Short and Sweet Reviews // The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

“Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

// W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk is a classic work of both American literature and of black protest. Written by the historian and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, and first published in 1903, the book is a collection of essays on race and has become one of the most important books concerning the history of race relations in this country.

I first started this book over a year ago but quickly put it back down when I found it to be very different from what I expected. I thought I was going to read something very dry, academic, and full of stats, figures, and facts. Instead, I found something that was full of feeling, more feeling than I was prepared for I suppose. Now a whole year later I’ve picked it back up and this time, I am amazed. This man writes beautifully!

When I was done my mind was blown and I am now a little different than I was before reading it.

I guess it just never occurred to me before to think about the details of what happened after slavery was abolished. How did the children of slaves educate themselves? How did they make a living? And how did they navigate around the hatred they encountered everywhere they went from white people? This book answered a lot of those questions and sparked a desire for me to learn more.

“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

// W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

 

The first essays are the “meat” of the book and talk mostly of “The Veil”, Du Bois’ visual manifestation of the color line and metaphor for all the separates black people from the world and opportunities white people enjoyed. These essays are very informative but it was some of the ones toward the end that I liked the best. His essay on his first born child almost brought me to tears, the story of the two sons left me angry, and the one about slave songs was very interesting and has me searching the internet for old recordings.

I cannot say much more without giving it all away but trust me, this book deserves all the praise it has received. It is a must-read but it isn’t necessarily an easy one. If you come to it with your heart open and the time to really think about what is being said, then by the end you will find yourself more aware and more full of feeling and understanding for the people who suffered in this country during, and just after, the abolishment of slavery.

Read it because it is good, but more than that, read it because it is important for us to know our own history and which direction we must head in the future.

“Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of good duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground.”

// W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

 

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday // W.E.B. Du Bois

Hello dear readers and fellow writers and welcome to Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen at Silver Threading. Each week bloggers share their favorite quotes to motivate and inspire one another to keep writing and working toward our goals. My contribution this week is from the  American author, historian, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

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W.E.B. Du Bois circa 1911

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois (pronounced doo-BOYZ) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868. He grew up in a fairly tolerant and integrated community. He identified himself as “mulatto,” but freely attended school with whites and was enthusiastically supported in his academic studies by his white teachers. In 1885, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow laws. For the first time, he began analyzing the deep troubles of American racism.

He attended Fisk College in Nashville, then earned his BA in 1890 and his MS in 1891 from Harvard. Du Bois studied at the University of Berlin, then earned his doctorate in history from Harvard in 1894. He taught economics and history at Atlanta University from 1897-1910.

Du Bois adamantly opposed the idea of biological white superiority and vocally supported women’s rights. In 1909, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis. 

Du Bois rejected any compromise in his quest for equal rights and political representation for Black people, he wanted nothing less than all America had to offer and believed that the Black intellectual elites he named the Talented Tenth would be crucial in obtaining those rights. He refused to play by the rules White Americans imposed on the Blacks. He would not fall into that trap and instead encouraged a new way where Black people stopped caring what white people thought and start playing their own game.

Du Bois would go on to become a prolific author. His collection of essays,  The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, is a collection of 14 essays, in which he urged black Americans to stand up for their educational and economic rights, was a classic work in African-American literature. His  1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. He wrote the first scientific treatise in the field of sociology; and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics, and history.

He died on August 27, 1963, in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. He was 95 years old.

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

– W.E.B. Du Bois, Criteria of Negro Art

In this quote, Du Bois is speaking about his belief that art should mean something and not just be purely for art’s sake. He hated that White people had been misrepresenting Black people in an unflattering and cruel way, and represented their own race as always good and beautiful. He also hated that black artists  worked so hard not to offend White people in their own art. He believed Black people should no longer critique their arts by white standards and instead create art that counters the current prejudice and tells the story of racism and suffering in America.

Propaganda

noun

information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.

The word propaganda has a lot of negative connotations in most people’s minds. People think of lies, wars, and corrupt governments, but propaganda can be used for good, and it can be used to tell the truth. In Du Bois time art and writing were used to counter misinformation and raise people’s awareness, tolerance, and compassion.

Today the world still needs this kind of art and like Du Bois I believe all art should be propaganda. I have no use for things that are just “pretty to look at”. I have no use for art that doesn’t make me feel or see something I haven’t before, or doesn’t remind me of a part of myself I have forgotten.

All artist and writers should strive to tell a truth about the world, correct a wrong they see, or counter a conventional, yet incorrect or harmful belief. Du Bois meant specifically the belief that “all things white were good” and “all things black were bad”, but what about “women always say ‘no’ when they really mean ‘yes””, or “all gay people are perverted”? What about “all Muslims are terrorists” or “racism doesn’t exist anymore”?

Artists and writers should be working to make the world greater through their work. They don’t have to tackle big issues, even a small contribution is worthy. A personal story that sheds light on the parts of our lives we are ashamed to talk about or that illustrates the immense love that can be found in a family is something I would consider good and beautiful. I talk about my little life with my girlfriend and my pets, but I want to show that even the ordinary should be seen as wonderful and rare. I want to show that each of us is something and that we all deserve happiness. My art has a meaning.

Art should always spread information and ideas about what is good, bad, beautiful, and right and wrong. It should raise awareness and tell a truth about the world. It should shine light wherever darkness and evil still prevail.

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Goodreads, and Biography.com

Writer’s Quote Wednesday – W.E.B. Du Bois

In honor of Black History Month this weeks Writer’s Quote Wednesday is dedicated to the great W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois (born William Edward Burghardt) was a historian, a civil rights activist, an author and editor, and so much more. He was one of the first Black men to earn a doctorate, and later became a professor at Atlanta University and was one of the co-founders of the NAACP in 1909. He was a great man and is considered a great figure in African-American history.

I fear my little post on this little blog will not do him, nor even his quote, justice.

One of my New Year resolutions was to read more books this year and so I decided for Black History Month I would read only black authors. I chose Du Bois The Souls of Black Folks as my first book and although I am not very far into it yet I can tell you that is a beautiful collection of essays. It was first published in 1903 and is a “landmark book and a founding work in the literature of black protest”.

I feel as though it is nothing short of a work of art. I plan to read it many times over and I get the feeling with every read I will learn something new.

As to the quote, while it seems like such a small quote, the meaning behind it is so big and so deep that I know both my limited understanding and ability to write well are going to diminish it’s power. I will try anyway though because when I read it something happened to me, a light went off in my head. I knew I had read something quite profound but I didn’t quite know what it meant.

I’ll share the context with you for the full effect:

“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 6 (“Of the Training of Black Men”)

Here Du Bois is talking both about the what education means for Black people, and condemning White Americans for trying to keep Black people from becoming educated. The former issue is the one that spoke to me the most. To me the quote was saying that through reading and education we can all escape the veil of oppression and racism, both in our own minds, and together, as a race.

The great authors do not care whether you are black or white, or male or female, or rich or poor. They only exist now to teach us all something of the past and of human nature. When we educate ourselves and learn their work we can find our own way of voicing our experiences and one day teaching others something of the past and of human nature, no matter whether they are black or white, or male or female, or rich or poor.

I am probably not understanding it fully but that is what the quote says to me. Du Bois put it in a way that sounds beautiful and powerful. He makes me want to go spend the day at the library reading the classics. I can picture myself sitting with Shakespeare and walking with Dumas and Aristotle, it sounds like such an amazing thing. To be among the great authors, where we can all be equal.

The greats do not care who you are or where you come from. Seek them out, learn from them, then go teach others.