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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois, Donald B. Gibson and Monica M. Elbert

Paperback, 247 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $14 |


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Book Summary

Personal recollections are included in the controversial 1903 work depicting the spirit, status, and problems of African Americans since emancipation.

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W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls Of Black Folk has been re-published in a new edition for the author's 150th birthday anniversary. C. M. Battey/Getty Images hide caption

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The Enduring Lyricism Of W.E.B. Du Bois' 'The Souls Of Black Folk'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Souls Of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk

Penguin Books

Copyright © 1996 W. E. B. Du Bois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 014018998X

Chapter One

Of Our Spiritual Strivings

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.

— Arthur Symons

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked bysome through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightlyframing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead ofsaying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellentcolored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not theseSouthern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, orreduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the realquestion, 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 whohas never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is inthe 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 wasa little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonicwinds 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, atall newcomer, refused my card, — refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Thenit dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from theothers; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from theirworld by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, tocreep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in aregion of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I couldbeat my mates at examination time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beattheir stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade;for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs,not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I wouldwrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, byhealing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, — someway. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youthshrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world aboutthem 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 ofthe prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to thewhitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who mustplod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, orsteadily, 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 secondsight in this American world — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the otherworld. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense ofalways looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soulby the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feelshis twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciledstrivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alonekeeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longingto attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better andtruer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. Hewould not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world andAfrica. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, forhe knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to makeit possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursedand spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closedroughly in his face.

This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom ofculture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powersand his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past beenstrangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro pastflits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx.Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there likefalling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged theirbrightness. Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man'sturning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made hisvery strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, likeweakness. 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 escapewhite contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and onthe other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde — couldonly result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart ineither cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister ordoctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of theother world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks. The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge hispeople needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledgewhich would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. Theinnate 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 blackartist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which hislarger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of anotherpeople. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciledideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of tenthousand thousand people, — has sent them often wooing false gods and invokingfalse means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make themashamed of themselves.

Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the endof all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half suchunquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries. To him, so faras he thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of all villainies, thecause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; Emancipation was the key to apromised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the eyes of weariedIsraelites. In song and exhortation swelled one refrain — Liberty; in his tearsand 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 andpassion 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 ofnational life, forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthyspectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation's feast. In vain do we cry tothis 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 foundin freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years ofchange, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people, — adisappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unboundedsave by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.

The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, theboon 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, theterrors of the Ku-Klux Klan, the lies of carpetbaggers, the disorganization ofindustry, and the contradictory advice of friends and foes, left the bewilderedserf 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 itsattainment powerful means, and these the Fifteenth Amendment gave him. Theballot, which before he had looked upon as a visible sign of freedom, he nowregarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty with which warhad partially endowed him. And why not? Had not votes made war and emancipatedmillions? Had not votes enfranchised the freedmen? Was anything impossible to apower that had done all this? A million black men started with renewed zeal tovote themselves into the kingdom. So the decade flew away, the revolution of1876 came, and left the half-free serf weary, wondering, but still inspired.Slowly but steadily, in the following years, a new vision began gradually toreplace the dream of political power, — a powerful movement, the rise ofanother ideal to guide the unguided, another pillar of fire by night after aclouded day. It was the ideal of "book-learning"; the curiosity, born ofcompulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the cabalistic letters ofthe white man, the longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been discoveredthe 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 thosewho have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dullunderstandings of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, howpiteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work. The cold statisticianwrote down the inches of progress here and there, noted also where here andthere a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To the tired climbers, thehorizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan was always dim andfar away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place,little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure forreflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to theyouth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect. In thosesombre 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 ofhis power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain hisplace in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the first time hesought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-weight of socialdegradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem. He felt hispoverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he hadentered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor manis hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom ofhardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, — not simply of letters, but oflife, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking andawkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was hisburden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuriesof systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meantnot only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight ofa mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliterationof the Negro home.