November 29 – December 2, 2002
W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois was a key public figure in the United States, and more specifically African-American society, for over half a century. He was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909, wrote several influential books including The Souls of Black Folks, was an “advocate for African-American cultural, economic, and political rights” (Tucker, p. 230), and was a champion of anti-colonial movements and the anti-imperialist cause. He was also a sociologist, having studied with William James at Harvard, attended lectures of Max Weber in Germany, conducted sociological research, and was later Chair of a Sociology Department. Early in the twentieth century he surveyed and studied African-American neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, publishing The Philadelphia Negro in 1899. His later work was more overtly political and not so specifically sociological, but in all his writings he contributed to an understanding of the position and struggles of African-Americans in United States society.
Tucker summarizes various aspects of Du Bois’s approach (top of p. 230), noting his emphasis on
Tucker also provides a short description of the position of African-Americans in the United States at end of the nineteenth century. This was a period after slavery had been abolished but was the “Jim Crow” era with segregation being legal in some states, lynchings of blacks common in the South, little political representation for blacks, and a generally racist atmosphere. The social sciences did there part in enforcing this segregation and racism, with “scientific” explanations of the superiority of the “white race.” Much of this did not change until after the second world war in 1945 – then the migration of many blacks to northern cities had taken place and the civil rights movement began to result in integration and greater political representation and formal equality for African-Americans.
In terms of sociology, Du Bois makes several important contributions, not only concerning race in American society, but also concerning the concepts of self and identity as well as culture.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), usually known as W. E. B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrrington, Massachusetts. He died in Accra, Ghana on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his speech “I have a dream.” Two years earlier, Du Bois had joined the Communist Party and soon after renounced his United States citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana. Du Bois was born only four years after Max Weber (b. 1864) and ten years after Emile Durkheim (b. 1858) so that he is a contemporary of these classic sociologists, yet he lived well past the middle of the twentieth century, at a time when sociology had become dominated by structural functionalism and new sociological approaches were developing. In terms of African-American society, Du Bois was born just after the era of slavery and lived through the Jim Crow era, and then through the development and successes of the civil rights movement.
Du Bois grew up in an almost all white area in southwestern Massachusetts – with perhaps only thirty black families in the region. He descended from west African slaves, with Dutch and French Huguenot ancestors – thus the Burghardt and Du Bois. In his childhood he undoubtedly absorbed much of the New England Puritan tradition and Calvinist influences. After graduating from high school, he attended the all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Following that he studied at Harvard University from 1888-90 and then went to Europe. He was able to study for a time at the University of Berlin and in 1893 was impressed with some lectures by Max Weber, who at this time “had not then clearly formulated his concepts of ‘ideal types’ and objective rationality as a unique attempt to combine empirical sociological research with universals revealed through history” (Lewis, pp. 142-3). After returning to the United States, Du Bois taught Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio and in 1896 became the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University.
While at the University of Pennsylvania, he was commissioned to undertake a study of the seventh ward of Philadelphia, a section predominantly African-American. The study was “to know precisely how this class of people live; what occupations they follow; from what occupations they are excluded; how many of their children go to school, and to ascertain every fact which will throw light on this social problem” (Lewis, p. 188). Du Bois was intent on doing the study as a means of beginning to transform race relations. He conducted a very thorough study of the area, spending
some 835 hours interviewing approximately 2,500 household over the three-month period of field research beginning in early August 1896. No representative sampling for Du Bois. As he tabulated some fifteen thousand household schedules, he had before him life histories of the entire black population of the Seventh Ward – nearly ten thousand, men, women, and children. (Lewis, pp. 190-191).
The results were published in 1899 as The Philadephia Negro: A Social Study. Among the issues discussed by Du Bois were housing, income, education, health, family, crime, alcoholism, and suffrage – a broad social and political scope. He described and analyzed the living situation of all African-Americans in the seventh ward. This included descriptions of the poverty that afflicted many residents and also the way that the better off lived. In his sociological analysis of African-American society, Du Bois always described the diversity that existed within this society, as there would be in any society. That is, he did not merely present the average situation of the majority who lived in poor conditions, but also those more successful in business, education, or other walks of life. He sometimes referred to this group as the talented tenth and argued “for the necessity of the leadership of the talented tenth.” (Tucker, p. 236). While Du Bois was elitist in this sense, he balanced this was an emphasis on education, discussion, and participation that would involve all. Du Bois closes the Philadelphia study with an emphasis on social reform, arguing that both black and white had responsibilities in order to accomplish this. In the case of white, this meant a change in attitude, reducing prejudice and supporting efforts to provide social reform. In the case of blacks, it meant self-improvement, and this
must commence in the Negro homes; they must cease to be, as they often are, breeders of idleness and extravagance and complaint. Work, continuous and intensive; … work, though done in the travail of soul and sweat of brow, must be so impressed on Negro children as the road to salvation, that a child would feel it a greater disgraceto be idle than to do the humblest labor. (Du Bois, 1899, p. 390).
Following the Philadelphia study, Du Bois became a professor of Economics and History (1897-1910) and Chairman of the Department of Sociology (1934-1944) at Atlanta University. During his years in Atlanta, he conducted further sociological and community studies of the life and social situation of African-Americans in the U. S. South. When Max Weber toured the United States in 1904, he visited Atlanta to attend a conference on crime. “The great German sociologist had no recollection of Du Bois the Berlin student, but he wrote commending the Atlanta professor’s researches and hope to run a ‘short review of the recent publications about the race problem in America’ .. which he did” (Lewis, p. 225).
His other activities include involvement in the Niagara Movement (predecessor of the NAACP), being a founding member of the NAACP, editing The Crisis (1910-1934), and later was involved in a wide variety of peace activities, and in African-American political and social issues and organizations. Early on, he took a position in disagreement with Booker T. Washington, then the foremost African-American leader.
Because of his radical sympathies, Du Bois was hounded by the United States government, had trouble obtaining a passport, and was tried and acquitted for being a foreign agent. Under freedom of information, his FBI file was obtained and is available on the internet.
3. Souls of Black Folk
By the early 1900s, Du Bois had published extensively in a variety of journals, some primarily aimed at African-American readers and others at a broader audience. In 1902, the Chicago firm of A. C. McClurg and Company approached Du Bois with the intention of having him write several essays for a book. On April 18, 1903, The Souls of Black Folk was published, with nine previously published essays plus some new material. The first chapter “Of our spiritual strivings” had been published in the Atlantic Monthly of August 1897. The book was very successful and became one of the most influential books about African-Americans, perhaps the most influential since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was published in Britain and in 1905 Max Weber expressed the hope that a German edition, for which he would write a foreward, would be published.
The book is sociological, historical, political, personal, and cultural, combining all these in Du Bois’s unique way. Each chapter began with a poem, usually of European origin, and a spiritual, or what were called sorrow songs (chapter XIV). Lewis argues that
he twinned them in this manner in order to advance the then-unprecedented notion of the creative parity and complementarity of white folk and black folk alike. Du Bois meant the cultural symbolism of these double epigraphs to be profoundly subversive of the cultural hierarchy of his time. Two years into yet another century of seemingly unassailable European supremacy, Souls countered with the voices of the dark submerged and unheard – those voices heard by him for the first time in the Tennessee backcountry. (Lewis, p. 278).
Prior to this time, African-Americans “had relied mostly on the sorrow songs—spirituals—to find expression” (Lewis, p. 278). Du Bois provided a new voice, one that recounted their experiences in a new manner and, at the same time, putting forth a social and political agenda for African-Americans.
NOTE: The first chapter of Souls is at the end of these notes – the page numbers refer to the page numbers from the class handout.
The first chapter begins with a poem about the crying of water, lack of rest, and a weary heart. This is paired with the first phrase of the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Lewis interprets this as “the troubles he and his people had seen, almost from the day the first Africans were brought ashore from a Dutch ship in Jamestown harbour” (Lewis, p. 279).
This essay recounts the black experience, beginning with African origins – being “a sort of seventh son” and being part of “a mighty Negro past [that] flits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx.” (p. 2). He refers to slavery and emancipation, the post-civil war era of “the terrors of the Ku-Klux Klan, the lies of the carpetbaggers” (p. 3), and the period to the turn of the century. He mentions specific issues such as obtaining the ballot, prejudice and unequal treatment, and the “red stain of bastardy … the systematic legal defilement of Negro women” (p. 4).
Religious imagery abound through this essay – the title, the veil, on the one hand God making “me an outcast” (p. 1) but on the other hand God providing freedom (p. 3), Israelites and Canaan, and “Amen” (p. 4). The poems and spirituals beginning each chapter provide cultural references and Du Bois notes “the innate love of harmony and beauty” (p. 2) and “the sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore are Indian and African” (p. 5). Even though Du Bois was a sociologist, there is negative reference to the dominant sociology – “the cold statistician” (p. 3) and “sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes” (p. 4).
Finally, Du Bois combines this with his personal experiences, relating these to larger problems, much like the personal troubles and public issues of the sociological imagination of C. Wright Mills. In particular, he refers to his childhood experiences and coming to recognize his difference from others, and his ability to overcome problems of this sort by surpassing those who expressed antagonism, rising above this.
In terms of sociological analysis, there are at least two major themes in this essay (i) the split, double, or conflicted self, and (ii) the manner that African-Americans can find their place in American society.
In Du Bois’s writings, especially at the beginning of Souls, there is innovative and insightful discussion of self and, more particularly, the divided self with a “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” and of the “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” of African-Americans (Du Bois, p. 2). Du Bois sets this within the context, experiences, and struggles of African-Americans, but his approach is more generally applicable to analysis of self in modern society.
While Tucker and other texts do not note any connection between Du Bois and George Herbert Mead (Mind, Self, Society) or other writers on the self, Du Bois appears to be grappling with some of the same issues that Mead and later symbolic interactionists addressed. Writers such as Goffman and Hochschild discuss the issue of how the self develops, maintains itself, and performs in a consistent and meaningful manner – one where front and back stage lead to performances associated with personal identity – either associated with an integrated or divided self. An example of a contemporary discussion of the self that shows some similarities to the double-consciousness noted by Du Bois is that of the dilemmas of the self as noted by Anthony Giddens. In his article “Dilemmas of the Self,” Giddens states:
The first dilemma is that of unification versus fragmentation. Modernity fragments; it also unites. On the level of the individual right up to that of planetary systems as a whole, tendencies towards dispersal vie with those promoting integration. So far as the self is concerned, the problem of unification concerns protecting and reconstructing the narrative of self-identity in the face of the massive intensional and extensional changes which modernity sets into being. …
A second dilemma is that of powerlessness versus appropriation. If there is one theme which unites nearly all authors who have written on the self in modern society, it is the assertion that the individual experiences feelings of powerlessness in relation to a diverse and large-scale social universe.
The causes of the divided self differ in the analyses of Giddens and Du Bois, and consequences also differ for individual and society. But it appears that later sociologists have generally ignored the arguments presented by Du Bois, so that his contributions have not been integrated into sociological analysis. For the most part, commentary on Du Bois mentions the double consciousness but does not relate it to similar discussions by other sociologists. In his forward “Fifty Years After,” written in 1953, Du Bois notes that he did not anticipate the importance of psychology in the social sciences. He also mentions that the influence of Marx was great over these fifty years.
Du Bois begins this discussion from the point of view of an African-American, someone who is considered by others to be a problem or representative of a problem, rather than someone with problems, perhaps problems created by the rest of society. The concept of “difference” becomes key for Du Bois, his recognition and understanding that “I was different from the others” (p. 1). This difference was expressed in attitudes but also in “their dazzling opportunities” and their “prizes” (p. 1), that is in tangible results and in opportunities. Du Bois indicates that he felt able to deal with such a situation and would pursue such opportunities himself, but others adopted a different approach, that of hatred and “mocking distrust of everything white” (p. 1).
The double-consciouness noted by Du Bois means
no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (p. 2)
That is, while African-Americans attempted to participate in society in a similar manner to any other members of society, they were seen as different and actively thwarted in their attempts to participate – “cursed and spit upon by his fellows .. having the doors of Opportunity roughly closed in his face.” (p. 2). One consequence of this is difficulty for an individual to develop an integrated view of themselves – they are always seeing themselves as others see them, and this is generally in a negative light. For Mead and symbolic interactionists, viewing the self through the eyes of others was a positive means of developing socially acceptable responses to stimuli and an integrated self. In contrast, the double consciousness of Du Bois led to “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength along keeps it from being torn asunder” (p. 2).
Historically, these experiences of differences and double consciousness led to many different responses and Du Bois argues that these demonstrate a history of “strife” (p. 2). The unmet promises of freedom and emancipation from slavery are concrete historical experience that led to a bitter and “deep disappointment” (p. 3). Rather than developing a strong sense of self, and attaining a “self-conscious manhood” (p. 2), African-Americans were not only thwarted in their attempts to participate as equals in American society, but developed a split self with double aims and unreconciled ideals. This brought “inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals” (p. 4). That is, the view that others had of them was internalized, leading to lack of success, waste, and shame. Tucker notes “the black self remains conflicted, torn, scarred” (Tucker, p. 237) as a result of slavery and later experiences. It was not just a set of negative attitudes on the part of others that created such a response, but the actual experiences of African-Americans attempting to participate and achieve in American society – experiences that were thwarted.
One aspect of the double-consciousness is the “metaphor of the veil … that requires role playing on the part of blacks, rather than real interaction” (Tucker, p. 233). When discussing emancipation, Du Bois notes that “he saw himself – darkly as though a veil” with “some faint revelation of his power, of his mission” (p. 4). He also notes the “shadow of a vast despair” (p. 4), “shadow of a deep disappointment” (p. 3), and “the swarthy spectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation’s feast” (p. 3). Each of these references presents the African-American experience as peripheral, separated, and not participant in all aspects of American society. The veil represents a division between the two parts of society, with African-Americans born and living behind a veil, separated from the mainstream, and blocked in attempts to participate.
At several places in chapter 1 of Souls, Du Bois indicates a possibility for development of a full and integrated self with self-consciousness consistent with this. In the note on Emancipation, Du Bois notes a “dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect” (p. 4), indicating the possibility of a single consciousness and integrated self. He compares this to a youthful period for African-Americans, with hope and high expectations, so that “he could be himself, and not another” (p. 4). Du Bois also argues that African-Americans have a “longing to attain self-conscious manhood” (p. 2), so that there is no inherent reason for the existence of the two souls. This would be worked out as “a co-worker in the kingdom of culture” (p. 2). Further, “to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another” (p. 4). But American society did not allow this to develop
Another aspect of double consciousness is the ability of those behind the veil to see the dominant society, while the dominant may not see the excluded at all and certainly not as full members of society. That is, the veil may be a one-way veil, or a one-way mirror, but with the excluded seeing the dominant being reflected back to them, while the majority may see their own reflection. In general, those in the dominant parts of society need not be so self-reflective, since their actions can be taken for granted and because of their power, their actions have an effect on others. In contrast, those without power are able to see those with power in a different light, perhaps a more complete view. The problem is that the actions of those without power must always take the powerful into account.
Lewis notes that the concept of the double self did not necessarily originate with Du Bois but may have come from Goethe’s Faust or Ralph Waldo Emersons “The Transcendentalist” (Lewis, p. 281).
The solution that Du Bois points to is not one of abandoning the double self but merging the “double self into a better and truer self” (p. 2) – one that does not abandon experiences and history of the past but builds on it. Lewis argues
the genius of The Souls of Black Folks was that it transcended this dialectic in the most obvious way—by affirming it in a permanent tension. Henceforth, the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation. (Lewis, p. 281).
In the words of Du Bois,
In this merging he has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. (p. 2).
This was a sort of multiculturalism, where African-Americans could retain their identity, contribute to America, and participate as equals. This meant that there need not be a either assimilation into the white majority nor a black separatism or return to Africa. Rather, there could be a positive outcome for both African-Americans and the rest of America, with each contributing and learning from the other. This would not only produce a better America but “a better and truer self” (p. 2).
At the end of chapter 1, Du Bois mentions other means of helping to achieve such an outcome – through schools, education, and training; work culture, liberty; and through “the power of the ballot” (p. 5). The result he describe are as follows:
Work, culture, liberty,--all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack. 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 folklore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole 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?
Notes on “The Religion of the American Negro,” from Green and Driver, pp. 214-225.
Approach of Du Bois more like Durkheim’s approach to religion (in Division and Suicide) than Weber’s approach in Protestant Ethic. That is, church and religion in terms of its relation to community and social organization, rather than emphasis on doctrine and its influence on social action.
Church in African-American society (p. 217)
Social centre, clubhouse, entertainment, employment
Religious and spiritual center
“Government’ of community
History – from Africa through to 1900 – shifting forms of church and community
Preacher – multiple roles as leader (p. 215)
Culture and music – expression of life and hopes (pp. 221-2)
Double world/double life/double thought
North and south – different effects and reactions – radical and hypocrisy (p. 223)
Religion and community – social life and social conflict (p. 225)
Kieran Conway, piano, first line of Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Paul Robeson, Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Odetta, Oh Freedom
Du Bois, W. E. B., Souls of Black Folk, 1903, available on the two web sites:
Green, Dan S. and Edwin D. Driver, editors, W. E. B. Du Bois On Sociology and the Black Community, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Lewis, David Levering, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1869-1919, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1993.
From W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks, 1903. Obtained from
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DUBOIS/ch01.html, December 2, 2002.
In what follows, I have divided Chapter 1, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” into the same page numbers as the handout in class.
O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
Unresting water, there shall never be rest
Till the last moon droop and the last tide fail,
And the fire of the end begin to burn in the west;
And the heart shall be weary and wonder and cry like the sea,
All life long crying without avail,
As the water all night long is crying to me.
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,--peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting- cards--ten cents a package--and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, --refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, --some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily,
half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, --a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro past flits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Through history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness. Here in America, in the few days since Emanci- pation, the black man's turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness. And yet it is not weakness,--it is the contradiction of double aims. The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan--on the one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde-- could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks. The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice- told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,--has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.
Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries. To him, so far as he thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice;
Emancipation was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the eyes of wearied Israelites. In song and exhortation swelled one refrain--Liberty; in his tears and curses the God he implored had Freedom in his right hand. At last it came,--suddenly, fearfully, like a dream. With one wild carnival of blood and passion came the message in his own plaintive cadences:--
"Shout, O children!
Shout, you're free!
For God has bought your liberty!"
Years have passed away since then,--ten, twenty, forty; forty years of national life, forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthy spectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation's feast. In vain do we cry to this our vastest social problem:--
"Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves Shall never tremble!"
The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,--a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.
The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, the boon that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp,--like a tantalizing will-o'-the-wisp, maddening and misleading the headless host. The holocaust of war, the terrors of the Ku-Klux Klan, the lies of carpet-baggers, the disorganization of industry, and the contradictory advice of friends and foes, left the bewildered serf with no new watchword beyond the old cry for freedom. As the time flew, however, he began to grasp a new idea. The ideal of liberty demanded for its attainment powerful means, and these the Fifteenth Amendment gave him. The ballot, which before he had looked upon as a visible sign of freedom, he now regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty with which war had partially endowed him. And why not? Had not votes made war and emancipated millions? Had not votes enfranchised the freedmen? Was anything impossible to a power that had done all this? A million black men started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom. So the decade flew away, the revolution of 1876 came, and left the half-free serf weary, wondering, but still inspired. Slowly but steadily, in the following years, a new vision began gradually to replace the dream of political power,--a pow- erful movement, the rise of another ideal to guide the unguided, another pillar of fire by night after a clouded day. It was the ideal of "book-learning"; the curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of Emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.
Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work. The cold statistician wrote down the inches of progress here and there, noted also where here and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan was always dim and far away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of
Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself,--darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem. He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance,--not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.
A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems. But alas! while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the "higher" against the "lower" races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much of this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress, he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance. But before that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond all this he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil, --before this there rises a sickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that black host to whom "discouragement" is an unwritten word.
But the facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate. Whisperings and portents came home upon the four winds: Lo! we are diseased and dying, cried the dark hosts; we cannot write, our voting is vain; what need of education, since we must always cook and serve? And the Nation echoed and enforced this self-criticism, saying: Be content to be servants, and nothing more; what need of higher culture for half-men? Away with the black man's ballot, by force or fraud,--and behold the suicide of a race! Nevertheless, out of the evil came something of good, --the more careful adjustment of education to real life, the clearer perception of the Negroes' social responsibilities, and the sobering realization of the meaning of progress.
So dawned the time of Sturm und Drang: storm and stress to-day rocks our little boat on the mad waters of the world- sea; there is within and without the sound of conflict, the burning of body and rending of soul; inspiration strives with doubt, and faith with vain questionings. The bright ideals of the past,--physical freedom, political power, the training of brains and the training of hands,--all these in turn have waxed and waned, until even the last grows dim and overcast. Are they all wrong,--all false? No, not that, but each alone was over-simple and incomplete,--the dreams of a credulous race-childhood, or the fond imaginings of the other
world which does not know and does not want to know our power. To be really true, all these ideals must be melted and welded into one. The training of the schools we need to-day more than ever,--the training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears, and above all the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds and pure hearts. The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence,--else what shall save us from a second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek,--the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire. Work, culture, liberty,--all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack. 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 folklore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole 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?
Merely a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic is the Negro Problem, and the spiritual striving of the freedmen's sons is the travail of souls whose burden is almost beyond the measure of their strength, but who bear it in the name of an historic race, in the name of this the land of their fathers' fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.
And now what I have briefly sketched in large outline let me on coming pages tell again in many ways, with loving emphasis and deeper detail, that men may listen to the striving in the souls of black folk.
Last edited December 2, 2002
Return to Sociology 318