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The Soul of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

Posted on: June 20, 2015

The Souls of Black FolkThe Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very good book to read to understand the plight of the African Americans in the 19th century and the early 20th century. The book is a series of essays by Du Bois on various topics concerning the life of African Americans and their suppression by the white folk. These writings later influenced Malcolm X.
Du Bois takes a very conciliatory approach to settling the problems with the white. He aspires for an ideal America. Some the excerpts here will make his thoughts clear.
Although the War of Independence, under Abraham Lincoln, had freed the salves and made them freemen, the blacks were besieged by various problems. The question was what do they do now that they are free. They had no land, they had no skills other than to toil in the fields and carry out menial jobs. So many of them went back to be employed by the whites, doing the same chores that they did beforehand. Only difference was legally they were free and could choose their master.
Schools were setup to educate and retrain these freemen, but not many whites, who were the only ones with education at that time were ready to educate the Africans. As a result it took quite some years before the Africans could become competent enough to start schools for the other Africans. Additionally they still did not have the right to vote. This was technically granted to them by the 15th amendment, but the whites continued to deny them this right till the late 1960s when Lyndon Johnson was forced to give them unrestricted rights, due to the non-violent protest marches by Martin Luther King Jr.
Speaking of the need to be educated and of the right to vote Du Bois says “else what shall save us from a second slavery?”. He states “we still seek the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, freedom to love and aspire”. These were still not easily available to the Africans, thanks to the white supremacy which was asserted by Ku Klux Klan and in general by most whites from the south.

What he asks for is “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 traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition 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.” What a refined thought. Read the words “not in opposition 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”.

Speaking of the problems of the freemen Du Bois states “The two great obstacles which confronted the officials where the tyrant and the idler – the slaveholder who was determined to perpetuate slavery under another name; and the freedmen who regarded freedom as perpetual rest, – the Devil and the Deep Sea”. He does not hesitate to admit that part of the problem were the Africans themselves. A group of them were becoming lazy and were thinking that freedom means, freedom from work.

Speaking of education of the freed African salves, Du Bois says that, the white southerner was opposed to the education of the Africans and did everything to stop it. He lauds the Freedman’s Bureau for having helped setup education institutes for the Africans. He says that a sum of six million dollars was spent in establishing institutes like the Fisk University. Of this seven hundred and fifty thousand was contributed by the Africans themselves. Elsewhere he argues that while it is important to setup organizations for providing schooling to the uneducated he states that it is the establishment of such big universities which encourages people to finish their schooling and learn further. He argues that the policy of educating people first in schools and high schools and only then setting up institutes of higher education would not be sufficient.

In one essay he speaks about Booker T. Washington. He states that while many of the things contributed by Washington cannot be discounted, he says that acceptance of a lower rung social order with respect to the whites, by Washington, was not the right choice. He quotes the famous statement of Washington called the Atlanta Compromise “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Du Bois sees this as not so good a strategy to be adopted and criticizes Mr. Washington for this stance.

Speaking of the importance of education of the freedmen Du Bois compares their state to the state of Atalanta in the Greek mythological tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes. It also happens that the African movement revolves around the city of Atlanta. Atalanta a virgin huntress does not wish to get married and he challenges her suitors to a race and the defeated ones have to die. She defeats all her suitors. Hippomenes tricks her by taking three golden apples from Aphrodite who does not like Atalanta. He throws the apples at different points during the race. Atalanta is taken by the apples and stops to pick them up. She is able to escape his clutches the first two times she stops to pick up the apple, but fails to do so quick enough the third time. Du Bois states “In the Black World, the Preacher and Teacher embodied once the ideals of this people – the strife for another and juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing; but today the danger is that these ideals with their simple beauty and weird inspiration, will suddenly sink to a question of cash and a lust for gold. Here stands this black young Atalanta, girding herself for the race that must be run; and if her eyes be still towards the hills and sky as in the days of old, then we may look for noble running; but what if some ruthless or why or even thoughtless Hippomenes by golden apples before her? What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife for righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life?”

Speaking of what education should be given to the freedmen here is what Du Bois has to say “Teach workers to work, – a wise saying; wise when applied to German boys and American girls; wiser when said of Negro boys, for they have less knowledge of working and none to teach them. Teach thinkers to teach, – a needed knowledge in a day of loose and careless logic; and they whose lot is gravest must have the carefulest training to think, aright. If these things are so, how foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops for fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men, – nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living, – not sordid moeny-getting, not apples of gold. The workers must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on unhampered search for Truth; by founding the common school on the university, and the industrial school on the
common school; and weaving thus a system, not a distortion, and bringing a birth, not an abortion.”

Speaking of the southern white’s prejudice Du Bois says “Again, we may decry the colour-prejudice of the South, yet it remains a heavy fact. Such curious kinks of the human mind exist and must be reckoned with soberly. They cannot be laughed away, nor always successfully stormed at, nor easily abolished by act of legislature. And yet they must not be encouraged by being let alone. They must be recognized as facts, but unpleasant facts; things that stand in the way of civilisation, and religion and common decency. They can be met in but one way, – by the breadth and broadening of human reason, by catholicity of taste and culture. And so, too, the native ambition and aspiration of men, even though they be black, backward and ungraceful, must not be lightly be dealt with. To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest of brutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps. The guiding of thought and the deft coordination of deed is at once the path of honour and humanity. And so, in this great question of reconciling three vast and partially contradictory streams of thoughts, the one panacea of Education leaps to the lips of all: – such human training as will best use the labour of all men without enslaving or brutalizing; such training as will give us poise to encourage the prejudices that bulwark society, and to stamp out those that in sheer barbarity deafen us to the wail of prisoned souls within the Veil, and the mourning fury of shackled men.”

He further goes onto say that education is must, both for the Africans and the whites. “But when we have vaguely said that Education will set this tangle straight, what have we uttered but a truism? Training for life teaches living; but what training for profitable living together of black men and white? A hundred and fifty years ago our task would have been easier. Then Dr. Johnson blandly assured us that education was needful solely for embellishments of life, and was useless for ordinary vermin. Today we have climbed to heights where we would open at least the outer courts of knowledge to all, display its treasures to many, and select the few to whom its mystery of Truth is revealed, not wholly by birth or accidents of stock market, but at least in part according to deftness and aim, talent and character.”

He questions industrial education (the one that trains men to work) role in the permanent upliftment and civilization of the Africans. “And men ask this today all the more because of sinister signs in recent educational movements. The tendency is here, born of slavery and quickened to renewed life by the crazy imperialism of the day, to regard human beings as among the material resources of a land to be trained with an eye single to future dividends”.

Speaking about who should be teachers to the Africans, Du Bois says “It is not enough that the teacher of teachers should be trained in technical normal methods; they must also, as far as possible, be broadminded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.”

Speaking about opening up higher education to the Africans to bring them on par with the whites “But such transformation calls for singlular wisdom and patience. If, while the healing of this vast sore is progressing, the races are to live for many years side by side, united in economic effort, obeying a common government, sensitive to mutual thought and feeling, yet subtly and silently separate in many matters of deeper human intimacy, – if this unusual and dangerous development is to progress amid peace and order, mutual respect and growing intelligence, it will call fr social surgery at once the delicatest and nicest in modern history. It will demand broad-minded, upright men, both white and black, and in its final accomplishment American civilization will triumph.”

At one place Du Bois wonders about the impact of the atrocities of the white on the Africans. “I insist that the question of future is how best to keep these millions from brooding over the wrongs of the past and the difficulties of the present, so that all their energies may be bent toward a cheerful striving and cooperation with their white neighbours toward a larger, juster, and fuller future.”

Speaking of the atrocities that the whites continued even after emancipation Du Bois describes how the white merchants kept the black bankrupt and a pauper while complaining about theft of the crops by the Africans. “The security offered for such transaction – a crop and chattel mortgage – may at first seem slight. And, indeed, the merchants tell many a true tale of shiftlessness and cheating; of cotton picked at night; mules disappearing and tenants absconding. But on the whole the merchant of the Black Belt is the most prosperous man in the section. So skillfully and so closely has he drawn the bonds of the law about the tenant, that the black man has often simply to choose between pauperism and crime; he “waives” all homestead exemption in his contract; he cannot touch his own mortaged crop which the laws put alomst in full control of the landowner and of the merchant. When the crop is growing the merchant watches it like a hawk; as soon as it is ready for market he takes possession of it and sells it, pays the landowner his rent, subtracts his bill for supplies, and if, as sometimes happens, there is anything left, he hands it over to the black serf for his Christmas celebration. The direct result of this system is an all cotton scheme of agriculture and the continued bankruptcy of the tenant.” He further speaks of how the whites exploit the ignorance of the Africans and make them pay for the same land three times and still deprive him of the land in the end using the law to his benefit.

Du Bois argues that the only way out of this economic situation is “to demand for a trained Negro leaders of character and intelligence, – men of skill, men of light an leading, college bred men, black captains of industry; and missionaries of culture; men who thoroughly comprehend and know modern civilization, and can take hold of Negro communities and raise and train them by force of precept and example; deep sympathy, and the inspiration of common blood and ideals. But if such men are to be effective they must have some power, – they must be backed by the best public opinion of these communities, and able to wield for their objects and aims such weapons as the experience of the world has taught are indispensable to human progress.”

Speaking about the state of Africans in the South Du Bois says that political defense is absent and that economic defense is minimal and this leaves them with only one defense, that of deception and flattery, of cajoling and lying. “It is the same defense which the peasants of the Middle Ages used and which left its samp on their character for centuries. Today the young Negros of the South who would succeed cannot be frank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather he is daily tempted to be silent and wary, politic and sly; he must flatter and be pleasant, endure petty insults with smile, shut his eyes to wrong; in too many cases he sees positive personal advantage in deception and lying. His real thoughts, his real aspirations, must be guarded in whispers; he must not criticise, he must not complain. Patience, humility, and adroitness must in these growing black youth replace impulse, manliness, and courage. With this sacrifice there is an economic opening, and perhaps peace and some prosperity. Without this there is riot, migration, or crime. Nor is this situation peculiar to the Southern United States, is it not rather the only method by which undeveloped races have gained the right to share modern culture? The price of culture is a Lie.”

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