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.)