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?