Tag Archives: Marilyn Lake

Meeting W E B Du Bois

W E B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, Barnes & Noble Classics 2003)

I got a BA Hons degree in English Literature from a Good Australian University in 1970. Forty years later, it’s as if I’m standing on a hilltop with a view to the horizon in every direction, and all I can see are the boundless plains of my own ignorance. I hope I’ll go to the grave reconciled to the fact that I know almost nothing about anything, but for now I find the condition not so much frustrating as tantalising: so much to learn and only one brain. It may be a kind of information gluttony, but I can’t quite see that there’s anything wrong with it.

Reading W E B  Du Bois was like climbing a little higher up my hill and seeing that my ignorance was even vaster than I imagined.  I knew vaguely that he was an eminent African American scholar who wrote about racism, that he became a Communist. I may have half heard that he renounced his US citizenship in the 1960s. It never occurred to me that I might want to read him until Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds began their Drawing the Global Colour Line with a quote from his ‘The Souls of White Folk’.

The Souls of Black Folk, published a couple of years before that essay, is his best known work. I’m going to assume that I’m not the only person in the world who doesn’t know it well, and tell you that it a passionate and judicious exposition of the condition of ‘Negroes’ in the USA, particularly the South with detailed attention to the ‘Black Belt’ of Georgia, three decades after Emancipation. This centenary edition has an excellent introduction by Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor at Columbia University, who identifies features of the fourteen essays that account for their  status as ‘a founding text of African-American studies’:

its insistence on an interdisciplinary understanding of black life, on historically grounded and philosophically sound analysis, on the scholar’s role as advocate and activist, and on close study of the cultural products of the objects of examination

I would add that the book is beautifully written: all the marshalling of fact, the polemic, the analysis would stand strongly by themselves, but the music of the writing carries them home. And it’s intensely personal. Perhaps the most poignant moment  (poignard means dagger) occurs in the 11th essay, ‘On the Passing of the First-Born’, in his description of his infant son’s funeral procession:

The busy city dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not say much, – they only glanced and said, ‘Niggers!’

In a book that often says we to mean the society as a whole, that consistently speaks to our common humanity, that last word is worth a thousand pictures.

The word racism didn’t exist until the 1930s. Du Bois  talks about ‘the Veil’, sometimes ‘the Veil of race’. Far from being a literary affectation as a contemporary review included in this edition implies, the image communicates powerfully. Du Bois describes himself as living within the Veil; he holds his baby son in his arms and see the shadow of the Veil fall across him; he hopes that for the ‘thousand thousand dark children’ tempted to hate, ‘someone will some day lift the Veil, – will come tenderly and cheerily into those sad little lives and brush the brooding hate away’; he takes joy from Shakespeare, Balzac, Aristotle, because when he is with them, he dwells above the Veil.

There’s an awful lot in this book that’s quotable, an awful lot that could have been written this morning, though it probably would have been couched differently – less reference to classical myth, for instance). The need to communicate through the world’s many Veils is at least as pressing today as in 1903 (not for nothing did the government of the day ban journalists anywhere near the asylum seekers on the Tampa in 2001). Du Bois writes (ignoring the existence of women as he does when generalising though not when attending to specific events):

herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, – who is good? not that men are ignorant, – what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.

But the book is not just about racism or Black folk as victims. It’s about people with souls. In the final essay, he writes:

Your country? How came it yours? 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 two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred 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 gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, – 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?

Drawing the Global Colour Line

Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge University Press 2008)

1colourThis shared the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award (non-fiction category). Otherwise, it hasn’t made much of a splash. I didn’t have to wait in line to get my copy from the local library.

The book starts brilliantly, quoting W E B DuBois’s 1910 essay, ‘The Souls of White Folk’:

the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter indeed. … What is whiteness that one should so desire it? … Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen.

(The whole article was reprinted in the Monthly Review in 2003. He’s a formidable writer, one I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read until now.)

The historical narrative starts with the arrival of an entrepreneurial Chinese man in Melbourne in 1855, two years after the discovery of gold, and ranges around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California, British Columbia, tracing the progress of the ideal of ‘white men’s countries’, and along with it the betrayal of promises made by the British Empire and US to their non-Anglo-Saxon subjects and citizens.

It’s a hard read, especially in the first two sections – ‘Discursive frameworks’ and ‘Transnational solidarities’ – where public intellectuals of more than a hundred years ago solemnly put forward blatantly racist propositions that are still awfully familiar, but with very little of the dog-whistling, denial and misdirection we’re used to these days, and then democracy-loving politicians proceed to build on each other’s successes in excluding and disenfranchising anyone who is classified as not white. We have our noses rubbed in the arrogant and repulsive racist atmosphere in which the Australian Commonwealth and the Union of South Africa were founded and first California and then the rest of the US chose ‘racial solidarity’ even with recent bitter enemies and legislated to keep Asian, particularly Japanese, immigrants away from their shores.

In some ways it’s like a horror story, a sort of I know what you did last century. The scientific consensus reached in the 1940s, that ‘race’ was ‘not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth, which had “created an enormous amount of damage, taking a heavy toll in human lives causing intolerable suffering”,’* followed by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, amounts to the moment where we wake up and discover it was all a terrible dream … or was it? That moment is followed by a long tail, in which the ‘white men’s countries’ one by one open their doors and legislate against racial discrimination, until ‘Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress sweep into power and dismantle the last bastion of white supremacy.’

Sadly, the book lacks the visceral appeal of (I imagine) even very bad horror writing. It marshalls a vast amount of material, and it has hugely enriched my understanding of the White Australia Policy, among other things, but the prose is heavy going, and the authors are often absent except as competent and passionate compilers of evidence. This may well be necessary when there is such a complex field to cover, but it makes me wonder how the arguments went in the judging panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. I know literature is a slippery term, but oughtn’t the quality of the prose (or verse), the way the author’s (or authors’) mind makes itself felt in the work play at least as large a part as the importance of its contents?

The chapter on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 is a rich exception to the prevailing drabness. The Australian Prime Minister, W M Hughes, emerges there as a lively fall-guy cum villain: he vociferous opposes  the Japanese delegation’s diplomatic, courteous and eminently rational push to include a paragraph on racial equality in the covenant of the League of Nations. The other white leaders, who generally despise the uncouth Australian, say that if it was up to them they’d include the paragraph, but you know, the Australians (who didn’t actually have a seat at the table) won’t stand for it … Hughes went to the grave thinking of this as a great victory. Someone ought to make a movie of that chapter.

Let me finish with two shiny factoids. First, when the Australian and New Zealand armies steamed to the Middle East in the First World War, their troopships were protected by the Japanese fleet. (Suck on that, Billy Hughes!) Second, tangential to the book’s main narrative (and incidentally an excellent example of the book’s prose style):

Australia remained constitutionally dependent on Britain and sovereignty remained formally with the monarch, but with effective sovereignty in matters of race, the quest for political independence lost its urgency. Not until 1926, with the Balfour Declaration, did Australia gain full power over foreign relations and the implementation of treaties. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster acknowledged the full statutory independence of the Dominions, but Australia didn’t sign until 1942.

Yet another thing we weren’t told at school!