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"The Souls of Black Folk" (8.20.20)

Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery" was inspirational, thoughtful, and influential in shaping discussions about race in the early 20th century.

Also, a significant number of black people hated it! Well, "hated" might be a strong word. They had substantial issues with Washington's view on the best way forward for black people -- in a nutshell, that the practical thing was to focus on vocational training and economic advancement, which would eventually produce social and legal equality. Critics directly challenged his opinions, and if you skim the history of race relations in the 20th century, you can make a pretty persuasive argument that the critics won out.

The leading critic was W.E.B. DuBois, and the bulk of his argument is laid out in "The Souls of Black Folk" -- published in 1903, two years after Washington's autobiography. DuBois dove into how racism had shaped the economic and mental status of black people, with particular attention on the rural South. And according to many, his beliefs on activism became a foundation for the Civil Rights movement.

I just read "Up From Slavery," so "The Souls of Black Folk" seemed like a good follow-up. Also, it's basically free on Kindle, and with my current employment situation, you can't beat that price. Yeah.

One caveat up front: If you're talking about the opinions of W.E.B DuBois, it's not right to focus only on this book. He was in his mid-30s when "Souls" was published, but he lived until 1963, passing away the day before the "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered. (Booker T. died in 1915, so he wasn't carrying his side of the argument.) DuBois' beliefs evolved over six more decades of observation and activism, so "Souls" is DuBois version 1.0. I won't pretend to have the full context for his life's work. Theoretically I could spend a few days reading philosophy dissertations online, but to be honest, I also want to make time for "The Legend of Zelda."

I can give you a little more context, though: DuBois was born in 1868 in Massachusetts, and by almost any standard he was a brilliant scholar. He first saw the situation in the rural South while working his way through Fisk University in Nashville and teaching in rural schools. He eventually became the first African-American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, and at the time this book was published, he was writing and teaching at Atlanta University. Some descriptions call him a sociologist, but it's fair to call him a historian, an educator, an author and a political organizer. (He co-founded the NAACP six years after this book came out.)

Like "Up From Slavery," "Souls" was cobbled together from previous published works -- DuBois was contributing essays to various magazines and journals, and essays were compiled to create this book. So the ideas are thematically consistent but there's not always a clear flow. DuBois was also a much more florid writer than Washington, with a means of expression that seems a little more Victorian -- some contemporaries accused him of putting on airs or being aloof. Sometimes the writing is extremely moving; other times you have to read a page three times and say, "yeah, I get it, you're smart."

To be fair, he is smart, and he knows how to present a compelling argument. He prefaces his essays with admirable clarity: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" -- the barrier separating blacks from whites spiritually, economically and intellectually. (DuBois also calls this the "veil" through which black people are forced to see, and be seen.) The first essay starts with a haunting question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" What is the state of a person whose existence is viewed by many as a conundrum, rather than existence as a human being?

The rest follows from there. "Souls" is grounded in DuBois' studies as a sociologist, but it's not presented for a purely academic audience. You aren't swimming through an ocean of statistics; instead, he presents his conclusions in narrative form. DuBois takes on some of the negative qualities ascribed to black people and culture, and often sees their roots in slavery. (One example: The collapse of traditional family structures in the black community is a talking point in 2020, but it's not a new concern. In 1903, DuBois theorized that marriages were seen as less permanent among blacks because, you know, for hundreds of years there was no legal marriage among slaves, and if you were married you might wake up any day to find out your spouse had been sold to someone 500 miles away and will never see you again.)

Several of the essays highlight travels through "the Black Belt," rural Southern counties where African Americans were often trapped in a segregated existence as tenant farmers. The economic and social systems that emerged in many counties after emancipation did not favor blacks; instead, they ensnared them in a vicious cycle of hard labor and mounting debt. Racist whites still grasped all the levers of power; and with the legal, financial and social systems of their world stacked against them, blacks had no realistic hope of advancing. The destruction of their hope led, in turn, to fatalistic despair and defeatism.

And this is the crux of DuBois' beef with Booker T. Washington. Washington urged black people to master certain practical trades to make themselves useful or indispensable to their communities. Theoretically, if black people were needed to keep the local economy humming, social and political equality would follow. DuBois suggested that this plan was far too narrow: Economic progress for black people was impossible if the economic system of the South was custom built to stymie that progress. There was no point in playing a game when the rules were designed to prevent you from ever winning.

DuBois stops short of a specific plan of action, but he contends that voting rights and political representation were just as important as economic growth and could not be back-burnered. Beyond that, he believed in the importance of a "talented tenth" -- essentially, the elite element of the black populace. In the absence of true integration or equality, it was incumbent on the "tenth" to produce the teachers, businessmen and political leaders who could drag the rest of black society upward.

The best essays (in my opinion) are the least data driven. In one, DuBois laments the passing of his 18 month old son -- but finds a terrible solace in the knowledge that his son never understood or internalized life behind "the veil." He died before his innocence was taken. The other is the fictional story of John Jones, a black boy from a coastal Georgia town. It quickly takes you through his development: he starts as a carefree youth, pegged by his community for great things; he is hardened by education, as he begins to understand and experience the discrimination of the larger world; in his determination to overcome, he finds himself alienated from the very people he wants to help; and he descends into a hopeless and tragic end. The story of John comes near the end of "Souls," and it serves as a powerful summary of the portrait of black life DuBois presented in earlier essays.

"Souls" is a very interesting piece of work, and reading it alongside "Up From Slavery" was a good call. It's either instructive or depressing that in 120 years, the framework for discussion hasn't shifted all that much -- we've got one guy leaning toward the relentlessly pragmatic / personal responsibility side, and the other has an intellectual / top-down change-the-system approach. (Interesting that each guy concluded the best way reflected his personal experience. Both men were educators, but Washington was a former slave who rose through hands-on vocational and technical education; DuBois had an academic career more rooted in the world of ideas.)

Washington was well-received for providing a positive and even hopeful plan of action. DuBois, on the other hand, gives a far more compelling description of the battlefield, trying to blow up stereotypes or excuses used to justify inaction by whites who wanted "the Negro problem" out of sight and out of mind. The two men weren't exactly opposed but they did have very different visions of leadership.

Who could say if one was right? Is the problem of the color line solvable? How have we (meaning everyone) fallen short in trying to solve it? Does defining your existence in terms of that problem paradoxically make it impossible to escape?

Jumping ahead 60 years for the next one: "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin. Halfway through it already and it's a corker.

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