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Journal of Black Studies

Volume 39 Number 3
January 2009 371-401
2009 Sage Publications
A Critique of Du Boisian 10.1177/0021934706297569
Reason hosted at

Kanye West and the Fruitfulness

of Double-Consciousness
George Ciccariello-Maher
University of California, Berkeley

This article seeks to disentangle a number of outstanding controversies

regarding the radical potential of W.E.B. Du Boiss seminal notion of double-
consciousness. The author concludes that the early Du Boisof the 1897
Strivingsidealistically conflates double-consciousness with the racist veil,
thereby erroneously negating the materiality of the latter. This error persists
only briefly, and Du Boiss transformation is already palpable by the 1903 pub-
lication of Souls, especially On the Coming of John. Against those who
would dismiss the relevance of double-consciousness, the author demonstrates
that the continued relevance of double-consciousness is simultaneously the lib-
eration of the concept from its idealistic and middle-class content through the
recognition of the veil in all its materiality. Finally, the author assesses the
recent work of rap artist Kanye West, whose political progression parallels that
of Du Bois before him, arguing that this progression is intimately linked to the
radical potential inherent in double-consciousness.

Keywords: double-consciousness; W.E.B. Du Bois; hip-hop; rap music;

Kanye West

I should begin with a clarification: This article is neither a critique of

W.E.B. Du Bois in the common-parlance sense of the wordan attack,
disapproving analysis, or attempt to replacenor is it an uncritical defense
of the beneficial nature of that condition that Du Bois so rightly diagnosed,
in which one ever feels a two-nessan American, a Negro; two souls, two
thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body
(Du Bois, 1897, p. 194). Rather, my goal is more of a Kritik in the Kantian

Authors Note: I would like to thank Joel Olson and Ryan Byars for their useful comments
on an earlier draft of this article.

372 Journal of Black Studies

sense, in which one delineates both the usefulness and the limitations of the
concept in question. The worrisome implications of my title are then to be
inverted, as my goal is an exploration of the potential and limitations of the
Du Boisian notion of double-consciousness as a framework for analysis,
yielding the affirmative conclusion of the potential fruitfulness of the latter
not in itself but rather for achieving a shift away from its own limited mani-
festation and toward radical politics. What is at stake, then, is the possibility
that double-consciousness can devour itself: The fruitfulness of the concept
lies in its self-destruction or radical self-transformation.
My goal, then, is to assess the potential contribution of double-consciousness
as a point of departure for radical politics. On the affirmative side, Du Boiss
life itself is a testament to the potential fecundity of double-consciousness
as his discovery of the latter coincided with his own experience of it (Gibson,
1996, xxiv).1 If we were in need of an example to demonstrate the opposite
that is, that oppression (life fully within the veil) is insufficient in itself for a
radical political orientationthen we could have no better example than Du
Boiss own political sparring-partner, Booker T. Washington. Washington,
despite spending much of his early life in the bonds of slavery, would never-
theless draw out of that experience a series of anachronistic, assimilationist,
and even segregationist political positions (Gibson, 1996, pp. xvii-xxi; Reed,
2000). But lest we fall into an inductionist fallacy, it should be clear that
neither example proves the case on its own, and we need to look more closely
at both the theoretical coherence of the concept of double-consciousness as
well as the particular circumstances and divergent paths taken by the soul
afflicted by that condition to gauge its potential utility.
In what follows, several points will be made. First, it will become clear
that Du Bois did not abandon the concept of double-consciousness follow-
ing the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, as some claim (Allen, 2003;
Reed, 1997). Rather, I will argue that Du Boiss earliest formulation of the
conceptin the 1897 publication of Strivings of the Negro, republished
in Soulstook a severely limited form, one in which the segregationist veil
is seen idealistically and in which crossing (or rising above) that veil
remains a possibility. Hence, the Du Bois of 1897 neglects the materiality
of the veil by suggesting its superability through education, thereby reduc-
ing the veil to double-consciousness, mistaking the symptom for the ail-
ment. Second, however, I draw attention to Du Boiss own transition away
from this idealist conception of the veil, which is visible both within his
1903 Souls (especially in the contrast between Strivings and the more
somber Of the Coming of John) and between Souls and his later writings.
This transition suggests the radical potential inherent in even the limited
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 373

form of double-consciousness: the recognition of the impermeability of the

veil can lead an uncritical consciousness not to apathy but rather to a more
radical formulation of double-consciousness as second sight, that partic-
ular gift of Black Americans that always exists in potential form. Not only
is double-consciousness a crucial reality that radical thought must confront,
but it is moreover a reality thatcontrary to much of the Du Bois literature
provides explosive radical possibilities, serving as it does as the ground-
work for the very transition away from its own idealistic manifestation.
Finally, we will discuss the work of hip-hop artist Kanye West, in which we
can identify the broad strokes of a similar transition from uncritical to crit-
ical double-consciousness, a transition that turns similarly on the recogni-
tion of the materiality of the racist veil.

Strivings, the Veil, and Double-Consciousness

Here, we will attempt to pinpoint the precise relationship between Du

Boiss concepts of the veil and double-consciousness, paying specific atten-
tion to the earliest formulation of this relationship, in Strivings of the
Negro, originally published in 1897, which later served in slightly modified
form as the opening chapter of his seminal 1903 The Souls of Black Folk. As
will be seen, this formulation, penned several years prior to the rest of the
bookand at the slight age of 29has inexplicably attracted more attention
than the entirety of Du Boiss intellectual production during the next 60 years.
In Strivings, Du Bois (1897, p. 194) recounts his first contact with the
veil, in which a young female newcomer to his class refused a gift of his
peremptorily, with a glance. This seemingly minor gesture lays bare the
formal and informal structures of segregation, represented metaphorically
in the veil: Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I
was . . . shut out from their world by a vast veil (p. 194). What is striking,
however, is the simultaneity with which Du Bois claims to realize the exis-
tence of the veil and to rise above it: I had thereafter no desire to tear down
that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived
above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows (p. 194). There
is in this passage a clear rejection of assimilation, of surreptitiously creep-
ing through the veil, but there also seems to be a rejection of the tempta-
tion to political action oriented toward structural change, to tear down the
veil. Instead of either of these, Du Bois suggests the route of rising above
the veil, and what we will interrogate throughout this article is the degree
to which this ostensible third pathbetween the assimilation of creeping
374 Journal of Black Studies

through and the transformation of tearing downreally manages to

avoid the assimilation that Du Bois claims to oppose.2 Better put, although
the Du Bois of 1897 clearly sees the veil as a material relationformal and
informal racialization and segregationit appears nevertheless as some-
thing that can be evaded and transcended.
What is this position above the veil? Why does Du Bois have privileged
access to it? He notes that although this recognition of the veil was for him
fiercely sunny, a challenge to be met and surpassed through achievement,
this was not a universally held view, as others shrunk into tasteless syco-
phancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking dis-
trust of everything white (p. 194). These souls became prisoners, but with
a certain palpable ambiguity, Du Bois notes that the walls of that prison
closed round about us all (p. 194). But who is us all? Does it include
Du Bois, or was he truly the streak of blue above? At times, this desolate
condition seems universalat least among Black Americanswho are born
with a veil, and gifted with second-sight, a condition of double-consciousness
that involves

this sense of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others, of mea-
suring ones soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and
pity. One ever feels his two-nessan 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. (p. 194)

This is the history of Black Americans, and it would seem that it is a univer-
sal one, available to all Blacks regardless of social or economic class. Given
the ambiguity of this formulation, as well as the controversy it will engender
in later interpretations, it is worth delving a bit deeper into the precise nature
of this second sight, paying specific attention to subtle shifts that occur
between the 1897 and the 1903 versions of Strivings, as well as the essays
that would appear alongside it in Souls.
Once we do so, we see that the issue is not so simple, as the tension
between the universal and the particular will haunt Souls and animate some
of the fiercest subsequent criticism of the double-consciousness paradigm.
For this is a history of a specific sort, not merely history in the banal sense of
a collection of facts, figures, and experiences. It is the historyHegelian in
its teleological but certainly not its deterministic senseof the longing to
attain self-conscious manhood, in which (in a striking passage, added to the
1903 publication) the powers of single black men flash here and there like
falling stars (Du Bois, 1996, p. 6). It becomes clear, then, that such a history
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 375

could only be universal in the Hegelian sense of world-historical great men,

and Du Bois conspicuously turns his gaze to the black artisan, the Negro
minister or doctor, the would-be black savant (Du Bois, 1897, p. 195; see
also Hegel, 1906). These privileged figures are not characterized by their scorn
for the Black massesa nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of
waterbut nevertheless represent the ideal bearers of the second sight
of double-consciousness precisely because they are torn between the values
of those masses and the criticism of the other world that at best over-
fitted him for his lowly tasks (Du Bois, 1897, p. 195) and at worst made
him ashamed of those same tasks (Du Bois, 1996, p. 6). Although double-
consciousness has wrought sad havoc on ten thousand thousand people
that is, the entire Black populationnot all bear the weight of that condition,
that gift, and that curse in an equivalent manner.
It is no coincidence, then, that Du Bois proceeds immediately to paint
the broad strokes of Black progress since emancipation, a torturous dialec-
tic of hope and disillusionment, from emancipation to suffrage, and from
suffrage to higher education and the ideal of book-learning: Here at
last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer
than the highway of Emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight,
leading to heights high enough to overlook life (Du Bois, 1897, p. 196).
These are the same towering heights of the blue streak, from which Du
Bois himselfalongside the other educated bearers of second sight, the
advance guardcould look down on both sides of the veil, at least in a rel-
ative sense, as while they would never reach a final resting-place . . . the
journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination . . . dawning
self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect (p. 196).
But however partial the view offered by education, the justification of its
pursuit appears to beat least for the Du Bois of 1897total, and we will
reflect critically on this at a later stage. It was from those incrementally
increasing heights that the educated Black intellectual would be able to look
on his own soul, albeit darkly as through a veil (p. 196), and it is no accident
that this metaphor of the heights recurs at crucial points in Souls (see, e.g., Du
Bois, 1996, pp. 35, 77). Self-consciousness, for Du Bois, requires an outside,
even if this is only a relatively transcendent position, and it is this outside that
represents the peculiar contribution of double-consciousness to Black thought.
Although one might argue that education merely offers momentary relief, an
opportunity to block out the material effects of the racist veil, I think these pas-
sages and the metaphors they invoke suggest otherwise. The path to Canaan
is too long and arduous to constitute a mere pastime, and although education
provides leisure for reflection, this leisure is not an end-in-itself but rather
376 Journal of Black Studies

serves the end of self-consciousness, the implications of which are far from
fleeting. Moreover, this was weary work to be recorded by the cold statis-
tician, and such is the description of the slow institutionalization of Black
education, not of the temporary respite of flights of fancy (Du Bois, 1996,
p. 196). I see living above the veil, in its hyperbolic formulation of 1897, as
equivalent to a belief that one can effectively cross the veil, slowly breaking
down institutionalized racism through higher education, and if I use the terms
living above and crossing interchangeably at times, it should be understood
with specific reference to this early formulation.3
There has been a considerable degree of debate between scholars regard-
ing the precise meaning of double-consciousness, who has access to it, and
whose interests it represents. On ostensibly opposite extremes, there are those
who either reject double-consciousness as complicit with the partial and priv-
ileged view of the aspiring Black middle-classes and those who accept and
embrace the concept for precisely the same reason (but do so with the
assumption that such classes have some privileged access to the universal). It
should be clear, however, that both share a position that although seemingly
in line with the position put forth in Strivings is blind to both the profound
complexity and ambiguity of Du Boiss position in Souls and the transparent
fact that his thought became increasingly less sympathetic to the middle-
classes as it progressed (or at least to the middle-classes, per se, as assimila-
tionist).4 Once we properly situate Souls, contextualizing its position within
his broader oeuvre as well as its internal history, we gain a deeper insight into
Du Boiss thought both prior to 1903 and thereafter.
Ernest Allen (2003) has issued a terse dismissal of all those arguments
that misconstrued Du Boisian double-consciousness as a broad-based
Afro-American cultural dilemmathat is, as universalarguing instead
that that is emphatically not how Du Bois himself viewed the matter.
Rather, his concerns appeared far narrower (pp. 25-26). Allen argues that
the purported universality of double-consciousness is a disingenuous ruse
that results, first, from the fact that aristocratically educated Blacks were
not actually torn in any sense, because they lacked any significant sympa-
thy with the Black masses. In contrast to Adolph Reeds identification of a
struggle between the Dionysian (Black) and Apollonian (European) cul-
tures, Allen (2003) concludes firmly in favor of a lopsided Apollonian vic-
tory (p. 27; see also Reed, 1997, p. 73). The lopsidedness of such a victory
is only concealedaccording to Allenby Du Boiss sleight of hand,
which takes the form of an insistent conflation of two sorts of double-
consciousnessthe internalization of contemptuous ideas about oneself
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 377

and conflicting thoughts, stirrings, and idealswith the first being asso-
ciated with the denial of humanity and the second with the denial of citi-
zenship rights (pp. 30-31). The disingenuous mixing of the two allowed Du
Bois to transform an acknowledged social problem . . . into a far more eso-
teric one involving resolution of the supposed double-consciousness of the
Talented Tenth (p. 31). We have already seen this tension in Strivings, and
it is therefore not surprising that Allen places the bulk, if not all, of his atten-
tion on this early essay. This position, moreover, seems to be in agreement
with Adolph Reeds argument about substitutionism in which, in the words
of Olson (2004), double-consciousness describes a universal Black con-
dition [which thereby] enables a middle-class consciousness to stand in
and speak for Black people as a whole (p. 20) and that allows double-
consciousness, in Reeds (1997) words, to operate as the neurasthenia of
the black professional-managerial class at the end of the twentieth century
(p. 176).5 This substitution of the Talented Tenth for Blacks as a whole was,
according to Allen, a tactical and political decision that allowed Du Bois to
steer a course for self-consciousness between overly radical self-assertion
and groveling for White recognition (p. 34).6 Double-consciousness, in the
end, is a malady to which only cultivated souls were susceptible (p. 35).
Allen (2003) then argues, second, that Du Bois jettisoned the idea of
double-consciousness after the publication of Souls in 1903, both because of
the weakness of the conceptit not only fails the test of internal logic but that
of empirical verification as wellas well as his own recognition of shifting
political conditions (p. 36; see also Reed, 1997). These conditions included the
impossibility of White recognitionpartly because of the fact that Whites
were more, not less hostile to educated Blacks than uneducated onesbut also
what Du Bois deemed the increasing utility of protest and the development of
mutual recognition between Blacks (p. 36).7 In the end, however, Allen agrees
that a broad notion of double-consciousness, if expressed in practical terms,
could accurately describe much Black experience, characterized as it is by
being of a divided mind while facing practical choices as a person of African
descent (p. 39). This is not, however, double consciousness expressed in that
paralyzing, neurasthenic sense [which] would have been a luxury to most, an
intellectual indulgence of the worst sort (p. 39).
Allens confusion seems to be threefold. First, there is a historical con-
fusion in his argument that Du Bois jettisoned double-consciousness, an
argument that only holds water if one either insists on finding the exact
phrase in later work or if one defines the concept according to its middle-
class character, which Allen so rightly disdains (thereby falling into a
patently circular argument). Although the phrase itself never reappears, the
378 Journal of Black Studies

problematic persists, as Olson (2004, pp. 24-25) has demonstrated (see also
Du Bois, 1926, para 4; Du Bois, 1969, p. vii; Du Bois, 1995, pp. 130-132).
Some even rightly argue that the idea of double-consciousness would
become more central to Du Bois as he came to see the veil more clearly, as
the proposition that double-consciousness could be both more intractable
and efficacious became more explicit in later work (Holt, 2001, p. 110).
Second, there is in Allens argument a methodological confusion, which
attempts to reduce Souls to an empirical sociology, in which the theoretical
apparatus is made to stand on the basis of the examples provided (examples
that, we should remember, are drawn exclusively from Du Boiss 1897
Strivings). Allen demands a degree of analytical rigor that is entirely in
contradiction with Du Boiss method, especially given that these examples
were not meant to be scientific. For scientific examples, one ought to look
more to his 1899 The Philadelphia Negro, or at the very least to the more
explicitly sociological chapters of Souls. Indeed, some would argue that the
nonsociological character of much of Souls results precisely from and is
thereby the best proof of Du Boiss own double-consciousness (Lemert,
1994, p. 383). Allens (2003) error is perhaps best reflected in the assertion
that Du Boisian double-consciousness was not so much a usable concept
as an exquisitely crafted metaphor (p. 33). Allens double-assumption
that metaphors cannot be usable and that Du Bois sought to develop a rig-
orous conceptundermines the usefulness of his critique and all the more
given that he himself admits that one can quite readily make a usable con-
cept that complies with the broad strokes of Du Boiss metaphor.
Third, most seriously, and arising as a combination of the other two,
Allen neglects the relationship between double-consciousness, the veil, and
the color line. This is visible in his tacit admission that there is a certain
degree of intrinsic connection between the double-consciousness that
results from denied humanity and that which results from denied citizen-
ship (p. 31). But it is most evident in the fact that, in a nominally compre-
hensive discussion that purports to be the final word regarding the
phenomenon of double-consciousness, Allen does not mention the veil
once, except in a quotation from Du Bois himself. It is only by neglecting
the veila concept intimately linked with double-consciousnessthat
one might be able to argue (as Allen and Reed do) that the idea of double-
consciousness was abandoned in Du Boiss later work. That is, they can only
sustain their argument that Du Bois abandoned the concept by systematically,
deceptively, and hermetically sealing off double-consciousness from
those concepts that are in fact constitutive of it. Such a task is impossible,
entailing as it does the fall into a pit of circularity out of which it would be
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 379

hard to drag oneself. For it is precisely in Du Boiss later work that we see,
simultaneously, the persistence of the problematic of double-consciousness
alongside a dramatic shift in Du Boiss understanding of that term away
from the significance that it had in Strivings.
When we properly situate Souls in the longue dure of Du Boiss
writings, we are able to both reaffirm the continued relevance of double-
consciousness for Du Boiss later work (unlike Allen and Reed), while at
the same time rescuing the conceptwhich arises not as a universal con-
cept, but rather in relation to a particular societal position vis--vis the veil
and dictated largely through educationfrom those whose influence Allen
and Reed most fear. That is to say, the continued relevance of double-
consciousness is the simultaneous liberation of the term from its strictly
middle-class content. In what follows, we will more painstakingly tease out
the precise error involved in Du Boiss 1897 discussion of the veil as well
as the process through which he himself would shift away from that error,
a process visible already in Souls.

Idealism and Crossing the Veil

On the basis of these observations, we can now offer some preliminary

conclusions and propositions on the basis of which to move forward. First,
it seems clear that we are dealing with two sorts of double-consciousness
one regular and one criticaland it is only the latter of these, in which
alienation is conscious of itself and its own conditions, that is analogous to
the Negros unique second sight. Better put, second sight is universal
among Blacks only as a potentiality. In the words of Holt (2001),

Alienationraised to a conscious level, cultivated, and directedhas revo-

lutionary potential. The insight of the oppressed is neither innate nor inher-
ent; it must be worked for, struggled for. . . . For blacks, then, racial
alienation can be the counterpart of class alienation, and it can serve the same
revolutionary purpose. (pp. 109-110)

Second, however, we must admit that the primary form of alienationthat

which expresses the warring ideals associated with being simultaneously
Black and Americanis indeed most potent among the privileged members
of Black society.8 But we should not conflate this privilege too quickly with
social or economic class (as do Allen and Reed), lest we be blinded to the
precise mechanism at work.
380 Journal of Black Studies

Rather, what is operating in the acute expression of warring ideals is

the philosophically idealistic belief that one can rise above the veilor
better, a failure to recognize the materiality of both the veil as an institution
and its effectsa belief that might coincide with the Black middle-class but
that is not reducible to it. This idealism predominates in Du Boiss 1897
discussion of education (but not, as we will see, in the rest of Souls) pre-
cisely through the sort of conflation identified by Allen: It is only by reduc-
ing the veil to double-consciousness that Du Bois can maintain the
possibility of actually rising above that barrier. The fact that the audience
of Souls was largely White is suggestive here, as is the observation that the
books hopeful outlook for the compatibility between the Black and
American worlds extends even to its rhetorical modes (Lemert, 1994, p.
386; Wells, 2002). For we must not forget that the veil is, both in Souls but
more clearly in later formulations, the material foundation giving rise to all
other notions. The veil is an actual institutionformal and informal racial-
ization and segregationthat creates the two worlds, Black and White,
on either side of the color line. It is, one might say, an empirical reality,
despite our not being able to point to it. Double-consciousness, on the other
hand, as an outgrowth of the veilbut one that does not lack a certain
degree of autonomyquite clearly exists in consciousness and more pre-
cisely in that consciousness confined to the dark side of the veil. But as we
have seen, this doublingalthough arguably universal among Blacks to a
degreeis more acute among those who hold out the ultimately contradic-
tory hope for the permeability of the veil.
This belief was soon to be abandoned by Du Bois himself, as we have
seen above in his turn from science to propaganda in support of social
protest and transformation (Du Bois, 1913; Olson, 2005, 121) and more
radically in his later critiquesin 1928 and 1929, respectivelyof the
White working class and of representative democracy (Holt, 2001, p. 114).
But what is the connection between education and the idealistic possibility
of rising above or crossing the veil? It was in education that a sort of cross-
ing did indeed occur but not of the veil. Education allowed the crossing into
the values of the White world, particularly those of the middle-class (and
hence into warring ideals), and on this point, Allen is correct in noting
that the aristocratic education of privileged Blacks created a situation in
which the highest black ideals envisioned by Du Bois were identical to
those of educated whites (Allen, 2003, pp. 26, 31; see also Gatewood,
2000). What Allen fails to recognize is that this education was not as deter-
ministic as he would like. For Du Bois, growing up in Great Barrington,
Massachusettsostensibly on the other side of the veil, as the towns 25
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 381

Black residents posed less of a threat than the burgeoning (and still racial-
ized) Irish population (Gibson, 1996, pp. xxvi-xxviii; Ignatiev, 1997)this
education merely laid the groundwork for a later crossing, back into the
world of Black consciousness, to the common consciousness that resulted
from the common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and,
above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity
(du Bois, 1996, p. 57). I hesitate to say of Black values because what is at
issue is the recognition that the veil prevents Black access to the ostensibly
universal middle-class values of the White world. In short, to place too
heavy an emphasis on Du Boiss early education and acculturation would be
to imply that his political development was somehow completed prior to his
first trip to the South at the ripe old age of 17.
This trip, and his first moment of such crossing, came when Du Bois
traveled south to study at Fisk University in Tennessee and to teach in rural
schools in Alexandria during the late 1880s, at which point, he later reflects,
a new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: henceforward I
was a Negro (as cited in Gibson, 1996, p. xxix). The full implications of
this experiencecentral to Du Boiss development in retrospecthad not
been fully digested on the first publication of Strivings. However, it was
on returning to the South to teach at Atlanta University in 1897 that Du Bois
was reminded of the impermeability of the veil, and hence the publication
2 years later of his first reflections on the early teaching experience (Du
Bois, 1899a)later republished in Souls as Of the Meaning of Progress
was notably more somber, lacking the idealistic optimism that accompanied
the conflation of double-consciousness with the veil9:

There were, however, some . . . whose young appetites had been whetted to an
edge by school and story and half-awakened thought. Ill could they be content,
born without and beyond the World. And their weak wings beat against their
barriersbarriers of caste, of youth, of life; at last, in dangerous moments,
against everything that opposed even a whim. (Du Bois, 1899, p. 102)

This shift between 1897 and 1903 is even perceptible within Strivings, as
the power of the ballot, originally deemed necessary as a guarantee of
good faith, was even more defensive by 1903, a necessary weapon to save
us from a second slavery (Du Bois, 1897, pp. 197; Du Bois, 1996, p. 11).
Thus, we agree with Holt (2001) that it is not likely . . . that Du Bois real-
ized the fuller, more radical implications of his propositions in 1903, and
certainly not in 1897 (p. 110). Rather, it was precisely between 1897 and
1903 that Du Bois reached a crucial inflection point, not necessarily a shift
382 Journal of Black Studies

in itself but the crucial preliminary gesture that would produce a shift. But
Holt (2001, p. 107) is therefore incorrect to imply that Du Boiss con-
scious turn toward active political engagement was more or less complete
in 1903, with his turn toward a White audience; rather, the fullest develop-
ment of his radicalism would only come later, with his turn away from that
same audience and toward Black self-development.
For the more direct, inverse example of crossing between the ideals of
double-consciousnessand Du Boiss increasing pessimism about actually
living above the material veilwe can turn to the markedly more pessimistic
Of the Coming of John, a piece that was not coincidentally written later than
the other two. In it, Black Johna plough-hand of modest upbringing, who
had few dealings with the white city below (Du Bois, 1996, p. 187)is
introduced to the ideals of the White world through education:

He looked now for the first time sharply about him, and wondered he had
seen so little before. He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil
that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed oppression that had
not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural. (Du
Bois, 1996, p. 191)

Not only did education lead John to a cultivation of double-consciousness,

but this cultivation would also lead to the clearest expression Du Bois offers
as to the impenetrability of the veil or rather of the material consequences of
behaving as though the veil did not exist. Black John happens on White John
attacking his sister, and for a gesture of defense that would be acceptable if
he were White, Black John pays with his life (Du Bois, 1996, pp. 201-203).
Hence, not only do critics of Du Boisian double-consciousness place too
much emphasis on Souls (as Olson, 2005, rightly argues), but they fail
moreover to take accurate stock of the shifts internal to the work, between
the first publication of Strivings in 1897, 1899s Of the Meaning of
Progress, and the eventual publication of Souls in 1903. It is only by tak-
ing stock of this internal temporal structure of the work that we can prop-
erly draw out its radical implications, both through an emphasis on the
theoretical transitions that take place between the earlier and later parts of
Souls, as well as through a reflection on how those transitions relate to Du
Boiss own life and later theoretical developments.
Recall briefly Allens argument that Du Bois jettisoned the concept of
double-consciousness in part because he had abandoned the possibility of
White recognition, especially that achieved through education (Allen,
2003, p. 35; Du Bois, 1934, p. 182). That he increasingly abandoned the
hope for such recognition is clear, but to argue that double-consciousness
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 383

was also abandoned requires the assumption that it was irremediably linked
to such recognition and could not be diverted down more radical pathways.
I will argue that this radical diversion was indeed a potent possibility, pre-
cisely because of the inevitable disillusionment that would result from real-
izing the materiality of the veil. That is to say, when ones idealistic
presumptions are dented by the reality of institutional racism, we find a
moment of radical possibility. We find in some of the most revolutionary
minds of the past century that the momentum of an early idealism does not
merely dry up on encountering adversity but rather turns toward more rad-
ical channels. Such was the case with Jean-Paul Sartre (1995), who explic-
itly theorized the root of such a transition in the context of anti-Semitism,
by noting that the later the discovery [of the veil], the more violent the
shock (p. 75). Although Frantz Fanon (1967) would devote significant
effort to demonstrating the structural differences that existed between anti-
Semitism and anti-Black racism, he would nonetheless cite this passage
approvingly, adding that the Negro is unaware of [the veil] so long as his
existence is limited to his own environment; but the first encounter with a
white man oppresses him with the whole weight of his blackness (p. 150).
We cannot neglect the importance of this encounter, for it is no coinci-
dence that the lives of both Du Bois and Fanon involved something more
than merely crossing into the world of White ideals. Fanon, having grown
up in the outpost colony of Martinique, had almost come to believe in his
own Whiteness, given his mastery of the French language. It was only on
arriving in France at the age of 18 that he realized, much to his dismay, that
he was overdetermined from without and that his French meant little in
the face of an overwhelming racial epidermal schema (pp. 112, 116).10 As
we have seen, Du Boiss (1897, p. 194) demystification process was a bit
more complicated, and although he claims to have realized the descent of
the veil at a young age, we should not forget that this realization is retro-
spective, having been written in 1897 and more importantly that even this
later recollection still harbored, if only briefly, idealistic hopes of rising
above or crossing the veil. One could choose a number of dates for his ulti-
mate shock at the impenetrability of the veilsome suggest it was the
1906 Atlanta race riots (Olson, 2005, p. 121)but we have already seen
that one might equally well place that moment at the conclusion of The
Coming of John.11 Indeed, Black John here provides a double message: an
indication of Du Boiss own recognition of the veil as well as an indication
of the brutality of the shock associated with that recognition, as the weight
of the materiality of the veil combines with Johns rage at having realized
its effects to create the predictable outcome.
384 Journal of Black Studies

As this analysis shows, it is both misleading and counterproductive to argue

that Du Bois abandoned the thematic of double-consciousness after 1903.
Rather, we are better served by taking a broader view that allows us to grasp
the importance of double-consciousness as the groundwork for the very tran-
sition away from its own idealistic manifestation. It is worth noting, if only
briefly, that Du Bois should not be presented as the representative of idealism,
per se, but rather only of that manner of idealism that overemphasized a higher
education in the humanities as a way of circumventing the veil (and to repeat,
this temptation itself was short lived). Indeed, his attacks on Booker T.
Washington demonstrate his clear recognition of another form of idealism, one
still associated with education but that naturally takes an economic cast,
becoming a gospel of Work and Money (Du Bois, 1996, p. 43). Not only does
such an approach almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of
lifea statement that reflects the residues of uncritical double-consciousness
in Souls, but more crucially, Washingtons program is impotent in the face of
the veil, as it practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races
(Du Bois, 1996, p. 43). Thus, we should be attentive to economic materialism
as an equally inauthentic and ineffective line of flight, one that continues from
Booker T. Washington to present-day proponents of the self-help trap, the
mythical American dream of pulling oneself up from ones bootstraps.12
We are now prepared to move into a discussion of rap artist Kanye West
on the basis of our understanding of double-consciousness, second sight,
and the veil. During the course of this discussion, we will be most inter-
ested in identifying evidence of Du Boisian double-consciousness in its
limited, uncritical sense, rooting out the origin and expression of that sen-
timent and most important seeking an indication of whether the double-
consciousness appearing in Wests music shows any potential for shifting
and becoming a more critical second sight, a more radical position from
which to view the worlds separated by the veil.

With That in My Blood

As we have seen, Du Boiss ability to move willingly between the Black

and White worldsa situation that he mistook for being able to cross the
institutional veilresulted from a position of privilege vis--vis the Black
masses and more specifically from his access to higher education. According
to Gibson (1996), Du Bois can show what is behind the veil, stepping to
either side of it or rising above it, because he knows both sides of the veil
to a far greater degree than any other person of his time (p. xxvii). In this
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 385

formulationmore precise than Du Boiss ownwe see confirmed that

which we have already discussed, namely the fact that crossing into the
White world through knowing the other side of the veil (but emphatically
not actually crossing that veil) was a necessary component of Du Boiss tran-
sition toward a more critical and radical position. Furthermore, we have seen
that the impact of this consciousness crossing was to be compounded dra-
matically on the realization of its character, that is, the recognition that such
a crossing or rising above was limited to the level of consciousness and that
the material veil remained impenetrable.
Kanye Wests upbringing was distinct from that of Du Bois in several
respects, most clearly in the fact that coming up in Chicago at the end of
the 20th century is an entirely different matter from coming up in Great
Barrington, Massachusetts, more than a century earlier. The Black world
was accordingly no mystery to West, but nor was the White world, given his
double privilege of being raised middle-class and with the firm educational
impetus of his mother, a professor of English. Therefore, we should not be
at all surprised to find the same tensions, the same warring ideals of
double-consciousness in Kanye West that were both suffered by and docu-
mented in the work of Du Bois. There is, however, another twist to add. As
West (2004e) himself makes clear on College Dropout, his exposure to the
effects of the veil was always more pronounced than had been Du Boiss,
emerging by way of a radical family heritage:

I get down for my grandfather who took my momma

made her sit that seat where white folks aint want us to eat
at the tender age of six she was arrested for the sit-ins
with that in my blood, I was born to be different . . .
racisms still alive, they just be concealin it.

Wests father, Ray, moreover, is a former Black Panther, and although he

was not present during much of his sons childhood, one might surmise
some radical osmosis to have occurred regardless.
However, with that in his blood, we still cannot be certain as to whether
Kanye West was born to recognize the veil in all its materiality. Raised
on the fault line that simultaneously joined and separated the Civil Rights
and Black Power movements, the critical character of his consciousness
was not guaranteed. After all, the mere recognition that racisms still
alivealthough a tangible critique of those more liberal elements of the
Civil Rights generation who would deny that factstill does not mean that
this racism is anything more than a contingent fact, let alone a structural
386 Journal of Black Studies

necessity. West, then, could follow this observation down two distinct
paths: He could recognize the impermeability of the veil and struggle
against it, or he could follow what has become, arguably, the hegemonic
liberal line and presume that the formal freedoms that accompanied the
Civil Rights Movement had rendered the veil an artifact of the past.13 As we
will see below, Kanye Wests music has already approached the crucial
point of inflection that we saw earlier in Du Bois; it has already begun the
steady shift from a benign double-consciousness of the warring ideals of
Black and White America to a more critical and radical double-consciousness
that recognizes, paradoxically, the insufficiency of consciousness itself
and the concomitant need for radical social transformation. Before turning
to the emergent indicators of this critical consciousness, we will look
briefly at how Du Boisian double-consciousness in its uncritical sense
appears in Kanye Wests music.14

They Made Us Hate Ourselves

and Love Their Wealth

Kanye Wests first album, College Dropout, can be understood in many

ways as a direct expression of the anguished, divided self, torn apart by the
warring ideals of the Black American and specifically one whose simul-
taneous access to education and exposure to the racist veil ensures that this
anguish will be at its most extreme. In some cases, this divided conscious-
ness arises in an almost playful manner, as West (2004b) sheepishly admits
his vices, doing so with explicit reference to those conscious rappers
under whose critical gaze he falls:

golly, more of that bullshit ice [jewelry] rap

I got to pologize to Mos [Def] and [Talib] Kweli
but is it cool to rap about gold
if I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali?
first nigga with a Benz and a backpack,
ice chain, Cardi lens, and a knapsack
always said if I rapped Id say somethin significant,
but now Im rappin bout money, hoes, and rims again

Here, we see the most prevalent manifestation of double-consciousness

on College Dropout: economic materialism and the constant temptation to
validate ones own humanity through conspicuous consumption. Although
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 387

Du Bois (1996) would show little patience for those vulgar money-getters
who, like Booker T. Washington, preached materialism as liberation, he
recognized nonetheless that the fatal might of this idea is beginning to
spread, (p. 66) due in large part to the centrality of such materialism to the
American ideal. The rise of the deification of bread and the lust for
gold would, subsequently, come to stand beside education as the two oft-
chosen lines of flight through which the Black bourgeoisie would idealisti-
cally evade the veil by convincing themselves of its superability (p. 67).15
However, we should not allow Du Boiss critique to obscure the structural
similarities between the forms of idealism visible in both he and West.
But what does Wests approach to this materialism of conspicuous con-
sumption indicate? Strikingly, he recognizes from the very beginning the
inauthenticity of such a position, the contradiction it entails. Moreover, he
does not remain in this position of admitted contradiction but rather makes
the tentative transition to a more critical perspective, in which the material-
ism of the above passage is counterposed to the world of political struggle:
Now niggas cant make it to ballots to choose leadership, but we can make
it to Jacob [the jeweler] or to the dealership (2004e). It is in the tension
between the two positions abovethat of the guilty pleasure of double-
consciousness and the political obligation to confront the veilthat West
makes the most important transition on College Dropout, and I will argue
that this is precisely a transition toward an explicitly critical double-
consciousness, toward the second sight suggested by Du Bois.
The crowning moment of this expression arises in the extraordinarily
compelling track All Falls Down, in which he first documents the situa-
tion of a single Black female, addicted to retail, whose (presumably
middle-class) parents pressured her into attending college and who couldnt
afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis [a Lexus] (2004a).
Thereafter, West turns to a detailed self-analysis that builds in a more sus-
tained and serious manner on his more playful admissions:

man I promise, Im so self conscious, thats why

you always see me with at least one of my watches
Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy
I cant even pronounce nothin, pass that Versaysee [Versace]
then I spent 400 bucks on this
just to be like, nigga you aint up on this
and I cant even go to the grocery store
without some ones thats clean and a shirt with a team
it seems we livin the American dream
but the people highest up got the lowest self esteem
388 Journal of Black Studies

the prettiest people do the ugliest things

for the road to riches and diamond rings
we shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us:
we tryin to buy back our 40 acres
and for that paper, look how low we astoop
even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop [coupe]

This verse represents a crystal-clear illustration of Du Boisian double-

consciousness, as the American dreamthe nominally universal ideals of the
(largely middle-class) White worldare juxtaposed to the unfulfilled
promise of Reconstruction. And it is precisely in measuring ones soul by
the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity that the ten-
dency toward materialism appears to hold some fleeting hope (Du Bois,
1897, p. 194). Specifically, this verse illustrates the present-day tension
between the Black middle-classes and their children of the postCivil
Rights generation: Both pursue a form of materialism that is premised, albeit
tacitly, on the penetrability of the veil, and both suffer from the contradiction
of such a position. Both are trying desperately to buy back their 40 acres, but
in this verse, West begins to recognize the impossibility of such a task.
But despite this recognition, he continues to participate in the admittedly
contradictory lifestyle of bullshit ice [jewelry] rap. As such, we might be
forgiven if we were dubious about Wests political orientation after the
release of College Dropout (as I certainly was). There is something arguably
postmodern about his embracing of the undecidable, his recognition of the
contradiction of his own life and willing participation in that contradiction.
This diagnosis of aporia could easily slide into a celebration of that very sit-
uation, and radical politics would be left without a home. But we would be
(and were) mistaken. First, to deem Kanye Wests lyrics postmodern would
be to perform a somewhat violent act of misinterpretation and appropriation,
both imposing an imperial model of recognition on his work and neglecting
the history of Black thought (e.g., Du Boisian double-consciousness) within
that thought might better be situated.16 Second, to presume a direct connec-
tion between contradiction and apolitical celebrations of the status quo would
be to get West wrong again and to do so largely as a symptom of the baggage
we carry along with the first error. There is, after all, a massive gulf that exists
between, on one hand, poststructuralist philosophy and, on the other, the
expression of a problematic but nevertheless materially grounded Black rap-
per. For even as much as the latter may bask in contradiction and undecid-
ability, even in his most crude and materialistic (read pejoratively) moments,
there are explosions of Black rage.
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 389

Hence, on All Falls Down (West, 2004a), we see that the description
of double-consciousness is punctuated byand indeed necessarily inter-
twined withmoments of political opposition, and West slides impercepti-
bly and gracefully between the two, paradoxically linking his acceptance of
the materialism imposed by double-consciousness to a normative political
orientation, if only schematically:

I say fuck the police, thats how I treat em

we buy our way out of jail, but we cant buy freedom
we done buy a lot of clothes but we dont really need em
things we buy to cover up whats inside
cause they make us hate ourself and love their wealth
thats why shorties holler where the ballers at?
drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
and the white man gets paid off of all of that
but I aint even gonna act holier than thou
cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
before I had a house and Id do it again
cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like its all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I wont get specific
I got a problem with spendin before I get it
we all self-conscious, Im just the first to admit it

Thus, although he admittedly participates in this system, it is not mere par-

ticipation in capitalism that renders some forms of double-consciousness
impotent as a form of opposition. Rather, it is the idealistic presumption of
the penetrability of the veil that separates Black from White worlds, and
although this materialism is a figurative echo of that presumption, West has
no such illusions. His recognition that we cant buy freedom is the recog-
nition that uncritical materialism is impotent as a vehicle for change, as the
economic structure is but a face of the racist veil, and the white man gets
paid regardless. This too reflects a crucial parallel with Du Bois (1996)
and specifically his insightful discussion of sharecropping, a system rigged
against Blacks from the outset, in which he notes that fully ninety-four per
cent have struggled for land and failed, and half of them sit in hopeless
serfdom (p. 132). This sort of sophisticated understanding of double-
consciousness is not specific to this track, but rather, it seethes just under
the surface of Wests entire first album.17
But what of that other twin pillar of idealismeducationthat other line
of flight that Du Bois (1897), at least temporarily, viewed as a mountain path
390 Journal of Black Studies

to Canaan . . . steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to
overlook life (p. 196) and even the veil itself. Kanye West, it seems, despite
having been raised by a middle-class professor who did her best to emphasize
the need for education, seems already in College Dropout to recognize the fal-
lacy of exaggerating the effectiveness of that education in overcoming racism
(and we have already seen this in the above-quotes verses from All Falls
Down). Indeed, the underlying theme of the album is a thinly veiled (pardon
the term) attack on the Black middle-class and their educational imperatives,
extending from the title (a reference to his own experiences) through a number
of skits that illustrate the limits of education (but that do so with relation to
money rather than race and so are partially limited).18 Like most other verses
on the album, however, this critical view of higher education is far from clear
cut, as West (2004j) proves himself capable of simultaneously valorizing the
need to sell drugs and the need to get an education: This drug money here is
little Tres scholarship. In this way, one might perceive Kanye Wests position
toward education as a microcosm of the album as a whole: contradictory, yes,
but this is a contradiction that is stripped of the sort of idealism that can block
radical opportunities.

Diamonds, Crack, and Critical Consciousness

Few could forget the moment on September 2, 2005, that NBCs levee
broke and Kanye West flooded through with a tear about the federal response
in New Orleans during the networks live concert fundraiser for victims of
Hurricane Katrina (de Moraes, 2005, p. C01). Nervous to the point of near
incoherence, he managed to utter the following extraordinary words:

I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a Black family, it says,
Theyre looting. You see a white family, it says, Theyre looking for food.
And, you know, its been five days [awaiting federal aid] because most of the
people are Black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hyp-
ocrite because Ive tried to turn away from the TV because its too hard to
watch. Ive even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now Im
calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I
can give, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people
down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help,
with the way America is set up to help the poor, the Black people, the less
well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they
can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now,
fighting another way, and theyve given them permission to go down and
shoot us . . . George Bush doesnt care about Black people.
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 391

The telethon, simulcast on NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, and Pax, reached

millions in the East and Midwest before the anti-Bush segment (but not the
rest) of Wests intervention was edited from the West Coast broadcast. The
effect was dramatic, as Wests comments exploded the awkward silence
that had blanketed media coverage of Hurricane Katrina during the several
days prior. But this interventionwhich effectively torpedoed the right-
wing efforts that had, since the 1980s, successfully convinced many that the
race issue had been resolveddid not emerge out of nowhere.19 As I will
argue below, Kanye Wests political vision has been developing in an
increasingly systematic manner since the release of his first album, College
Dropout. Although there was the sense on the first album of the potential
political critique veiled behind the illustration of his own double-
consciousness, this was still ambiguous, and it still carried the potential for
an inward-looking political orientation. However, a significant shift took
place in the year and a half that intervened between College Dropout
(released February 2004) and his second album, Late Registration (released
August 2005). During the course of this development, Wests political side
would become more evident, and more crucially, his political critique
would (like that of the later Du Bois) turn increasingly away from idealis-
tic attempts to rise above or cross the veil and turn toward the structures
of social power that constitute that veil itself.
For example, in an appearance at the Live 8 fundraiser on July 2, 2005,
West railed against man-made diseases placed in African communities and
noted that G8 leaders were riding home in their Benzes and Bentleys while
poor Africans starve (Usborne, 2005). Such a statement can be best inter-
preted as a quasi-existentialist rejection of the bad faith involved in natu-
ralizating phenomena whose social component is undeniable, a gesture that
removes all culpability for poor preparation and response on the part of the
government, and this rejection finds echoes in Wests rejection of the compa-
rable naturalization of Katrina. Wests position on AIDSwhich also appears
on his second album in the comment that I know the government adminis-
tered AIDS (West, 2005c)is one shared by many, including the more
explicitly political rapper Paris (Paris & Nantambu, 2006).20 Moreover, West
links the justification for the deployment of AIDS to the domestic context,
noting that the disease was placed in Africa just like crack was placed in the
Black community to break up the Black Panthers, another sentiment echoed
on his most recent album (CBC Arts, 2005; West, 2005a).21
On Late Registration, Wests relationship to inauthentic attempts to cross
the racist veil is considerably more nuanced than it had been on College
Dropout, as his position shifts from merely highlighting the contradiction of
such attempts to an effort to forge alternatives to such philosophically idealist
392 Journal of Black Studies

paths. For example, in an ode to his mother, West (2005d) maintains his com-
plex understanding of education, one that neither invests in an idealistic hope
for crossing nor writes off education altogether. Indeed, although the broad
theme of Late Registration may invoke a return to the school he had nominally
abandoned with College Dropout, this return is far from uncritical. Moreover,
on the first track, he offers what could be read as a direct critique of Bill Cosby
and others who place undue emphasis on behavior as a way to cross the veil:
his job trying to claim that he too niggerish now, is it cuz his skin blacker than
licorice now? I cant figure it out (West, 2005c). The structure of racialization,
not lack of education or poor behavior, lies behind predominantly middle-class
claims that some Black youth are too niggerish.
However, the most significant shift vis--vis idealism occurs with Wests
understanding of materialistic consumption, which he had previously rec-
ognized as contradictory but not fully rejected as a potential method for
crossing of the veil. Late Registration, on the other hand, immediately tran-
sitions to a more critical position: The devil is alive I feel him breathin,
claimin money is the key so keep on dreamin, and put those lottery tick-
ets just to tease us (West, 2005c). Indeed, on Late Registration, much (but
not all) of Wests materialism is relegated to the past tenseas he recalls
that I just wanted to shinebut more important is his own explicit recog-
nition of the dialectical necessity of that moment: Im trying to right
[write] my wrongs, but its funny these same wrongs helped me write this
song (West, 2005f). This is crucial for our purposes, as it illustrates the
pathseen above in Du Boisfrom idealistic error to disillusionment and
on to a more radical position. This sentiment is echoed in a guest appearance
by Common, whorapping over an old Gil Scott-Heron trackemphasizes
the material moment of revolutionary thought: Making sense [cents] of it we
hustle for change, revolution aint a game, its another name for life fightin
(West, 2005e). Indeed, the overarching theme of the albums skitswhich
revolve around an imagined college fraternity, Broke Phi Brokeis critical
of those who reject economics altogether in favor of a nostalgic, self-imposed
The most sustained critique of the exaggerated materialism expressed on
his prior album appears in his first single from Late Registration,
Diamonds from Sierra Leone (West, 2005b). Although the original
version of the song appears near the end of the album, the remix has a more
prominent position and an entirely different verse, inspired by rapper Q-Tips
suggestion that he look into the international trade in blood diamonds (All
Eyes on Kanye West, 2005)22:
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 393

good morning, this aint Vietnam, still

people lose hands, legs, arms for real
little was known of Sierra Leone
and how it connect to the diamonds we own . . .
see, a part of me sayin keep shinin,
how? when I know of the blood diamonds.

Indeed, it is this explicit self-critique that leads West to his most explicit
formulation of Du Boisian double-consciousness on Late Registration, one
that not coincidentally invokes souls: Heres the conflictits in a Black
persons soul to rock that gold (West, 2005b). That is, its in a Black
persons soula soul indelibly marked by the effects of the veil, includ-
ing double-consciousnessto attempt to prove her humanity in the face of
institutional racism. The temptation to do so through consumption is pro-
gressively debunked in Late Registration, and in Diamonds, this debunk-
ing takes the form of demonstrating the inhumanity that can result from
attempting to do so while neglecting broader socioeconomic structures.
It is in the context of this critique of blood diamonds as a manifesta-
tion of the desire to cross the veil that West transitions to his most crucial
political intervention on the album, that having to do with the symbiotic
relationship between the U.S. government and the international drug trade:

though its thousands of miles away

Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today
over here, its the drug trade, we die from drugs
over there, they die from what we buy from drugs. (West, 2005b)

This is an extraordinary and powerful recognition of the interconnectedness

of struggles, and it sets the stage for Wests indictment of U.S. counterin-
surgency strategies against the Black community:

how we stop the Black Panthers?

Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer
you hear that? what Gil Scott was hearin [Heron]
when our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin
crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland
we invested in that its like we got Merrill-Lynched
and we been hangin from the same tree ever since. (West, 2005a)

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of a clear understanding

of the governments war on drugs for Black radical thought, as it effectively
394 Journal of Black Studies

binds together counterinsurgency and pacification of radical threats, the eco-

nomic and social destruction of communities and of course, the booming
prison-industrial complex, a monster that feeds exceedingly heavily on Black
bodies.23 West here links the intentional deployment of drugs to ultimately
genocidal aims, noting that they wanna pack us all in a box like Styrofoam,
and the war on drugs is also linked to the so-called war on terrorism: who
gave Saddam anthrax? George Bush got the answers, back in the hood its a
different type of chemical (West, 2005a).
The central theme of the song, however, lies not in the indictment but in
the opposition, as West (2005a) deems hip-hop, that musical form born from
the wreckage of the drug war, to be crack music, that real Black music. Rap
is both the symptom and the most powerful weapon for radical thought, as we
are told an extended a cappella soliloquy24:

we took that shit, measured it and then cooked that shit

and what we gave back was crack music
and now we ooze it through they nooks and crannies
so our mamas aint got to be they cooks and nannies
and we gonna repo everything they ever took from grammy
now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammies
this dark diction has become Americas addiction
those who aint even Black use it
we gonna keep on baggin up this here crack music. (West, 2005a)

Kanye West has turned from the idealistic and ultimately flawed attempt
to cross the veil through buy[ing] back our 40 acres to a more radical and
critical vision of hip-hop as a medium that penetrates American society and
that is oriented in explicit opposition to a history of oppression and attempted
extermination. This is a vision that avoids the twin assimilationist tempta-
tions: It is a middle path that proceedslike the mature work of Du Bois
between the Scylla of exaggerating the ideal of book-learning and the
Charybdis of the deification of bread and that does so precisely through
incorporating the insights of the later Du Bois regarding the impermeable
materiality of the racist veil (Du Bois, 1897, p. 196; Du Bois, 1996, p. 66).
Despite their ostensible opposition to one anotherembodied respectively in
the preachy edicts of the Black middle-class and the rejection of such edicts
in favor of blingthese tendencies are ultimately compatible in their
uncritical acceptance of the American status quo.25 Both sides have some-
thing to contributenamely their crucial emphasis on education and materi-
alism, respectivelybut these only become properly complex and dialectical
when brought into dialogue with one another and with a full recognition of
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 395

the materiality of the color line created by the veil. Here, I hope to have con-
tributed to the beginnings of an understanding of how Du Boisian double-
consciousness may hold the key to uniting the two and forging critical Black
consciousness and how we can see this potential illustrated in the work of
Kanye West. Although I have shown elsewhere how such critical conscious-
ness might be more readily forthcoming from the more lumpen elements in
rap (and Black society more generally), my interest here has been, in part, to
show that there exist alternative paths to radicalism, which can avoid some of
the dangers that face more overtly political strands of hip-hop (Ciccariello
Maher, 2005).


As mentioned earlier, the Katrina disaster did not mark the beginning of
Kanye Wests political trajectoryindeed, Late Registration was released a
month earlierand nor was it the first moment that he recognized the veil. But
just as W.E.B. Du Bois had both recognized and idealistically nihilated the veil
during a certain stage of his career (up to around 1897), so too was Wests pre-
cise relation to the veil not born overnight. In closing, it is worth suggesting
that Katrina might indeed play a significant role in Wests political develop-
ment, one similar to the aforementioned inflection points in the work of Du
Bois, inflection points that result from the radical shock of realizing the weight
of the veil. For it was not the scale of the destruction or the cataclysmic early
body count that shocked him. It was, rather, the precipitous descent of the veil,
a veil that coded and epidermally overdetermined certain people as looters
and others as finders. Moreover, this coding demonstrates, especially in the
shoot-to-kill orders applied to those looters, the traditional expendability of
Black life, the life of the damns or the wretched of the earth.26
This was a veil that West himself had previously sought to ignore to
some degree, to idealistically will away through attempts at rising above or
crossing the veil through a consumption norm that he had already recog-
nized to be contradictory. Listen: Ive even been shopping before even giv-
ing a donation. This is an expression of the potentially explosive shock
resulting from the clash between ones own behavior and the reality of the
racist veil. It is certainly worth hoping, and maintaining some optimism,
that this shock will propel Kanye West further along this trajectory of rad-
icalization that we have traced between College Dropout and Late
Registration, both because we have seen a similar mechanism operating in
the work of Du Bois and also because West has received a significant
396 Journal of Black Studies

degree of recognition for his intervention.27 We can only hope that this
shock and recognition will develop into a virtuous cycle of increased politi-
cization, thereby increasing the already-ascendant legitimacy of political
themes in mainstream rap.28

1. Much of what will be said of Du Bois in this article can apply equally well to Martinican
intellectual-turned-revolutionary Frantz Fanon (1967), whose discovery of the existence of the
veil coincided with his trip to France. This was a key moment in the development of one of
the most important Black revolutionaries of the past century and was equally informed by
something like the veil and its relation to double-consciousness. The Fanon of Black Skin,
White Masks, it could be argued, is analogous to the Du Bois of Souls, as both works repre-
sent a sort of early intellectual stage that will later come to integrate more fully the effects of
social and economic structures (in what Fanon calls sociogeny). Some similarities between
Du Bois and Fanon are hinted at by Olson (2004, e.g., p. 156, n. 66). For a piece that is
admirable in its aspirationsif simplistic in its tacit acceptance of the binary opposition
between double-consciousness and radical thoughtsee Moore (2005). I will limit references
to Fanon to the endnotes, and although these might seem tangential, I ask for some patience
from the reader, as it is crucial to bear in mind that the radical transformation of double-
consciousness is not limited to Du Boiss own personal experience.
2. One can equally wonder (although this is less relevant for the present argument) what
the precise difference is between Du Boiss (1897, p. 194) self-professed common contempt
for the other side of the veil and the position of silent hatred or mocking distrust held by
others, of which he is harshly critical.
3. Although this interpretation of the passages cited is certainly open to debate, it should
be borne in mind that my claim appears validated in Du Boiss (1899a, 1899b, 1954) socio-
logical works of the period, which place an extraordinary faith in the power of reasoned argu-
ment to break down the veil. Thanks to Joel Olson for pointing this out.
4. Winfried Siemerling (2001), for example, emphasizes the manner in which Du Bois
effectively resignifies assimilation in an effort to maintain his distance simultaneously from
the overt assimilationism of Tuskeegee and the radical response of the followers of Nat Turner:

Du Bois equates assimilation not, as might be expected . . . with Booker T.

Washingtons agenda of adjustment and submissionbut rather with . . . [an]
agenda which maintains difference [and] is typified by for Du Bois by Frederick
Douglass. . . . This formulation balances the maintenance of a different self, on the
one hand, with a clear goal of ultimate assimilation, on the other hand, and thus
with a teleology in which the self also recognizes itself through the recognition of
another, larger, entity. (p. 328)

For his discussion of assimilation, see Du Bois (1996, especially pp. 40-43).
5. For an interesting argument on the fallacy of substitutionism, albeit from a different per-
spective (but one that refers directly to the context of rap music), see Lewis R. Gordon (2005).
6. Although the later Fanon (1963, 1967) would side emphatically with the formermost
clearly in his theory of revolutionary violencehis early position in Black Skin, White Masks
was still broadly compatible with that of the early Du Bois.
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 397

7. Here are two more crucial parallels with Fanon (1967), who notes that, in France, a black
man who quotes Montesquieu had better be watched (p. 35). The recognition (in writings pub-
lished around 1952) that education and specifically language (among other lines of flight) could not
pierce the veil of the anti-Black world was central to Fanons later turn to sociogeny or the
attempt to not merely understand the world but to change it as well. This turn to social transfor-
mation in Du Bois is also identified by Marable (2005, p. 6) and Olson (2005, p. 118). For Fanons
clearest statement of sociogeny, see his 1956 Letter to the Resident Minister (Fanon, 1988,
pp. 52-54).
8. This parallels Fanons (1967) recognition that the Negroes inferiority complex is partic-
ularly intensified among the most educated, who must struggle with it unceasingly (p. 25) and
that this is partly due to the fact that the Negro feels at a given stage that his race no longer under-
stands him (p. 14) and thereby proceeds to cultivate a distance from his compatriots.
9. Although this might seem to contradict the optimistic rationalism of The Philadelphia
Negro, we should be clear that this work was only published in 1899, having been written or at
least researched during his appointment as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896.
10. This is why most of the early chapters of Black Skin are devoted to debunking inau-
thentic attempts to escape the impermeability of the veilspecifically language and lovea
debunking that doubtlessly represents a self-critique of Fanons own prior illusions.
11. It should be noted that whereas for Du Bois, the recognition of the impenetrability
of the veil coincided with his turn to a Fanonian sociogenya focus on the transformation of
social structuresthe Fanon of Black Skin had recognized the descriptive importance of
sociogeny but would not see the latter as a political imperative until around 1956. Similarly,
we should note that in Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre had recognized the impossibility of the sit-
uation of the Jewa situation imposed from without and which authentic behavior would not
remedybut he still had yet to turn to collective activity and the transformation of social
structures for that resolution. This would only occur, I argue, after Fanon had shown him the
way (see Ciccariello-Maher, 2006).
12. For an excellent critique of this myth, see Robin D. G. Kelley (1998). For an example
of a well-known Black thinker who reproduces this uncritical logic, see Gates (2004). For an
example of another idealistic negation of the veil that is central today, see Bill Cosbys recent
attacksat the NAACPs 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown decision, no lesson
Black youth culture, attacks that presume that if Blacks simply behaved differently, the veil
would disappear. For an excellent response, see Michael Eric Dyson (2005). Such an empha-
sis on uncritical economic materialism should not be conflated with Du Boiss later turn to
economic self-organization, as the latter was critical and transformative, whereas the boot-
straps argument is framed entirely within the discourse of a liberal American capitalism that
would deny even the existence of a veil.
13. This is not to argue that the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement were fully
incompatible, but one cannot ignore the tensions that existed between the two and specifically the
fact that the Panthers raison dtre was the failure of certain aspects of the Civil Rights Movement.
14. It is worth briefly mentioning another similarity between Du Bois and Kanye West, this
time stylistic. Like Du Bois, West makes extensive use of traditional Black music, in this case
gospelto which an entire track is devoted (West, 2004c) as well as the sample and inspira-
tion for one of the biggest singles from College Dropout (West, 2004d) and tracks like Never
Let Me Down (West, 2004e)but given both his more oppositional and less conciliatory
stance, as well as the advantage of working in audio, he avoids the difficulties and contradic-
tions embodied in Du Boiss use of the somewhat anonymous musical notations from Black
spirituals that, despite the authors intentions, revealed more distance from, than compatibility
with, the literary quotes that they accompanied (Gibson, 1996, p. xvi).
398 Journal of Black Studies

15. I do not mean here to degrade economic development schemes, as such do-for-self
schemes are crucial and it would be precisely to such strategies that Du Bois would turn.
However, the problem lies in seeing such approaches as sufficient and of thereby falling
into the very same self-help/bootstraps myth on which the American dream and idealistic
double-consciousness rest (see Kelley, 1998).
16. For a similarly violent appropriation that attempts to claim rap for postmodern aes-
thetics, thereby subsuming it to a White imperial model of recognition, see Shusterman (2000,
pp. 201-235) and my discussion in Ciccariello-Maher (2005, pp. 130-137).
17. The very first track of College Dropout attacks funding cuts for after-school programs,
takes jabs at the welfare system, demonstrates the rationality of drug dealing as an occupation,
and ultimately exposes an American society that has always simply wished that Blacks would
disappear: We wasnt supposed to make it past twenty-five, jokes on you we still alive
(West, 2004j). Later, he compares working the grave[yard] shift to a slave ship while not-
ing his employers tendency to show off the token Blackie (West, 2004g). Furthermore, he
indirectly addresses Black self hatred by noting that Ima make sure these light-skinned nig-
gas never ever never come back in style (West, 2004f). His imagery, moreover, spans and
unites generations of Black protest: I basically know now weve been racially profiled,
cuffed-up and hosed down, pimped-up and hoed down (West, 2004i). Even a nominally apo-
litical event like his near death car accident provides an occasion to invoke Black struggle, as
West compares his face after the accident to that of Emmett Till and summarizes his lyrics as
not about coke and birds it was more like spoken word that explained the story about how
blacks came from glory, and what we need to do in the game (West, 2004h).
18. These experiences permeate the entire album but most clearly in the following verse:

told em I finished school, and I started my own business

they say, Oh you graduated?
no, I decided I was finished
chasin yall dreams and what youve got planned. (West, 2004f)

19. For an excellent commentary on recent survey research that shows the massive gulf
existing between Black and White perceptions of the events in New Orleans, the federal
response, and Kanye Wests intervention, see Ford and Gamble (2006).
20. Pariss websitehttp://www.guerrillafunk.combesides offering a host of literature
on AIDS, also features several articles on the Katrina disaster.
21. As another indication, albeit minor, of Wests increasingly political orientation, see his
attack in a recent interview on homophobic tendencies in rap (All Eyes on Kanye West, 2005).
22. Indeed, the significance of this shift can be surmised from the unusual fact that the
remix version of Diamonds is more prominent on Late Registration than the original.
23. I have commented elsewherein a discussion of militant rap group Dead Prezon the
centrality of this theme (Ciccariello-Maher, 2005). Although some might dismiss the political
character of the argument that the U.S. government is involved in the drug trade, it is important
to bear in mind that, first, this belief is predominant in the Black community and, second, that
contrary to traditional understanding, at least in the Black context such theories are not corre-
lated with being apolitical but are rather correlated with a higher degree of political activism (on
both points, see Waters, 1997). The same applies to Wests positions regarding AIDS.
24. This portion of the song was performed by poet Malik Yusef on the official release but
is performed by West on at least one other version. It remains unclear who penned the verse,
but this seems less important than its content.
Ciccariello-Maher / Critique of Du Boisian Reason 399

25. I have discussed elsewhere the way in which some otherwise admirable early political
rap can fall into preachiness (Ciccariello-Maher, 2005, p. 141, and footnote 9). The dialectical
unity proposed here, moreover, can be seen as related but not reducible to the fusion of
Afrocentric and ghettocentric ideals that I discussed in that prior work (Ciccariello-Maher,
2005, pp. 151-154).
26. The language invoked here belongs to Fanon (1963, 1967). On the importancepolitical,
epistemological, and otherwiseof the category of the damn, see Nelson Maldonado-Torres
(in press).
27. T-shirts reading Kanye was right have been big sellers during the months since his
28. Even an ultimately problematic article notes that Wests famous outburst [about
Katrina] did not die in a vacuum. Rather, his assault on Bush was credited with inspiring other
artists (Usborne, 2005).

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George Ciccariello-Maher studies political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. His
interests include radical political thought, Blackness and indigeneity, decolonial theory, post-
continental philosophy, and radical politics in Latin America and elsewhere. He is writing a dis-
sertation on the need for a separatist moment in revolutionary political thought, and his work has
appeared in Journal of Black Studies, Radical Philosophy Review, and The Commoner.