Life in the veil. This is the encapsulation of WEB Dubois’ seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, on what it’s like to live as a Black person in these United States. Sadly, though the book was published in 1903, it is relevant these hundred and eighteen years later as Black Americans continue struggling to be, in Dubois’ own words, ‘a negro and an American.’ Here’s my disclaimer: As a white man in America, I understood very little of this book, except that my race bears a considerable blame for its contents & conclusions.
Dubois begins the book with a simple, yet profound question: How does it feel to ‘be a problem.’ As a white person in America, this was an unusual query for me, simply because, unless we’re in trouble for some reason, or unable to accomplish a task, or lag behind our peers, we whites are never subjected to this feeling; we’re never assumed to ‘be’ a problem. Our Black friends and neighbors feel it their entire lives, simply because of the color of their skin.
Dubois writes of another sense that separates his race from whites, what he refers to as ‘second sight,’ that is, Black peoples’ constant sense that they must see themselves not for themselves, but as white people see them. They must always look at themselves through our eyes. And the message Black people often find in that sight is—don’t forget this was written 118 years ago—’the other world which does not know, and does not wish to know our power.’
He continues, unashamed and unapologetic, in calling America to task for its serial disappointments regarding Black citizens: The Atlanta compromise; the Freedmen’s Bureau and its lost promise; the on-going violence against Blacks across America, despite the 14th amendment, and on, and on….
Dubois is not shy about calling his contemporaries to task: He writes of the controversy surrounding Booker T. Washington, and his degradation of Blacks, in Dubois’ opinion, and the former’s efforts to build Tuskegee Institute. He writes also of the on-going antipathy among Blacks for Jewish people, accusing them of assisting the white race in keeping Black people subservient.
In another section reminiscent of today’s headlines, particularly those emanating from Georgia, Dubois writes about voting, and those who would make the act of voting more difficult. Since emancipation, Black churches have served in many ways to benefit their members. One of those services has been as a gathering place, a sort of circling the wagons kind of place prior to heading out for the polls. This is why, 118 years after this book came out, it is no surprise that a new legislative initiative in the south proposes an end to so called ‘souls to the polls,’ efforts. History is indeed circular.
He writes further about chain gangs in the south, and prison labor as nothing more than enslavement by another means in order to create work crews for menial tasks that the state would prefer not to have to pay for.
But mostly he writes about his title: The souls of Black folk. And the theme he returns to, time after time, is how resilient and hopeful his people are, in spite of everything they’ve undergone in America since 1619. In the author’s words, ‘there has always been the temptation to despair, when all we wanted was to be a negro…and an American.’