February is Black History Month, and, this February, time permitting, I will be blogging through two books: W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (which is dated to 1903), and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. I’ve watched Roots: The Next Generation a bunch of times, and I even blogged through it for last Black History Month! On it, Alex Haley’s father, Simon, talked a lot about Dr. Du Bois. On the first episode that featured the character of Simon Haley, Booker T. Washington was about to speak at Simon’s college, and Simon idolized him, until he read Dr. Du Bois’ smashing criticism of Booker T. in The Souls of Black Folk! Last Black History Month, I blogged some about the differences between the two men’s approaches, drawing from encyclopedias and the Internet. This year, I want to gain a deeper appreciation for these controversial African-American leaders by blogging through their books.
Last night, I read the first essay in Dr. Du Bois’ book, which was entitled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” In this essay, Dr. Du Bois talks about the alienation of African-Americans from white American society. They are denied the opportunities that are available to white Americans, and so African-Americans are on the outside looking in. White America also looks down on the culture of African-Americans. Dr. Du Bois likens African-Americans learning how to read to uncovering the mysteries of Jewish Kabbalah, and, while he acknowledges that the political process has a lot of corruption (among both conservatives and Carpetbaggers), he strongly believes that African-Americans should exercise the right to vote, for there are plenty of whites who want them to return to or remain in a position of subservience.
On page 16, Du Bois argues that African-Americans have something to contribute to America. He states:
“We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the simple oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?”
My impression here is that Du Bois stereotypes African-Americans as simple, whereas he presents whites as cynical. I personally don’t want to stereotype anyone. But I do want to appreciate the faith, the good-humor, the storytelling, and the emotional strength that has existed in African-American culture, albeit not in a manner that is patronizing or condescending (as the romantics viewed the “noble savage”). I personally can use more faith, good-humor, humility, storytelling, and emotional strength, for I get tired of the cynicism that is in so many parts of American society.
To read Dr. Du Bois essay, click here.