Du Bois’ text “Of Our Spiritual Savings” is a compelling reflection on racial and ethnic identity. The focus of Du Bois’ text, as an African-American, is on the African identity in America. Du Bois’ description of this identity encourages the reader to think about the complicated status of the African-American identity in American society.
For example, Du Bois writes, “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” (8-9) This is a particularly dense passage, rich with meaning and is difficult to present a straightforward interpretation. But this complexity of the passage, with some of its more symbolic imagery in the form of Du Bois’ classification of various racial groups, reflects the complexity of the identity Du Bois is attempting to describe. In other words, the African-American or Negro identity is not something that is clearly formed and clearly given. Rather, it is constituted by some type of misrecognition or hidden aspect. I think this is precisely what Du Bois’ text is trying to uncover: this complicated lack of a true self-consciousness, some type of absence a clear identity, which does not mean that the African does not have an identity, but rather that is in a certain way concealed.
This appears to be the reason why in this passage Du Bois compares the African to other civilizational types. Egyptian, Indian, Teutonic, Roman, Greek and Mongolian cultures seem to be more readily identifiable with a clear identity. Think of Egypt one thinks of the pyramids and a complex mythology. India also reflects the Hindu faiths, a clear identity, whereas if Du Bois perhaps speaking of Native Americans, there is a clear connection with the land. Teutonic recalls all the clichés of German identity, Roman and Greek powerful civilizations on military and intellectual levels. Where therefore is the African identity? This seems to be Du Bois’ point about “mystery.”
The problem with the African-American identity, as Du Bois’ notes, seems to be that it is constituted first of all by a tragedy: this is the tragedy of slavery. To have one’s identity identified with slavery is precisely a stripping of any notion of self-consciousness that might exist in the individual. The individual instead is merely reduced to an object: much like any other object, the individual is therefore not conscious of him or herself as an individual. They seem themselves defined through relations determined by a power structure of slavery, and the slavemaster and slave relationship.
At the same time, however, this is why for Du Bois, the African-American identity seems to be constituted by a “twoness.” The African-American identity is doubled because the individual at once knows he or she is an individual, possessive of a self-conscious, despite the fact that society and the dominant social discourse attempts to devaluate the humanity of the African-American. This identity is therefore a combination of both a consciousness and an unconsciousness, a public status and a private status. The public status is the status of hardship, of tragedy, of being defined not in relation to one’s own achievements, but in relation to one’s place in a social system that is not one’s own. The private status is the consciousness that is not the only reality: there is, as Du Bois writes, an “other world.” The complexity of African-American identity which Du Bois thus describes in the text appears to be not only the result of this inhabiting of two worlds at the same time, but that the world of power relations and exploitation all the while tries to destroy the other world of a pure self-consciousness and identity.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.”