I finished up W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, with the essay, “The Sorrow Songs,” as well as the “Afterthought.”
“The Sorrow Songs” is about African-American spirituals. On page 162, Du Bois summarizes what he sees as their message: hope, either for this life, or the next, or perhaps even for both.
“Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.”
On pages 162-162, Du Bois talks about the contribution of African-Americans to America, a theme that he also touched on in his very first essay:
“Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?”
This brought to my mind a debate that existed throughout American history: Should African-Americans be sent to Africa? James Monroe supported this sort of colonization on some level, and so the capital of Liberia (which was founded and settled by freed African-American slaves) was named after him—as Monrovia. Abraham Lincoln at one point favored sending African-Americans to Africa. There have been white supremacists who have called for this, as well as African-American nationalists, who felt that Africa would be a better home for African-Americans than would the oppressive United States.
I’m not sure what Du Bois’ latest view on this issue was. I am aware that he eventually moved to Ghana (which is in West Africa), and yet he did not renounce his U.S. citizenship. But, in the Souls of Black Folk, he does not say that African-Americans should be sent to Africa. His argument is that they are an integral part of the United States—they have been in the beginning, they are now, and they shall be in the future. Perhaps he was trying to appeal to white society, for part of his goal in writing the book was to influence whites to treat African-Americans as equals. But I think that he sincerely hoped that African-Americans would have a good future in the United States.
Another point: This quote reminded me of how African-Americans indeed contributed to who we are as a nation. I’m not talking here about all the work that they did for the American economy as slaves, or the contributions of African-American writers, inventors, etc., as important as all that was. Rather, I’m talking about how their struggle for freedom made the United States take a good hard look at her own ideals, and to ask herself if she is really the land of the free and the home of the brave, or if she is a hypocritical nation, which talks about freedom, and yet denies it to certain people.
I think of two documentaries that I saw in high school. One was in government class, and it showed an actor who was playing Frederick Douglas, delivering his powerful fourth of July address, which excoriated American hypocrisy in celebrating freedom, even as it oppressed African-Americans. The second documentary was one that I saw in a history class. It talked about how America in the 1950’s celebrated itself as the land of the free, and yet it wasn’t free for everybody. In the 1960’s-1970’s, African-Americans who fought in Vietnam came home, only to continue to experience discrimination in the very country for which they had fought. There were many white Americans who looked at this situation and thought that it was wrong, that two and two weren’t adding together, that America was not being true to her ideals.
Even in my elementary school history class, slavery was a huge part of the story of America that I heard. We were taught to be patriotic—to esteem America as the greatest nation on earth. And yet, we were also taught that we grew as a nation—that we did not always live up to our ideals, and that there were heroes in America who affirmed freedom and justice, against institutions in America that deprived groups of people of those very things. And so, in a sense, African-Americans are a part of who we are today as a nation, for they challenged us to make freedom a reality, rather than an empty ideal, or something that only applied to white society.
Parts of the “Afterthought” stuck out to me:
“Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world-wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful. (Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare.)”
I don’t think that this was the cry of a narcissist—of someone thinking, “Oh Lord, I want to be famous.” Rather, W.E.B. Du Bois realized that he had something important to say, and he hoped that people would listen to him and that positive change would occur as a result.
I want to comment on W.E.B. Du Bois’ later Communist sympathies, which you can read about here. First of all, although I like some of what the right wing has had to say, I disagree with how it has liked to shut discussion down by labeling someone or some belief system as “Communist.” Just because a person is a Communist, that doesn’t mean that he lacks valuable insights, or that his critiques are invalid. I do not support Communist dictatorship by any means, but Communists have made legitimate criticisms of the injustice and inequality in American society.
Second, I wondered as I read The Souls of Black Folk if I could see some sign of Du Bois being a Communist, or the type of person who would become a Communist. On the one hand, he criticized materialism and the obsession with doing well economically, and he didn’t want African-Americans to focus on that to the exclusion of higher things in life. That reminded me of what I learned about Karl Marx, who said that human beings should not be reduced to machines that are continually toiling for their survival, but that they should be free to develop as people.
On the other hand, Du Bois said repeatedly that African-Americans are discontent and not as hardworking as they can be because white society denies them of any incentive to work. He also preferred a sort of sharecropping system in which African-Americans could have a degree of freedom—to grow whatever crops they wanted, for instance. This reminded me of free-market critiques of Communism: that it deprives people of an incentive to produce, and that freedom is more productive.
This was an excellent book, and I am glad to have read it!