literature / modernity / OTTW / politics

OTTW: The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Dubois is one of those writers whom people seem to have read at some point, no matter their academic interest. But have you ever read him closely, savoring every word? I read Dubois in high school and was struck by the force of his content. But this second time around, it’s his language itself that stays with me. It’s beautiful.

This is a long excerpt, but none of my previous weekly features have had the same urgency that I feel after reading Dubois’ pieces. Henry Louis Gates Jr., along with other Dubois scholars, calls his writing “prophetic”. This prophetic quality was certainly applicable to the 20th century, as Dubois himself wrote, but it casts itself forward into the 21st century as well. Thankfully we’ve moved past the moment of claims like “I don’t see color” as a form of political correctness–I think understanding race involves an ever-present awareness of history’s lingering presence.

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From The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feel his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. 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.

This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten…

This is obviously not to argue that Dubois’ claims of black consciousness can be read forward directly into our 21st century moment. But his writing has a lingering power to crystallize some of the problems still swirling around our political and racial discourse today, especially that piercing first paragraph.

Bonus beauty from “The Forethought” of Souls:

Leaving, then, the world of the white man, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,–the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls. All this I have ended with a tale twice told but seldom written…And finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?

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