The Souls of Black Folks
W.E.B. Du Bois
I excel at avoidance. If there’s something I ought to do I am a world-class adept at finding almost anything else. That extends to the things I ought to read. The untouched stacks in my hideaway library stand mute testimony to my avoidance skills.
Which is why it’s humbling to read something and come away realizing I was a damn fool for not getting to it sooner. There’s simply no excuse taking decades to get around to this American classic.
William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois is about as American as you can get starting with his moniker. That Franco-German combination strikes me as unlikely in 19th century Europe. And of course, the pronunciation is about as non-European as you can get: doo Boyz. Du Bois was born in rural Massachusetts (Great Barrington, actually) and spent a lot of time in the South–Tennessee and Georgia primarily– before winding up in New York.
Living to age 95, DuBois saw America from Reconstruction through the start of the Civil Rights Movement and a shift from agrarian/rural to industrial /technological society. That’s quite a journey and I don’t think for all our gadgets any of us will ever experience a transformation quite like it.
DuBois was an intellectual and an advocate for full civic equality for black Americans. He’s another one of those guys, like Alexander Hamilton, who seemed to never sleep and consequently got a lot done. He graduated from Fisk, and Harvard earning the first PhD awarded to an African-American by that school. He helped found the NAACP. He was a pan-Africanist, founder and, for many years, editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine and a couple of other magazines. Oh, and he was a scholar, conducting some of the first in-depth studies of Negro communities in the United States.
The Souls of Black Folks, published in 1903, is the book that established DuBois as a public figure. And in some ways you might call it a found book. I say that because whole chunks of it had appeared previously in publications like The Atlantic Monthly. There is, evidently, some new material. And there was enough editorial work done to make it all hang together and flow. But it wasn’t written and conceived as a whole. One of the neat techniques Du Bois used to thread it together was to open each chapter with an epigram and 8 bars or so of the music of a spiritual. It’s a subtle yet powerful way of linking the patrimonies.
Found or not, it’s a powerful book. The chapter on the Freedman’s Bureau, the Federal government‘s response to the realization that something had to be done for the suddenly emancipated population in the conquered South, did more to convince me of slavery’s consequences than any later 20th century advocate ever has.
That subject served as DuBois’ thesis and so was fertile ground in the way that only home turf can be. But there’s much more. A few chapter s linger on summers in Tennesee or Georgia and I was reminded of the luminous things Jean Toomer did with purple light and red Georgia clay later on. (Toomer, it turns out, was one of the Harlem Renaissance figures DuBois helped develop and promote.)
There are also chapters that read like sociology. Some are rife with statistics, some with projections, all in the service of solving what DuBois famously referred to as the negro problem. (That is not the band Stew was in before he went solo but a book by DuBois the band was evidently named after.)
Reading the chapters on the black belt I had one of those dismaying encounters I am learning to take in stride. The first of these was discovering, after complaining for some time of the credentialed class , that Randall Collins had already written a book on the subject. So you can imagine how I, the self-conceived inventor of drive-by-ethnography, felt to discover DuBois writing of automobile-based sociology at a time when cars were a novelty.
There is even a highly personal chapter on the death of his son. Death seems to find me no matter where I am and this was no exception. I didn’t see it coming and I reacted as I almost always do, stopping in my tracks, considering the enormity of any human being’s passing and its impact. Death seems to bring out something in any writer who dares dance with it and there I found myself, 112 years later, tearing up in sympathy with DuBois and his wife.
Throughout DuBois never loses sight of his goal–establishing the rational basis for full equality for black Americans in the era of Jim Crow. Maybe the best thing I can say is that for long stretches I was so immersed in what I was reading that I didn’t think of DuBois as anything but the writer at hand. I took in the facts and perceptions and exhortations without dwelling on the color of his skin.
Maybe that’s a failure. I’m not saying I was unaware of it, just that I was able to read without consciously reminding myself the author was a black man. I gather this isn’t always the case. In his introduction to this volume John Edgar Wideman speaks of the revelation he felt, on reading this book , that someone else had felt just like him.
I suppose that’s the gap we can only hope to overcome. I like to think that I can,as Dr King said, judge a man by the content of his character. I like to think I did that in reading this book. But I’ll never know what DuBois or Wideman or any other African-American experiences.
At least, though, I can know that theirs. too, is the human (and American) experience.