Quick Thoughts on W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk

As promised, brothers and sisters, here’s my quickshot review of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (Du-Boys)’s 1903 masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk. All the page numbers you’ll see come from the 1989 Penguin Edition.The bibliographic citation would be this:

Du Bois, W.E.B (Introduction by Donald Gibson, Notes by Monica Elbert). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Like my previous review for Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone, this will definitely be more on the quick side. Not because I’m too worried about writing reports or stuff on it later on; I already had to a few years ago and I probably won’t have to do so again. No, I just happen to be a little short on time tonight 😄

I’ll start off with a brief description of the man himself (just in case any of y’all aren’t acquainted with him), then provide an equally brief chapter outline of the book.  After that I’ll get into the meat of the…well, this’ll be too short to be a proper review, so I’ll call it a response. I’ll quote some passages I particularly liked, note some which are particularly important, and lastly share some thoughts on what some parts of the book meant to me.

The introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, written by Donald Gibson (a well-regarded scholar of black literature and history), is a sufficient introduction to Du Bois as well. He was born in Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, experienced the effects of racism as a youth despite growing up in the North, went to college at Fisk University, grad school at Harvard, and became a sociologist, helping set the foundations for that field (it was not yet well-developed in the late nineteenth and early 20th century). He would win great reknown for his study of black life in a major Northern city in The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899. (pp. i-xiv) Aside from being an excellent example of sociological analysis on its own, The Philadelphia Negro also demonstrated Du Bois’ committment to his people and his determination to fight racism with the weapons of logic and reason. The Souls of Black Folk was his next major work, but it was a bit less “rational,” so to speak, than The Philadelphia Negro, which was comparatively more dispassionate and less personal–think of The Philadelphia Negro as being something you could read in a journal of social science, while The Souls of Black Folk might be a bit more literary, something you might see in Harper’s–indeed, most of the chapters in this book had been published previously in papers like The Atlantic Monthly and The Dial, though several were published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science as well. As Donald Gibson said, “In Du Bois’s third book…he does not abandon the notion of the efficacy of reason; rather, he admits that other elements of personality besides rationality  are needed in order to deal reasonably with racial issues.” (pp. x)

Those “other elements of personality” include everything from his own personal experience to myth and literature to music. In Du Bois’ own introduction, the “Forethought,” he explained his general purpose is to “sketch, in vague and uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive.” He wished to “show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader, for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  He also noted that he’d begin each chapter with a bar from a “Sorrow Song”–the songs the slaves would sing as they worked, which gave insight into the pain within their spirits. (p. 2)

Chapter 1, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” explained the problems, in Du Bois’ view, that faced America’s black population at the dawn of the 20th century and what African-Americans aspired and struggled towards. Chapter II is a history of that population following the Civil War, lavishing particular praise on the Freedman’s Bureau. Chapter III is a critique of Booker T. Washington, and IV is a sociological study of a black Tennessee community framed through Du Bois’ personal experience, as he taught there while a student at Fisk. The next chapter is a study of Atlanta; DuBois warned that city not to embrace excessive materialism and compared such materialism to the morality taught in the Greek myth of Atalanta, from whom it was named. Chapters VI and VII continue the lesson in black history from Chapter II, this time concentrating on the rise of black educational institutes and the growth of the “Black Belt” in Georgia, a region which grew reliant on the wealth produced by harvesting cotton. Chapter VIII is another sociological study explaining how blacks in the region continued to live (as sharecroppers) after the Civil War and emancipation, and IX explains the particular social and economic barriers which continued to hinder African American advancement; Du Bois argues that blacks blaming prejudice against them as the root of their dysfunction would not improve their lot–but he also said that whites blaming black dysfunction as the root of prejudice against them  were equally unhelpful. He asserted that both should change in order to improve conditions for both races.

Chapter X explored the religious institutions of the African American community, and in XI, Du Bois provided a brief meditation on how he felt upon becoming a father and then losing his first-born son. Chapter XII was a eulogy for Alexander Crummell (a nineteenth-century black clergyman who was a powerful and eloquent advocate for the political and social empowerment of his race); Chapter XIII was a short piece of fiction about a black man named John Jones, whose desires for improvement are thwarted by the racism of the whites in the town of Altamaha. The very last chapter was a bit of music history. In “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois praised African American folk music as “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (p. 205) and explained how it developed over time and what people of all races in the twentieth century can learn from it.

There were two things I was particularly struck by as I re-read The Souls of Black Folk. The first was Du Bois’ sparkling erudition. He was not only a sociologist, but an excellent writer as well as a knowledgable scholar of world literature and religion. One of the most hard-hitting descriptions of the hardships facing blacks I ever read was on page 9:

“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance,–not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient african chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost to obliterate the Negro home.”

God damn! Du Bois definitely did *not* pull any punches. I can only hope to write as forcefully *and* clearly as he did some day. And I can only hope to match his knowledge of the old Greek myths. Du Bois proved (as Douglass did before him, as a matter of fact)–that blacks were worthy heirs of the best of the Western tradition. Du Bois’ African descent proved no hindrance to learning from and internalizing for his own use the storied, glorious legends of ancient Greece, great progenitor of Western thought. As Du Bois says, in another of my favorite passages,

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pishgal, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

Page 90.

Strong, inspiring words worthy for their moral admonitions as well as the beauty with which they were expressed. I’m not African-American myself, but I’ve always tried to learn as much as I can from as many sources as possible with absolutely no regard to race throughout my own life.

As an aside, though, the above passage also mentions a lot of concepts which some folks might not be familiar with. Indeed, many of the most important ideas percolating in African American intellectual life (both during the 20th century up to now) originated with Du Bois, and he offers several of them in The Souls of Black Folk. Allow me to allow Du Bois to explain.

The “Color Line” is Du Bois’ explanation of America’s race problem. With it, he refers to two things. First, to physical segregation, with Blacks in the South (and North) having to live on one side of a line drawn in a town, and whites on the other side (p. 135). Second, it also refers to the basic fact that blacks were an oppressed people; racism denied them the same intellectual, social, and political life open to whites. Du Bois claimed that darker-skinned people were oppressed by whites all over the world and shared similar problems with blacks, so his postulated a color line that extended across all humanity and had caused the U.S in particular severe problems, having, in his view, sparked the Civil War. Du Bois thus understandably posits the color line as the twentieth century’s greatest problem (p.  19).

The metaphor of the veil comes from page 5, where he also introduces “Double Consciousness.” He explains both:

“After the Egyptian and the 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. It is a  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 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.

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

“Double Consciousness” is, therefore, the psychological ambiguity African Americans felt at being both African and American. They weren’t entirely African, but not entirely American, and, of course, American laws segregated them spiritually and intellectually as well as physically, setting them behind a “veil” where they couldn’t be see by whites: Both in the literal sense, as they were kept out of sight by segregation of housing and association, and a metaphorical sense, when their personalities, aspirations, and ideas were hidden by a society determined to cast them as inferior and therefore lacking in any useful intellectual, spiritual, or emotional qualities. Now, as an aside, Du Bois didn’t cast the Veil as something entirely negative; he believed it gave blacks perspective on whites as well as American society in general they wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Finally, Du Bois mentioned in passing the “Talented Tenth.” He explained it in more depth in an essay of the same name. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois referred to the concept in this passage:

“Of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmith…to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite.”

Page 70.

The “talented tenth” would be the “university men” and “scholars” Du Bois mentioned. He believed that even though a majority of blacks may have been uneducated and ignorant (due to slavery, not through fault of their own or inherent inferiority), a small fraction of their population was intellectually gifted and would be most useful doing intellectual labor rather than physical or industrial labor. This “talented tenth” would help uplift the race while the “blacksmiths” and “those fitted to dig” supported them, the two groups working in harmony and tandem for their mutual benefit and that of society.

Yet, tied in with his conception of the Talented Tenth, there was a philosophy of education which brought Du Bois into conflict with another early twentieth century African American luminary. In a speech in Atlanta, the public intellectual Booker T. Washington, who founded the famous Tuskeegee Institute to educate blacks and was respected by Americans of all races, offered a “compromise” to the South: Blacks would stop agitating for greater political and social equality if they were allowed to pursue industrial education: farming science, “blue collar” vocations like mining and manufacturing, etc. (pp. 36-38) This “Atlanta Compromise” as it was called, stood in stark opposition to Du Bois’ plan for black advancement. As I mentioned above, it relied on educating the “Talented Tenth” in statesmanship, political science, and philosophy, not just industrial education, and claimed that blacks were “emasculated” without political rights such as the right to vote. (pp. 36-45, 50,)

Yet, despite these differences with Washington, Du Bois never goes overboard with his criticism. His words struck me as both admirably measured and respectful at the same time. Indeed, I might recommend chapter III of The Souls of Black Folk as an example of how to disagree with someone well.  Du Bois did not treat Washington as worthless or having said nothing of value at all. Du Bois repeatedly compliments the man’s stature and accomplishments, noting  “it is no ordinary tribute to this man’s tact and power that, steering as he must between so many diverse interests and opinions, he so largely retains the respect of all” (p. 39) and that he “hesitates, therefore, to criticise a life which, beginning with so little, has done so much. (P. 38, Washington was born a slave). Du Bois also emphasizes the points on which he and Washington do agree: “So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and man to lead the headless host” (P. 50). Du Bois took a very logical, reasoned stance, IMO, portraying Washington as an opponent rather than an enemy, so to speak. Rather than wasting time on vituperative personal attacks or strawman exaggerations of his positions, Du Bois concentrated entirely on Washington’s ideas, acting as if he and Washington shared the same goals (the uplift of the black race) and differed mainly on how to achieve them. If they were on the same team, Du Bois might have been on the “loyal opposition” 🙂

This, of course, makes Du Bois’ criticisms even more forceful, for right afterwards he says,”But so far  as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,–so far as he. the South, or the Nation, does this–we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them.” (p. 50). He also has some particularly sharp words for Washington on occasion, saying things like “Mr. Washington’s cult has gained unquestioning followers” (p. 38) and that he “represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission” (p. 43). Perhaps Du Bois isn’t *entirely* as cordial in disagreement as I portrayed him above–an intellectual might find these measured, subtle jabs to be even more insulting than outright personal attacks. I’ll have to do some more reading and research to see for myself how these two men regarded each other–if they were friends who saw their differences as friendly disagreements, or if they had grown to loathe each other as a result of those differences. But even so, I think there’s much to be said for Du Bois’s approach. As insulting as intelligent men might possibly have found it, it was a fair deal classier–and thus more entertaining–than the sort of vitriol spewed by Internet trolls today…or even our politicians and intellectuals, for that matter. Thus, I find myself wishing that W.E.B Du Bois was alive today. We could use more men of his intellectual caliber *and* his skill with measured disagreement, I think.

I suppose, then, Du Bois joins a small pantheon called “guys Gunlord wishes were still around.” I suppose it’s not much of a pantheon–I’m just an anonymous Internet commenter, it’s not as if anyone much cares who I like and who I wished was still around :p Even so, if Du Bois is in the company of guys like James Stokesbury (a historian whose books I love) and William Shirer, I don’t think he’s in such terrible company 🙂 The mention of Shirer reminds me of something I noticed in both The Souls of Black Folk and Twentieth Century Journey, though…

At the end of his last book, Twentieth Century Journey: A Native’s Return (which was also written near the end of his life), Shirer said this:

“It was a complex fate, maybe,” as Henry James said, to be an American and one, I realize, not especially admired by some in other countries and other cultures, who perceived us as ‘the ugly Americans.’ Still, as I wrote in the last line of the general introduction, I am glad it was mine.”

Meanwhile, at the start of Souls, Du Bois said this:

“Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” (p. 1)

For Shirer, being born an American during the beginning of the 20th Century was “a complex fate.” For Du Bois, existing, or being born black during the same time period was a “strange” fate as well.

I wonder if my destiny might be “strange” or “complex,” being born just in time to witness the dawn of the Twenty-First as an American?

Honestly, I suppose not. First, again, I’m a nobody. Nowhere near as erudite and well-read as either Shirer or Du Bois, and I can’t write nearly as well as either of them, and thus I’ll never achieve the fame and praise they so richly deserved. It would therefore be presumptuous of me to claim I had a particularly exceptional fate on account of my birth. At least they could claim that because they were exceptional people.

And, more importantly, I think the accident of my birth had little impact on my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m unabashedly grateful to have been born an American. I know how incredibly fortunate I am, given how the vast majority of people suffer elsewhere in the world. I’m lucky beyond belief to have a clean bed and food in my belly. Still, I wouldn’t argue that my status as an American made me particularly special. In Shirer’s case, he could say that because he reported so much of what made his country exceptional during the 20th Century–its triumphs over Nazi Germany and its leadership of the free world following that. Me, while I’ve certainly witnessed what my country has done in a post 9/11 world–I watched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as the good things my countrymen did, like our support for Japan following the great tsunami–but I didn’t participate in any of it, or even report on it or write about it like Shirer did so well. So I never imbued my American birth with the same significance Shirer did–or at least I never felt a right to.

And when I compare myself to Du Bois, I see that my birth and race become even less relevant. As I’ve said, I’m not black–I happen to be Bengali. But, looking back on my life, that seems to matter very little. Virtually none of the blessings and curses I’ve received in my life had anything to do with my race. For Du Bois, of course, it was the exact opposite–when he was born, being black meant living behind a “veil,” where you couldn’t vote and where white folks couldn’t see the true tenor of your spirit or mind. My skin has never put me in such a position, though I acknowledge, of course, that I may be particularly lucky in that respect. Other Bengalis and Asians have certainly felt the sting of racism. I haven’t, however, which is why I refrain from shamefully taking for myself the struggles others have endured and admitting that I am nothing more than particularly lucky (perhaps even…privileged, to borrow a tumblr term, though I dislike using that word). I speak only from my own experience and do not wish to deny anyone else’s.

What, then, to make of my fate? For me, there was no complexity to having been born an American at the dawn of the 21st century, as there had been for Shirer. My American identity simply wasn’t and isn’t as significant and emotional a part of my life as it had been for that famous reporter. Neither does there seem to be any “strange meaning” in being born an Bengali-American when I was. I’m sure other Bengali-Americans have had their own experiences “behind the veil,” as Du Bois might have said, but not me.

Is there anything, then–if not any accident of ethnicity or nationality, anything else–by which I can judge my little existence the way Shirer and Du Bois were able to?

Maybe.

This is not to imply I’m anywhere near as great as those two, obviously. But I will say this. I think Shirer was right to say it had been a “complex fate” to be born an American during the 20th Century. Du Bois was equally right to point out the “strange meaning” of being black at the same time and place. But for me–and for the others of my exceptionally deracinated, denationalized, globally-connected generation–I think I can say this:

It was a strange fate to have known love during the twenty-first century. But when all is said and done, I am and will always be glad I did.

Very cryptic, I know. But I’ll explain what I mean in a future post, brothers and sisters. For now, that’s what I shall leave you with. Haha, this was an incredibly long piece…guess this wasn’t a “quickshot” after all, but a longshot!I hope you guys can forgive me 🙂 To make up for it, I’ll make no promises on what you can expect next week…maybe something shorter, but maybe something even longer! Can’t blame me for lying now 😄

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3 comments

  1. Hey gunlord, I know this is off topic for this post, and that you’re a bit over with the manosphere, but holy shit, I thought you had to see this: ://www.donotlink.com/llf

    1. Eeeeeew. Well, I do feel bad for Emma for having to go through all that, but what a strange entry…x_x

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