W. E. B. Du Bois’ revelatory collection of fourteen essays, The Souls of Black Folk, (amazon) kicks off my year of readings on Black-American culture and history.
*** In this article, I have referred to people of African descent as “black,” “black folk,” or “black people.” After a few conversations with friends of darker skin pigmentation and African heritage, it appears to me that this is the most readily acceptable term. If you have another suggestion, I humbly accept it. ***
As a privileged, white male, my understanding of being “woke” to racial issues rarely extended beyond anything more than an intellectual acknowledgment. Simply put, you do not know what you do not know. How could I deeply understand the soul wrenching effects of racism? The truth is ignorance rarely remains blissful.
Du Bois painted a picture for me. He masterfully laid out the economics of the Jim Crow South, the cultural roots of black people, and the effect of education on the future of black people. After laying out in broad brush strokes the plight of the black community, Du Bois drew me in close to the writhing, conflicted pain of the black individual. Particularly moving was Du Bois’ portrait of John Jones, a college educated, black man returning to his small, Georgian hometown. The journey to define the “self” is difficult no matter who or where you are. But, it is impossible for me to comprehend the self-splitting turmoil in the souls of black folks genuinely seeking out the wholeness of self under the degrading, demeaning Veil of racism.
Worse is the knowledge that such turmoil still exists today.
“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all mean know something of poverty, not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? but that men know so little of men.”
– W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois’ masterful story telling revealed to me more of the person, the individual. More so, though, he invites me into the continual process of knowing the other, of crossing the Veil, of knowing my black brother and sister.
While I found Du Bois’ portraits to be the most moving, his economic and cultural strategy for the improvement of black lives is likewise brilliant and, tragically, relevant today.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois continued his famous argument with another exceptional black leader of the time, Booker T. Washington. To improve the lives of impoverished black folk, Washington led a movement for the creation of industrial, vocational schools, to the exclusion of the traditional university. Washington hoped that by placing the tools of industry into the black individual’s hand, the world would respect that individual, that that individual would speak the language of the world: dollars and cents.
Du Bois responds that just as it is wrong to force the blacksmith to be a scholar, so also is it wrong to force the scholar to be a blacksmith. Perhaps somewhat more controversially, Du Bois goes further to say that rarely are communities lifted by the efforts of the poor to become monied. Rather, communities are lifted by the steady, sustained efforts of the educated individual to improve, to educate, and to equip the his impoverished brethren.
W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk is a beautiful ode to the struggle of black individual’s to make sense of their world, to create meaning and purpose. I have not felt so moved by a book in quite some time. Powerful, poignant, and instructive, The Souls of Black Folk will find its way into my reading schedule again one day.
“Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretense and ostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged, –wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.”
– W. E. B. Du Bois