The Souls of Black Folk is a collection of essays by American author W.E.B Du Bois. First published in 1903, the work is widely acclaimed to be a seminal work in the history of sociology and a cornerstone of African-American literature.
The end of the Civil War in 1865 saw the emancipation of 3.9 million slaves. Despite this monumental achievement, in the subsequent Reconstruction Era and beyond, the lives of black people did not improve significantly. Bound by poverty, many had to stay on in the Southern plantations and work as tenant-farmers; others were disappointed by the disorganisation of industry; life in the black communities was overshadowed by the horrors of the Ku-Klux Klan. The struggle is not only one with the outside world, but is also found within the conflicting self-identity of newly freed black Americans. At the centre of this inward struggle is the idea of what Du Bois coined “double consciousness”. This is perhaps best illustrated with Du Bois’ own words:
“From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and an American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet struggling in the eddies of the fifteenth century, — from this must arise a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence. The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.”
Through Du Bois’ calm, objective third-person narrative, we encounter the brutal clash of identities in the short story Of the Coming of John. The story traces the life of John, a Georgia born young black man, whose unsophisticated thinking is transformed by his college education in the North. His enlightenment, however, only serves to disparage his fellow black folks when he returns to his Southern hometown. Among them, his progressive speech is met with incomprehension and even scorn. For his white neighbours, this transformation sparks only hatred and new waves of repression. Meanwhile, a Princeton educated white John — a childhood playmate, after whom our black protagonist is named — also returns to his native Georgian town. On the same day, the protagonist is dismissed from his school post for “putting fool ideas of rising and equality into the [black] folks heads”. The story culminates in John’s accidental killing of his white namesake. As he sits beside the dead body, frantic with the memory of a vast, gilded concert hall and a faint hope to return to the North, the story ends abruptly, with an outraged white mob drawing nearer in the background.
Du Bois’ vision is one of racial equality and human brotherhood. In his view, the pathway to progress is threefold. First is education. The end of the Civil War saw the downfall of the old slavery system in the South, but order was not resumed until after the end of the Reconstruction Era. In many ways, the new order was merely a continuation of yesterday: trapped by high debt and an unfavourable socioeconomic status in the old Southern land, black Americans often worked as tenant-farmers for little-to-nothing wages — which makes them remain de-facto slaves — powerless still in the tight grip of plantation owners. Education is thus essential both to empower them for better economic opportunities, and to “change the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realisation, self-respect”. Second is political power. Du Bois is an outspoken opponent of Booker T. Washington, who crafted the Atlanta compromise, which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Du Bois argues that, for a race deprived of political power and banished to the servile class, it is impossible for them to defend their own rights and make economic progress in a modern, competitive economy. Last but not least, Du Bois points out that“relentless colour-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation”. Ultimately, intelligence and power alone aren’t enough for justice and right to triumph; what is needed is sympathy, and a generous acknowledgement of a common humanity.
As we flip through the book, we notice that each chapter opens with two epigraphs — text from a European poem; and musical score from a black spiritual, with lyrics deliberately withheld. Perhaps this is to mirror a world history written almost entirely by the whites; while black history and culture, back in Du Bois’ time, remained largely inaccessible to the rest of the world. Only in silence, the struggles carried on. Although the world has come a long way since the book’s publication, the following words still carry the same pressing relevance in 1903 as they do in 2020:
“Storm and stress today 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.”