but that America and white Americans were unique in their understanding of race and the way it was reflected in everyday American society. To be clear, this is not to say that racism does not or did not exist in Europe, because it most certain does, in a variety of forms, but this is just to acknowledge the special manner in which race is viewed by white Americans and how racism is practiced in the US.
When DuBois returned to the United States, he accepted a number of jobs at Wilberforce University, the University of Pennsylvania and finally at Atlanta University where he would complete his first book, The Philadelphia Negro. This work represents the first case study of a Black community in the US. It was very important study not just because it was a dynamic sociological study of racism and poverty in Philadelphia but as well because it sought to problematize white racism as the cause of the degradation rather than simply attributing the condition of the Negroes uncivilized nature, poverty or moral shortcomings. In short, he studied African Americans as human beings. Also, while at Atlanta University he also developed the idea of the “Talented Tenth”. This was the idea that the upper crust of the Black community would be responsible for advancing the race in modern society. For some, this is a deeply problematic idea, but for others it has some useful merit. On one hand, the idea reeks of privilege, or better yet, a problematic attention to status. As well, there is no indication or promise that those in the Talented Tenth would feel any responsibility for those without privilege. On the other hand, however, in America it is necessary to ally with those who have status, privilege and could ultimately open doors for those who have no access whatsoever.
This point brings us to the most important aspect of DuBois’ research – the twoness of the African American soul. On this DuBois says: “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 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 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.” DuBois’ understand of this twoness was not just a social, political, or economic problem – though twoness is reflected in each of those issues – it was more so a spiritual analysis of the problems as he saw them. That is to say, dual consciousness as it is defined by DuBois is a critique of America’s spiritual nature. Meaning, the dueling souls of Black America is a direct consequence of the experiences of African people in America with white supremacy. In addition, it was not simply a critique of the spiritual dilemma within Black America, instead DuBois’ critique is an indictment of white America’s spiritual condition.
From that perspective we can understand DuBois’ twoness not just as an affliction Black people were suffering from but white Americans as well. Furthermore, as the year 2020 painfully putters along, America is learning, nay, the world is learning that the problem of the 21st century is also the problem of the color-line. To be clear, the murder of George Floyd, while only the most recent example, is proof that the problem of 21st century is exactly as DuBois predicted for the 20th century in 1903. But this is no longer a purely American problem, it is a problem that many countries in both the Western and Eastern worlds struggle with. True, the color line has been complicated in a number of ways around the globe by the manner in which it is practiced and imagined by its benefactors, but the basic structure of the problem that is the color-line remains largely intact and as pervasive as ever.
So, the obvious question that follows is, how do we keep the problem of the color-line from becoming the problem of the 22nd century? Or, more ominously, is that even possible? In all honestly, the outlook does not look promising. This may be a constant battle that humanity must wage in perpetuity. Again, to be clear, the problem of the color-line is a spiritual battle that wages in the hearts and minds of all Americans as well as in the streets. This isn’t necessarily a religious war over the details of doctrine or the minutia of belief, but a spiritual battle for the very soul of our world and the direction of our destiny. DuBois was not a prophet, but what he said about America has proven to be extremely prophetic. But this does not have to be our destiny. Humanity has the power to change its destiny, all that is required is the will to do so.
 William Edward Burghardt DuBois. "The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Reprint." New York (1989), 19.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 Aldon Morris. The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press. 2015), 17.
 William Edward Burghardt DuBois. The Philadelphia negro: A social study. No. 14. Published for the University, 1899.
 William Edward Burghardt DuBois. "The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Reprint." New York (1989), 1-2.