"The Souls of Black Folk,” by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903
The story of WEB Du Bois is familiar. Born in Massachusetts just after the Civil War, the first black man to get a PHD from Harvard; studied in Europe; essayist and activist, founder of the NAACP in 1909, later joining the Communist Party and emigrated to Ghana in the early 60s, where he died. He is buried in Accra.
The trajectory of his life is a gradual radicalization of his politics and attitude towards racism in the U.S. He concluded it would never go away under capitalism and renounced his U.S. citizenship.
This book still resonates more than a 100 years later because the situation has not fundamentally changed for people of color in the U.S. The book reflects that early period in Du Bois’ life when he, as an educated black person, attempted to ‘uplift’ his people while all the time denouncing their oppression. In this book he is still optimistic that some kind of rapprochement with the southern racists is possible. But he clearly realizes that the system wants black people to have no political representation. He says, “the South…is simply an armed camp for intimidating black folk.” Given the present rebellions against nationwide police murders of black people and the absence of a black political party or real power nationally, nothing has fundamentally changed for the black proletariat.
Du Bois opposed both Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, the latter in a famous essay in this collection. Washington had traded not making waves over Jim Crow or forced labor for ‘industrial education’ – limiting the opportunities of black people to trade schooling. It is not possible to read this essay and conclude that we don’t have our own modern “Booker T Washingtons” in the caste of upper-middle class black politicians, chiefly Barrack Obama. Du Bois coined the phrase ‘the talented tenth,’ which later black intellectuals like Franklin Frazier and Harold Cruse called the ‘black bourgeoisie.’ Cornel West has just written a book called “Black Prophetic Fire” addressing the very question of political differences among black leaders, difference which really reflect class approaches.
In a way, Malcolm X adopted a similar approach to Du Bois while in the Black Muslims – self-improvement and a militant anti-racism. He, too, started to leave this approach behind, moving towards socialism. The strain solely focusing on ‘self-improvement’ and moralistic scolding of black people still continues through prominent people like Bill Cosby and Obama. Not to mention a whole strata of right-wing Black Republicans, businesmen and church preachers.
These essays mix sociology, history, flights of sophisticated literary writing, fiction, political polemics, political recommendations (a ‘permanent Freedman’s Bureau’) and reminiscences of Du Bois’ times in Tennessee and Atlanta. Du Bois has two excellent chapters on Dougherty County in south-eastern Georgia, a ‘buckle’ of the Black Belt. He describes exactly how the black tenant serf cotton economy actually worked - the 'crop-lien' system. It perpetuated never-ending debt to the local white businessman and landlords, and subsequent poverty and ignorance. Dubois estimated that around 95% of the black people in this county were rural ‘peasants’ or hired hands and did not own land.
Du Bois uses the phrase ‘the Veil’ to describe the barrier separating black people in the U.S. from normal American life. He speaks at every moment of the ‘double consciousness’ of being both black and an ostensible citizen. Du Bois investigates the black Church – about the only space black people could feel safe - and black music (‘sorrow songs’), one of the first to do so. His most famous quote from the book - "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.' Today, the color line and the class line are inextricably mixed, yet still distinct, in every country in the globe.
This book is essential reading to understand the long history of black radical thought in the U.S.
"Souls of Black Folk" and ‘Black Prophetic Fire’ are for sale at Mayday. A review of Du Bois book on "John Brown" is below, along with other reviews of books on the South and black oppression. Use blog search box, upper left.
December 13, 2014