This is the third year in which I have participated in Black History Month (February) by reading a book by an African American author. Past books were 50 Years and Other Poems, by James Weldon Johnson, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.
I might mention that this is one area in which my education was lacking, though this was not due so much to a hostility toward Black History as to a neglect of the issues of the Twentieth Century. The World Wars and the Cold War took up most of the available textbook space, so many of the cultural issues were given no more than a quick mention. Sure, Martin Luther King Jr. was mentioned, and Du Bois and Malcolm X, but detailed treatments were not provided. I did, however, get a good background in the Civil War. My mom made sure that I read books about the Underground Railroad, lynchings, and the Jim Crow era. I think I fared a little better in Literature in that I was at least exposed to Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and others of the Harlem Renaissance. However, as in the case of History, little time was given to works after the 1940s.
Whatever the case, it has been enlightening and fascinating to come to this material later in life. The great debates regarding the Race Question still rage today, and the after effects of slavery and segregation continue to be an important facet of our society, whether we admit it or not.
The Civil War ended in 1865. More or less immediately, the Ku Klux Klan was founded, and proceeded to terrorize and murder the recently freed blacks - and those politicians that supported their rights. As historian Eric Foner noted in A Short History of Reconstruction:
In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired restoration of white supremacy. Its purposes were political, but political in the broadest sense, for it sought to affect power relations, both public and private, throughout Southern society. It aimed to reverse the interlocking changes sweeping over the South during Reconstruction: to destroy the Republican party's infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control of the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life.
(Recall that until Richard Nixon adopted the “Southern Strategy” of pursuing the votes of white southerners, it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, that opposed slavery and segregation and supported civil rights laws.)
Three years later, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born. Du Bois was raised as a free Black in Massachusetts, by his mother, after his father abandoned the family. He excelled academically and eventually became the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard. After earning his degree, he taught history and economics at Atlanta University, which was then a Black College.
Later, he would found the NAACP and become the preeminent spokesman for the early Civil Rights Movement.
Later in his long life, Du Bois became frustrated with the slow progress in integration and civil rights, and gave up on the United States. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party, renounced his United States Citizenship, and moved to Ghana. All at the age of 93. Although he failed to live long enough to see the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, he came close. (He also missed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech by mere months.)
As I discovered in this book, Du Bois was highly educated, well read, and a scintillating and passionate writer. Du Bois is in many ways an outsider to his cause. Neither he nor his parents were slaves. He received an education. He was, in the usual sense, a member of the upper middle class. However, his work among the freedmen of Georgia gave him a window into the real lives of those struggling to rise from poverty and prejudice.
This book contains a combination of essays originally published in other formats and some new and more personal chapters. It was first published as a whole in 1903, at a time when the supposed racial inferiority of African Americans was taken for granted in popular culture and academic discourse. At that time, Thomas Dixon’s white supremacist ode to the KKK, The Clansman was a best selling work. While many things have changed for the better, it is interesting to note that many of the same arguments about racial inferiority keep rearing their ugly heads in today’s discourse. Thus, I believe that this book remains an important work - one that should be read by anyone who cares about justice for all, not just for the powerful.
In the first chapter, Du Bois lays out the struggle that African Americans faced (and face, for that matter.
He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
And, no matter how much some seek to deny it, prejudice is still alive. From the studies that have shown that a “White” sounding name on a job application will receive more interviews than an identical application with a “Black” sounding name, to the instances of everyday prejudice that I hear of from my African American friends - and see for myself. Even here in relatively liberal California. This quote from the same chapter sounds like it could have been written today.
A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems. But alas! while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races.
The author makes another point which seems particularly relevant today, in light of the rise of Neo-Confederacy and the Secessionist movements which seem to pipe up whenever a Democrat wins an election.
THE PROBLEM of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict.
I have had this argument with a acquaintance or two. Usually, there will be a claim that it was all about “States’ Rights.” But a right to do what, exactly? Oh yeah, to enslave African Americans. Or at least make them use separate drinking fountains.
During his lifetime, the author had something of a running debate with another luminary of the era, Booker T. Washington, whose autobiography, Up From Slavery is also a key book that should be read by all. The disagreement was not about the ultimate goal, which was to achieve equality for African Americans, but about how each thought it best to achieve that goal. Washington sought first to achieve economic equality through vocational education - and founded the Tuskegee Institute to accomplish that goal. Du Bois felt that it was more important to demand from the nation three things: the right to vote, civic equality, and the education of youth according to ability. Washington did not exactly disagree with these points, but felt that those would come after economic equality.
As much as I admire Washington, I think that Du Bois makes a good point that without equality of educational opportunity, there would be no one to teach the black race the necessary skills. And without political and social equality, the racist element in the white South would continue to deny the necessary funding and support for education.
Indeed, this was a real problem at the time. Beginning with R. L. Dabney, the influential Confederate chaplain, there were many vehemently opposed to any use of public funds for the education of African Americans, claiming that it took the very food out of the mouths of white children.
Additionally, there remained the problem of who would teach them. Southern whites refused to have integrated schools, and indeed to teach outside their own race. Southern blacks largely lacked the education to teach - a true chicken and egg dilemma. A few charitably minded Northern whites came south to teach in black schools, but they were too few to meet the need.
The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South. It not only called the schoolmistresses through the benevolent agencies and built them schoolhouses, but it helped discover and support such apostles of human culture as Edmund Ware, Samuel Armstrong, and Erastus Cravath. The opposition to Negro education in the South was at first bitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, and blood; for the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.
The whole chapter on education is worth quoting, and I think that, quite apart from the question of race, Du Bois makes a compelling argument for higher education in general.
From my perspective in the Twenty-first Century, it would seem that while the right to vote and some degree of educational opportunity have been largely achieved, economic and social equality remain elusive for many.
There are so many other facets of this book that I would love to explore, from the peculiar anti-Semitism stemming from the corporate exploitation of the South to thoughts on finding a purpose in life as a young man. His discussion of the link between poverty and broken families also seems relevant today when there continues to be an argument over which is the cause and which is the effect. I found the final chapter on Negro Spirituals fascinating as a musician as well as a student of history. The hardest chapter to read was the one where Du Bois tells of the death of his infant son from diphtheria. There was no African American doctor in the area, and no white doctor would treat a black child. So he went from laughing, to merely smiling, to trying to smile, to unable to smile, and then he was gone. As a parent, it was a knife in the heart.
Perhaps, though, this book serves to remind us of how inseparable the history of the United States is from the heritage of slavery. As the author points out, the first slaves landed at Jamestown in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Since that time, three conflicting thoughts have been swirled together in the minds of both white and black. A belief in the unity of the human race, the idea of the inferiority of the black race, and the cry for freedom from those not quite sure of their right to demand it.
And what is the way forward? For the judge in “Of the Coming of John,” the answer is segregation and subordination.
“Well, John, I want to speak to you plainly. You know I ’m a friend to your people. I’ve helped you and your family, and would have done more if you hadn’t got the notion of going off. Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land. Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northern notions, going to accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were,—I knew your father, John, he belonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well—well, are you going to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks’ heads, and make them discontented and unhappy?”
The effects of prejudice, as the author puts it, “cannot be laughed away, nor always successfully stormed at, nor easily abolished by act of legislature. And yet they must not be encouraged by being let alone. They must be recognized as facts, but unpleasant facts; things that stand in the way of civilization and religion and common decency.”
Du Bois, offers an intriguing plea. He asks, not for money, for alms, but for friendship, love, and sympathy. He asks for a direct mingling of the races at the level of community and intellectual life. For those who have a heritage of learning and success to be personally involved in the raising up of those who still carry the heritage of slavery and oppression.
The author notes that instead, the temptation is to dismiss the African American race as hopeless, and stop trying.
The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of today are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization.
What is Du Bois' alternative, then?
It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.
And finally, in words that would later be echoed by Martin Luther King Jr., and by all of us who dream of a world without racism, “sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.”
Note: The complete text of The Souls of Black Folk is available for free online here. I encourage you to make this your February reading project.