W.E.B. Du Bois's Curious Proto-Bothness

W.E.B. Du Bois, the distinguished historian and author, and the first ever African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, wrote the book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. In it, Dr. Du Bois (who pronounced his name dew-BOYZ, detaching the word from its French antecedents) lays out his vision for the Black pathway to justice and equality. He also goes into great detail and singles out his then intellectual and political contemporary and rival, Booker T. Washington. Du Bois said, “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission (Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk).” Du Bois was the integrationist against the grain of Booker T. Washington’s more conciliatory, conservative stance. Washington was noted for his Atlanta Compromise, which he envisioned as a temporary half-way house for Blacks emerging from emancipation, where they would have the space to corral their social capital before fully integrating. But the flipside was that Booker T. Washington acceded to the segregationist South. And even though his legacy of “values first” lives on in the speeches of black conservatives like Bill Cosby, Washington badly miscalculated the propensity for violence, the types of Jim Crow injustices thrust upon a visible underclass during a climate of segregation. Du Bois pointed out the mismatch in Washington’s approach as such:  “he insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.”

The integrationist W.E.B. Du Bois was the proponent for educational attainment of blacks, and for universal suffrage. He was the precursor to Martin Luther King’s unitary, singular dream. Yet he also made famous the phrase “double consciousness,” and as this concept relates to bothness, mixed people should pay attention. 

Du Bois, put it this way: “one ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

In Booker T. Washington it was clear there was a heavy emphasis on the “self” in self-help. But in the integrationist leanings of W.E.B. Du Bois, one can’t help but think the enterprise of being black in a white America was fraught with irreconcilable differences. Du Bois often spoke of the “color line,” which was his characterization of the dichotomy, the stacked relationship in American between black and white.  The existence of intermediate racial steps like the awful-sounding “quadroon” and “octaroon” in the U.S. Census in the 1800’s betrays a stark binary. Nonetheless, the duality Du Bois and other black intellectuals grappled with conjures a Faustian one, where as Goethe’s Faust said: “two souls, alas, are housed within my breast.” It seems to be an implacable duality, one not easily quieted, one not easily realized.

When I think of bothness as it pertains to being mixed Chinese-Western, I imagine lumpy Cream of Wheat. It sounds strange yet the metaphor is clear. Bothness does not mean smoothness

It is years away in time. It is hundreds and thousands of miles away in place. But Du Bois was on to something relevant today, and "here," namely Asia-Pacific. His "double consciousness" was not bothness as mixed Chinese-Western requires today, but an important proto-bothness deserving study and reflection. Part of the issue, as Du Bois saw it, was the inability to see the world through through one's own lens, instead always being deterred and or compelled into viewing the world through someone else's lens. And in that respect there is a big overlap. Bothness means two things, but more crucially it means two things in equilibrium, two things held in tension. It's not bothness if it's just one thing usurping the another, paying lip service to the other, even if that tends to yield a particular (and ordinarily desirable) smoothness.

Read Du Bois. Leave me a comment.