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New Left Review I/133, May-June 1982

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Placing Women’s History in History

‘Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question; . . . How does it feel to be a problem?’ [1] W.E. Burghardt DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, New York 1964, p. 15. Thus writes not Simone de Beauvoir, but W.E.B. DuBois. He is speaking, not of women, but of black people—a black male intellectual—within a white world. And he answers his own question: ‘. . . the Negro is . . . 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. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—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.’ [2] Ibid, pp. 16–17. DuBois poignantly insists upon his unwillingness to forgo either side of his twoness: he claims for himself and his people the freedom to be a black American. But fidelity to that twoness requires holding fiercely to both its elements. It is the tension itself, the dialectic of his sundered identity, that he wishes to live: distinct, but equal; of, but not wholly assimilated to. And the free living of that tension necessitates full recognition of the Black past, of a discrete Afro-American history.

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Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, ‘Placing Women’s History in History’, NLR I/133: £3

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