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

Re-reading another classic — The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. I remember being a little torn by it just as I was torn reading it again — loving so much the autobiographical sections, loving the stories of his students in the mountains of the deep South and imagining this northern intellectual living there among them. Loving the explorations of music. I remember being so struck with this other sense of divided worlds, of Black and white… of feeling both how far we’ve come, and how much has stayed the same. At the same time, I remember the way some of the old fashioned language and sentimentality left me cold. Yet this a book meant to speak to a broad population, to touch heartstrings and to move. It is hardly Du Bois’s fault that such words might have less power today — and I am no judge of its impact on others.  All that said, there are few things more powerful than this I think:

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 framing it. All, nervous, 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? (7)

And grown up through this system of racialisation and horror created in the US, the veil…

After the Egyptian and 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 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. (8)

The way that living in two worlds requires two consciousnesses, what is possible in one impossible in the other.

This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves. (10)

So much impossible in the white world.

In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,— First, political power, Second, insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth,—and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

The disfranchisement of the Negro.
The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.

These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. (42-43)

For Booker T. Washington to come after Frederick Douglass… damn. And what better refutation.

If the Negro was to learn, he must teach himself, and the most effective help that could be given him was the establishment of schools to train Negro teachers. This conclusion was slowly but surely reached by every student of the situation until simultaneously, in widely separated regions, without consultation or systematic plan, there arose a series of institutions designed to furnish teachers for the untaught. Above the sneers of critics at the obvious defects of this procedure must ever stand its one crushing rejoinder: in a single generation they put thirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible. (74)

He goes on to strip the lies of a ‘benevolent’ white society:

The wrong which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes, and written in ineffaceable blood. And finally, when you fasten crime upon this race as its peculiar trait, they answer that slavery was the arch-crime, and lynching and lawlessness its twin abortion; that color and race are not crimes, and yet they it is which in this land receives most unceasing condemnation, North, East, South, and West. (80)

The truth of the plantation:

And yet with all this there was something sordid, something forced,—a certain feverish unrest and recklessness; for was not all this show and tinsel built upon a groan? “This land was a little Hell,” said a ragged, brown, and grave-faced man to me. We were seated near a roadside blacksmith-shop, and behind was the bare ruin of some master’s home. “I’ve seen niggers drop dead in the furrow, but they were kicked aside, and the plough never stopped. And down in the guardhouse, there’s where the blood ran.”

With such foundations a kingdom must in time sway and fall. (92)

And over and over again, a plea to go out, to see and listen and study and in that way to learn what is. It is central to his praxis — and he and his students embodied that work long before others did.

We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-day honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loth to have them disturbed by facts. And yet how little we really know of these millions,—of their daily lives and longings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn by intimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesale arguments covering millions separate in time and space, and differing widely in training and culture. (101)

To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unravelling the snarl of centuries,—to such men very often the whole trouble with the black field-hand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia’s word, “Shiftless!” (113)

There are still a number of academics engaged in such pursuits, still an inability to listen. Still a denial that any kind of veil exists, much less that it makes it difficult for those with race (class, gender) privilege to see, or understand what lies on the other side of it. Not the way those who stand there must, within oppression but needing that knowledge of privilege’s workings for survival.

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