Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois

 In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois published this collection of essays to portray the character of black people in America and the conditions they struggled against.  He says:
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.  This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

DuBois calls the color line "the Veil," meaning that the real lives of black people are lived behind a veil that ensures that white people will never see their true feelings.  Each chapter is headed by a verse from a white poet and a phrase of music from the oldest black songs, in order to show that the races have equal artistic genius.  DuBois has a lot to say about old songs, especially the ones he considers to be most authentic.

The early essays are set as responses to Booker T. Washington, and require a little more background knowledge than I had.  At this time Washington and DuBois had competing visions over the best course of action for the advancement of black people.  Washington advocated a compromise that accepted Jim Crow laws, advocated mechanical education and some opportunity for blacks, and trusted to time to lessen prejudice (though apparently he was also quietly funding civil rights cases).   DuBois thought this would simply ossify the situation and wanted more action, especially classical education for the most talented people; he called them the "talented tenth" and envisioned a class of elite black leaders who would raise their brethren up too.  Here he explains why and what he wants.

DuBois also spends a whole lot of time talking about how things got the way they were in 1903, and he does a really wonderful job at it.  His essay on Reconstruction and the Freedmen's Bureau is just excellent, and so is the essay on how sharecropping worked and how the system developed.  I thought those were fascinating, as were his thoughts on how religion has developed and affected people in the South.

These essays had quite an impact.  James Weldon Johnson (author of Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which I'm also reading) said that its importance was comparable to Uncle Tom's Cabin.  DuBois' more vocal position on civil rights (as opposed to Washington's) became more popular after violent racial incidents in 1906.

I was very impressed with DuBois.  I'll plan to have my kids read him in high school; I should think this is one of the more important books to read for American history.



I didn't know when I started this book that it would be important to know more about Booker T. Washington than I do.  I'll have to learn more about him and read Up From Slavery.  And I've been told that Langston Hughes' collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, is something of a response to DuBois' book, so I ought to read that too.

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