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Book review: “The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du  Bois

Rereading The Souls of Black Folks, I am struck by the sheer chutzpah of W.E.B. Du Bois in putting together this collection of essays and sketches.  Actually, “chutzpah” is too light-hearted a word.

It was courageous of Du Bois to address head-on “the problem of the color line” in America at the dawn of the 20th century — audacious, even dangerous.  Black people were lynched for far less.  Indeed, in 1903, the year he published the book, and the three previous years, an average of 95 African Americans were violently tortured and killed throughout the South, often in a festival-like atmosphere.

Born in 1868 in Great Barrington in far western Massachusetts, of Dutch, African and English ancestry, Du  Bois was living in the Deep South, teaching at Atlanta University, when his book was published.

The Souls of Black Folk was extraordinary when published and remains a key document of American literature today.

The mantle of authority

In it, a Black man lectured white America about the realities of the color line — “the Veil” — particularly the southern states.  This, at a time when the white majority expected, demanded, Blacks to be quiet, humble and subservient.

Nonetheless, the 35-year-old Du Bois writes as if he has full authority to lecture white America. That’s because he has done unprecedented, in-depth research and is able to trot out statistics to support his assertions. And also because he can weave in a wealth of anecdotal information from his own experience and from ethnographic studies he has carried out.

Even more, Du Bois takes on the mantle of authority because, like the white scholars he emulates and competes with, he has synthesized all of this material, and, using logic and rhetoric, he has laid out the facts in a manner that makes them undeniable.  (His style which can sound stilted to modern ears was the language of scholarship of his era.)

Cry from the heart

White scholars were only just then starting to do the sort of sociological research that Du Bois exhibits in The Souls of Black Folks.   And no white scholar had looked closely and with objectivity at the lives of African Americans.  For Du Bois, this was a second such book, the first being The Philadelphia Negro, a local study, published in 1899.

The Souls of Black Folks took on a much larger subject — the state of African Americans and what needed to be done to help these Black millions, still handicapped by the legacy of having been slaves or the children of slaves and the repression of an unsympathetic white population.  His was an economic argument — the nation will prosper if Blacks can prosper — but, even more, it was a moral one.

In addition to his statistics and ethnographic reporting, Du Bois infused his book with a carefully modulated, yet nonetheless searing, cry from the heart against the unfairness of the lives that he and other Blacks were forced to live.

Through his book, Du Bois directly influenced the national discussion of race, injecting into the often one-sided, ill-informed talk of whites a jolt of reality. 

Telling the Black story

In an era when many whites were seeking to impose their own definitions on Blacks — to tell Blacks who they were and how they should act — Du Bois was a Black telling the Black story.

And he was telling this story with a scholarly weight and a moral strength that counterbalanced the go-along, rock-no-boat philosophy of the most prominent American Black of the time, Booker T. Washington.  Du Bois wasn’t going along with anyone, and he was rocking every boat.

In The Souls of Black Folks, he opened a door into the lives of African Americans in a way no other had every done and in a way that couldn’t be ignored. 

“Talent tenth”

There are aspects of The Souls of Black Folk that will sound odd or uncomfortable to the modern reader.

For instance, Du Bois was the creator and popularizer of the term “Talented Tenth,” to refer to the top ten percent of the Black population, the most educated, most affluent and most successful Blacks. 

He uses the term only once in The Souls of Black Folk but makes other references to the idea of a leadership group with talents far and above those of the average African American. 

For instance, in an essay in which Du Bois criticizes attempts to provide higher education to Blacks who weren’t able to handle it, he writes:

And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite.

Even more to the point, he writes that, “of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig.”

“Patent weaknesses and shortcomings”

Du Bois, like the white scholars of America in that era, was an elitist.  For instance, he writes:

I should be the last one to deny the patent weaknesses and shortcomings of the Negro people; I should be the last to withhold sympathy from the white South in its efforts to solve its intricate social problems….I have already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was…

He is describing here the former Black slaves immediately after Emancipation, but he sees many contemporary Blacks similarly weak and in need of guidance. 

Such assertions are, in part, strategic.  He knows that whites will point to the low level of Black education and success as proof of inferiority.  So, Du Bois acknowledges the shortcomings of Black in order to point out some of the reasons behind it:

[T]o leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North, — of the North than of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.

“Entrap and ensnare”

Du Bois argues that the organized and methodic suppression of Blacks in the South has stifled their ambition and hope and energy.  The crop-lien system, driving Blacks off the land, he writes, “is not simply the result of shiftlessness on the part of Negroes, but is also the result of cunningly devised laws as to mortgages, liens, and misdemeanors, which can be made by conscienceless men to entrap and snare the unwary until escape is impossible, further toil a farce, and protest a crime.”

Indeed, in another essay, Du Bois writes of two young Black men who appear “shiftless.”  But he asserts:

They are careless because they have not found that it pays to be careful; they are improvident because the improvident ones of their acquaintance get on about as well as the provident. Above all, they cannot see why they should take unusual pains to make the white man’s land better, or to fatten his mule, or save his corn.

“Bonds of intimacy and affection”

Du Bois equates the educated and successful Blacks of 1903 with those slaves who worked in the master’s house as cooks, maids and manservants. 

He lays out how, under contemporary housing patterns, rich whites lived away from Black neighborhoods while affluent Blacks often found themselves near white slums with the result that “the best of the whites and the best of the Negroes almost never live in anything like close proximity.”

This is much different, Du Bois writes, than how it was during slavery “when, through the close contact of master and house-servant in the patriarchal big house, one found the best of both races in close contact and sympathy, while at the same time the squalor and dull round of toil among the field-hands was removed from the sight and hearing of the family.”

Not only that, but Du Bois writes here and elsewhere in The Souls of Black Folk about the fondness shared between Black house slaves and the white people they served:

Before and directly after the war, when all the best of the Negroes were domestic servants in the best of the white families, there were bonds of intimacy, affection, and sometimes blood relationship, between the races. They lived in the same home, shared in the family life, often attended the same church, and talked and conversed with each other.

I do not know enough of the history to know how valid such assertions are.  I do know that there would be many scholars and laypeople today who would be likely to look askance at any statements that whites and Black slaves had affection for each other.

Nonetheless, it is significant that Du Bois, in this first deep discussion of American racism, includes such assertions, less than 40 years after Emancipation.  He certainly would have had a chance to talk with many former slaves.

“Of the Passing of the First-Born”

The most moving of the 14 chapters in The Souls of Black Folk is “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” Du Bois’s account of the death of his 18-month-old son, Burghardt Gomer Du Bois.

How beautiful he was, with his olive-tinted flesh and dark gold ringlets, his eyes of mingled blue and brown, his perfect little limbs, and the soft voluptuous roll which the blood of Africa had moulded into his features!

This son of his, Du Bois writes, was “the dream of my black fathers” and, in the child’s voice, the father heard “the voice of the Prophet that was to rise within the Veil.”

This story of his son is, at heart, a story of the Veil — the division between the white and Black worlds. 

When the baby dies, Du Bois is heart-broken. So heart-broken that the boy’s death brings him a horrible joy, “an awful gladness,” when viewed through the evil of the Veil:

[M]y soul whispers ever to me saying, “Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.” No bitter meanness now shall sicken his baby heart till it die a living death, no taunt shall madden his happy boyhood.

Fool that I was to think or wish that this little soul should grow choked and deformed within the Veil! …. Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you.

This, to my mind, is the true measure of the Veil behind which Du Bois and other Blacks lived — and today’s version of the Veil for all African Americans.  That death can breed such ugly happiness is an indictment of all white oppression.

That the Veil can breed such a prayer as Du Bois says as his chapter ends:

Sleep, then, child, — sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet — above the Veil.

Patrick T. Reardon


For a review I wrote in 2019, click here.

For my review of a related book, click here.

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