ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Whiteness and Its Dominion

The happenings in Charlottesville expose America’s “unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness” and white America’s incapacity to confront the naked truth.

This article was earlier published on the
EPW Engage website.

“The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote the African American intellectual W E B DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line” (DuBois 1994: v, 9, 111). Nearly every book on race relations in the United States (US) that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation. Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.” That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, andsocial engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery,” “ridicule and systematic humiliation,” indeed “the disdain for everything black” (DuBois 1994: 6).

Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to “a second slavery,” he deployed a striking metaphor to characterise what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (DuBois 1994: 7). Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil.” This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain,” but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further. The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.” And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”: in what is the book’s most arresting insight, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; he can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world,” through the eyes of the other. DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (1994: 3, 28, 7). Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”: though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonised, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.

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Updated On : 1st Sep, 2017
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