Fading Light
Wallander (3)

Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2012

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

Some months ago I saw a copy of this priced at fifty cents or dollar at a used book sale, thought "I really should read that sometime," and bought it. Well, I was right about that, more or less: I should have read it a long time ago. But better late than never. 

I'll go straight to my conclusion: anyone who cares about the race problem in America should read this book, for the illumination of both our past and our present. And that's especially true for Southerners, and not only white Southerners. I don't know exactly what I expected from it; I think I had no more than a vague idea that its treatment of the question was considered to be particularly insightful. Well, it is.

Du Bois was of a free black New England family, and he had the education of a 19th century New Englander: the classics, and Harvard. I'm pressed for time this evening, so will leave you in the capable hands of Wikipedia for further biographical information. What's more important for a discussion of the book is the sensibility, and the tools for expressing it, that this background gave him. It's worth reading simply as a work of American literature. The prose style is elaborately poetical, to the point of being florid, full of classical references and extended rhapsodical passages in the 19th century manner. Applied to a lesser subject, it might be considered overblown and sentimental. But it comes across to me more as Whitmanesque, because the matter is so important and the passion of the work so strong. Here, by way of illustration, are the first two paragraphs:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. 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. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

 There is a fair amount of anger here, which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the breadth of vision and sympathy. I suppose I expected, more or less, a diatribe. But it really isn't that. It is a genuine and, I think, successful attempt to see the situation steadily, and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. The book appeared in 1903, and anger about the slavery of the recent past, and the segregation and oppression of the present are what I would have expected. I did not expect that anger at whites, and especially at the South, would sit alongside genuine sympathy, and a serious attempt to understand what motives beyond sheer brutality and avarice would make them cling to the legal segregation of the races. And I did not expect that natural sympathy with blacks would sit alongside an honest assessment of their failings.

There are no simple caricatures in the book: no devilish white and saintly Negro (that's the term Du Bois uses, and it's very difficult not to follow him in discussing the book.) Du Bois sees real human beings on all sides. Of course he spends more time and sympathy on the subjects of his book, who are moreover his own people. But he does not idealize them. He confronts fairly the charges of laziness, shiftlessness, ignorance, and so forth laid against them by the white world, and makes no attempt to pretend that these don't exist. 

As the 20th century rolled on, Du Bois became a pretty strong sympathizer with Communism, though never actually joining the party until very late in his life. This tempts one to dismiss him, but that would be a serious mistake. He did not attack racial oppression because he saw it as a useful tactic for discrediting capitalism, but because he knew all too well what that oppression really meant and how entrenched it was, and had begun to despair that it would ever change within the existing institutions of American life. He died in 1963, at the age of 93, not quite having lived to see the passage of the legislation that killed legal segregation.

One could wish for more here; one could wish Du Bois had been more informed by Christian tradition and more shaped by Christian spirituality, instead of having an apparently pretty conventional New England skepticism, perhaps somewhere between Unitarianism and atheism, though, like many of his time, he was still heavily and unconsciously influenced by Christian habits of mind and speech. He might have seen more deeply, and further, that education and the "elevation," as he puts it, of the African-American population alone would not be easy, nor sufficient to dissolve the barriers between the races; that is to say, he might have been less hopeful of human nature, and more of supernatural charity. But as a socio-cultural observer he is more than sufficient, and most of what he says is still very relevant:

It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither will alone bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent. 

Du Bois believed that progress for the Negro was mainly a matter of education, of bringing down the barriers that shut him out from opportunity and from "white," i.e. Euro-American, culture. From our vantage point a hundred years on, there is a good deal of pathos in this. What would he have thought of the situation now, when segregation has been in its grave for almost fifty years, yet the educational level of so many blacks has actually declined? And what would he have thought of the catastrophic decline in marriage which followed those longed-for legal victories, when he blamed slavery and segregation for the difficulty of maintaining marriage in the black community, though the percentage of intact black families was then, if his suggestions are correct, actually higher than it now is? What would he think of the predominance of violent and obscene rap as the most visible representative of black culture?

There is hardly a week that goes by here, and in most places in the United States where there is a large black population, that the local news does not include at least one story about a black man (or, all too frequently, a boy of 16 or 17 or even younger) shooting someone, hardly a day without news of some lesser crime. Usually the victim in the shooting is another black man, but sometimes it isn't: there is the young white engineer who was shot dead when he had no money for the robbers who broke into his house, and the white woman who was gunned down in the street because she shouted at a speeding car to slow down. The inevitable result is more fear and prejudice on the one side, more resentment and frustration on the other. Would all this not have broken the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois? 

But maybe that's too gloomy a picture. After all, much progress has been made, and if the black community has not been elevated as Du Bois hoped, it must be admitted that the white community has descended: in the lower socio-economic levels there, the same pathologies exist. 

In any case the words that come near the end of the book remain as true and significant as they were when they were written.

Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song--soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire twohundred yearsl earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our givt of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nathion--we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

No, of course, she certainly would not have been. And no one who really loves this America that actually exists can wish it otherwise.

(The entire text of The Souls of Black Folk can be found online at Project Gutenberg.)


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I'll have to finish this tonight, but that paragraph that begins, "It is not enough . . .," is so true. I often think of blacks and white being locked in a kind of death embrace that we can never escape until both are willing to let go.


Agreed. And I get very discouraged about that happening. What's been happening with Obama, for instance: stuff that would just be normal political back-and-forth now gets called racist. White liberals are at least as big a part of that syndrome as blacks.

Have you ever read Up From Slavery? Or anything about George Washington Carver?


No, to the first, only a little, to the second. They always taught us in school about GWC inventing 1,001 ways to use the peanut etc. Booker T. Washington is a bit of an antagonist in one chapter of Souls of Black Folk--Du Bois disagreed with Washington's willingness to accept disenfranchisement.

I just think about these two men who were born into slavery. Both were young when the war ended and worked incredibly hard to get a good education--and they did. They both seemed to be better educated than most people of either race today.

Carver was really amazing because he did his research using old cans and things like that instead of any sophisticated equipment. He may have saved the South. I can't imagine what agriculture in the South would have been like without his contributions.

I know that Washington is looked down on by a lot of people today, but he saw things a certain way, and that's the way he lived. He said something to the effect that you might not be able to get a white man to like you or respect you, but you make a good harness and the white man would want to buy your harness. That makes some sense to me. The first part of UfS is really interesting. It gets a bit self-aggrandizing toward the end if I'm remembering correctly.


Re that harness: I forget who it was, but a black comedian has a routine about how he wouldn't object to the n-word if it were used in envy. He had a series of instances, of which I only remember something about wanting to overhear one white guy say to another "No, I don't have any tax problems. Got me a n****r accountant."

I definitely would like to read more by or about Washington and Carver. I'm sure you're right about both of them being better educated than most people nowadays.

Well, I have Souls on my Kindle now.


I woke up this morning thinking about this post, and then thinking about the horrors of slavery. Did any of these men write about the conditions of slavery itself? After Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1850s, popular culture didn’t not go near looking closely at slavery until the airing of the TV movie Roots in the 1970s -- am I right about that?

In Up From Slavery, at least, Washington is far more interested in what had been accomplished since slavery ended. He was born in 1856, so he would only have been 9 at the end of the war. It's been a long time since I read the book, so I may be forgetting something.

Washington's mother was a slave who was bought by a couple who lived in an isolated area. I have read that Mr. Carver was as interested in a companion for his wife as in someone to help with the work. I don't think he ever lived on a plantation and I seem to remember that his mother died and they brought him up almost like a son. The book I read was a biography. I've never read anything he wrote.


I typed in that last passage from the book by hand (as opposed to copying it from the Gutenberg site). I'm surprised no one has remarked on this (now corrected):

"Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peach only in the altars of the God of Right."

I mean, I like peaches as much as anybody, but that seems like a pretty small reward.

To answer your question, Marianne, with respect to Du Bois: he touches on it pretty often, but his main focus is on developments after the war, particularly to ask the question of what went wrong--why was so little of the promise of emancipation fulfilled? He was born after the end of the war, and his family had been free for a couple of generations (I think), so he had no immediate experience of slavery. No doubt he met plenty of ex-slaves while living in the south in the 1880s.

It did make me laugh.



I'm out of town right now but I have a DuBois quite written down at home, something about the "good things" that died with the evil of slavery, and whether they had to die along with it or not. Very interesting quote, and one that reverberates in the Southern Agrarians and other Southern "apologists."

Yes, there are several things along those lines. That's the kind of thing that I didn't expect at all. He's definitely not soft on slavery, yet he recognizes that there was sometimes real affection between master and slave.

I think another level of that happened in the 60s.


Another level of affection?

No, I think that there was some affection there that there isn't now.


Hmm. I don't know...my immediate reaction is neither agreement or disagreement with that. Which I guess means I see it as a mixture.

Well, I think that probably that affection was tainted by a patronizing viewpoint on the part of white people; however, with the people we knew there was a real affection. It's come to my attention lately, though, that our family was different in the way that we treated people who worked for us and I have no idea if we were really unusual or not.

And then, there is a kind of real, equal friendship that can develop between people of different races now that couldn't have happened then.


I'm obviously just rambling and thinking out loud.


Actually you're saying pretty much the sort of things I was thinking. I've seen that real affection, too, and also within my own household. But also I was thinking of the qualifications you mention, and also of the fact that I don't know how it looked from the other side.

Also: I read something not long ago, which I hope I bookmarked, though I don't have time to look for it right now, in which a white person from a big northern city was describing how he was struck, on visiting the south, by the lower level of racial hostility.

Where I absolutely didn't see racial hostility at all was at the community college I attended in Mississippi. I was really surprised.


That's interesting. Maybe students all felt themselves to be more or less in the same boat

Yes. That and the fact that they were almost all born after about 1975, so they have been raised in an integrated society and have been going to school together all their lives.


I remembering reading some quote about how the South didn't care too much how close the Negro got as long as he didn't get too high, while the North didn't care how high he got as long as he wasn't too close.

heh. Fairly accurate, I guess.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)