Key Issues in W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk
The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B.
DuBois, is a compilation of essays written by DuBois and first published in 1903. In these essays, DuBois covers many of the problems that he sees in the lives of African American people. These multitude of problems can be summed up into one issue, “the problem of the color-line” (DuBois 1994, 9).
DuBois sees this “color-line” as the root of difficulties for his race reaching back to the days of the Civil War, but he claims to really see it take hold in the era that he published his book, the early twentieth century (DuBois 1994, 9). Through his collection of essays, DuBois allows the reader to see multiple events pertaining to the lives of African Americans through his eyes, and paints the history of black struggles in ways that might not have been clear to someone who had not been so close to them.
DuBois chose to begin each of his essays with a “sorrow song,” a line or two of music that “welled up from black souls in the dark past” (DuBois 1994, 1). These bits of song give the tone for each of the essays. DuBois speaks of being “a problem” to the white world around him, but he sees major issues in his time that keep people thinking of him as “a problem” (DuBois 1994, 2). These issues are those of “work, culture, and liberty,” (DuBois 1994, 6), things that DuBois does not see coming easily to his people.
At the time, they lacked the right to vote, many lacked adequate schooling, and the “emancipation” granted in the Civil War era had not led to anything resembling true freedom (DuBois 1994, 6). An example of this lack of freedom is illustrated in the chapter, “Of The Black Belt.” This particular essay gives the reader the view from a traveling buggy in early twentieth century Georgia (DuBois 1994, 53). Due to recession after the war, most of the land has been abandoned by the previously wealthy owners, and is being rented to the African Americans who are willing to work on it (DuBois 1994, 53).
These African Americans live in broken down plantations houses, barely fit for inhabitation, but still must pay exorbitant rents to the people who previously lived there (DuBois 1994, 53). On top of the out of control rents, no amount of money that the African Americans pay ensures them of ever owning any home or land (DuBois 1994, 60). The work they had done on the land over the years quite often ended up sold to a white person, not matter how much the African American had paid on it (DuBois 1994, 61).
Most of them are destitute, for all the money they make from growing crops goes into the hands of their landlords (DuBois 1994, 57). For a few older people, these landlords are their former owners. DuBois does not see this as freedom in any way. In fact, in the chapter “Of the Quest for the Golden Fleece” he is critical of the Emancipation due to the fact that it turned out so many slaves on their own, slaves who had not thought past being freed, and eventually caused them to come back to their former owners in order to have food and a place to live (DuBois 1994, 66).
Another issue that DuBois finds relevant to the problem of the “color line” is the general lack of higher educational options, or “culture,” for the African American. In “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” DuBois gives the credit for a lot of this problem to Booker T. Washington and his plan of “Negroes (surviving) through submission” (DuBois 1994, 27). Washington’s plan was threefold. In it, African Americans should give up, “at least for the present: political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth” (DuBois 1994, 27).
Washington believed that these things could be accomplished later, but “compromise” would further the Negro cause at the time. DuBois was very much opposed to this system, stating that it caused, “the disfranchisement, the legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority, and the steady withdrawal of aid from institutions of higher training for the Negro” (DuBois 1994, 27). He questioned any plan that would continue holding back his race, saying that Washington was hindering by bringing up the old “attitude of adjustment and submission” (DuBois 1994, 26).
Another problem point for DuBois was the lack of liberty that his people had. For example, in the chapter “On The Coming of John,” DuBois tells the tale of a young African American man who strived to get past the “veil”and make something of himself. At first he was a poor student, but he refocused after being kicked out of school and came back with a real desire to learn. This learning, however, made him aware of the many things that he was excluded from.
He “noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before,” was angry when people did not call him “mister,” and was offended at having to ride in the “Jim Crow” cars (DuBois 1994, 95). The story continues on with the young man facing racism at every turn. The essay ends with the young man having exerted liberty by saving a young Negro woman from an amorous white man, whom he kills, but the liberty of action came at a price. As we leave the tale, the young man is sitting calmly at the site of the crime, waiting for the lynch mob he hears from far away to come get him (DuBois 1994, 102). The message that the tale conveys is that the lack of liberty to take part in the white world in bound to lead to disenchantment and anger for those held behind the “veil” (DuBois, 1994, 95).
DuBois tackles the topic of African American religion in the chapter, “Of the Faith of the Fathers.” He explains the roots of Negro religions on the plantations. They were more likely to be pagan and voodoo like, because that is what most of them were taught in their native lands (DuBois 1994, 84). It took the impressions of missionaries and plantation owners to give the religion a “veneer of Christianity,” and it took several generations for the Negroes to come to a following of authentic Christianity (DuBois 1994, 84).
However, DuBois has a problem with how Christianity came to be presented to the slave population. Whereas the “voodoo” type religions had “deepened and strengthened” the slaves, Christianity was manipulated by the plantation owners to weaken them (DuBois 1994, 84-85). In DuBois’ opinion, the Negro had been so run down that he was “losing the joy of this world” and “(eagerly) seizing upon the offered conceptions of the next” (DuBois 1994, 85). The Negroes became “fatalistic,” and with that fatalism came the traits of “shiftlessness” and “hopelessness” (DuBois 1994, 85).
When they became free, many turned their religion into an idea of “revenge” (DuBois, 1994, 85). The “Coming of the Lord” was looked for, and people pledged to die before going back to slavery (DuBois 1994, 86). There was also an idea that the slave owners would get their punishment when the Lord came, so the event was highly anticipated. At the time DuBois was writing, religion had split into two sectors for the Negro. Northern blacks held a vengeful ideal, and Southern blacks fell into “hypocritical compromise” (DuBois 1994, 87). Neither were ideal, and DuBois closed with the hope that there would be an “awakening” and “the real Negro heart” would come “out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and create a new world where the things he desired for his people would not be “for White People Only” (Dubois 1994, 88).
There is much more that could be said about DuBois’ essays, but the main thing that this writer believes that he would want a person to take from his work is the idea that one group of people cannot be subjugated forever. Although some may not want to work for freedom, there are always a few that will want to learn and make a better person out of themselves. Instead of a taste of liberty angering them because they cannot do anything with it, the taste should bring them joy as they are accepted into the new world they have so longed for. DuBois never got to see a world like that, but perhaps one day his descendants, and ours, will.
DuBois, W.E.B. 1994. The souls of black folk. New York: Dover Publications.