The sense of awakening in The Souls of Black Folk is impossible to miss. Published in 1903, when the new century itself was just awakening, Souls seemed to blink away the veil for a people looking for their own cultural and historical legacy. What W.E.B. Du Bois saw—and helped others see—was nothing short of amazing.
Perhaps it’s because I am now just awakening to Du Bois’ work that I see the book in such a light. Perhaps that awakening colors my view, giving me wide-eyed wonder to a text that’s over a century old. Perhaps my middle-class, middle-aged whiteness, and my historical place in the Twenty-First Century, makes Du Bois’ work seem exotic and wonderful.
But even as I’m awakening to Souls now, so too did America then, so too did the black folk themselves, “gifted with a second-sight in this American world” as Du Bois described it—“a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”
Blacks, Du Bois argued, should see for themselves. That seems so self-evident now that to even say it seems ridiculous.
In 1903, though, blacks were still groping their way through the strange landscape of post-Emancipation America. The four decades since the abolition of slavery—which Du Bois likened to the Israelites’ forty years in the desert before they found the land of Canaan—had proven to be a hard journey marked by continued bondage imposed by economics and enforced by prejudice. Yet the journey itself “changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect.”
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.
Du Bois could have been talking about himself. Souls provided the voice for that awakening—a voice respectful, assertive, and powerful.
Du Bois’ book represented a marked break from the black leadership of his time, as personified by Booker T. Washington. Washington advocated a policy of “conciliation toward the white South,” Du Bois said—a policy that required capitulation and accommodation. Such a policy, Du Bois contended, did not represent forward progress. It did not represent justice.
Souls opened a conversation that would evolve over two decades, finally culminating in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Du Bois, by then, was the leading black intellectual of his day, and his advocacy of black identity sparked one of America’s great creative and intellectual periods.
“It is a rare and intriguing moment when a people decide that they are the instruments of history-making and race-building,” wrote historian Nathan Huggins in his seminal 1972 study of the Harlem Renaissance. “[B]lack intellectuals in Harlem had just such a self-concept.”
Huggins’ examination lauded the intellectual and creative output of the period but ultimately judged the Renaissance a failure because it failed to translate into the kind of political traction that might’ve advanced race relations. It was based, he said, on “naïve assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities.”
The great innocence of the renaissance is most clearly seen in the irony that, where its proponents had wanted to develop a distinctive Negro voice, they had been of necessity most derivative. It would have required a much more profound rejection of white values than was likely in the 1920s for Negroes to have freed themselves for creating the desired self-generating and self-confident Negro art.
Yet Huggins himself conceded that “the black-white relationship has been symbiotic; blacks have been essential to white identity (and whites to blacks).” He called the interdependence “profound.”
Du Bois had recognized it, too. “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,” he wrote in Souls. “One ever feels this 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.” It’s no wonder Du Bois’ book tapped into the racial subconscious.
It’s ironic that Huggins suggested that blacks of the Harlem Renaissance needed to embrace a “much more profound rejection of white values,” considering Du Bois suggested the same thing about Washington. While respectful of Washington, he was critical of Washington’s slow path.
Looking back today, though, one is hard-pressed to appreciate how difficult even Washington’s path was. When he dined at the White House with President Roosevelt in October of 1901, Washington stirred up such a furor that neither man dared a repeat dinner. So, from Huggins’ vantage point of the early 70s, at the tail-end of fifteen years of revolutionary Civil Rights convulsions, the Harlem Renaissance may have looked like slow progress, too; Du Bois may have looked conservative in his views.
As I look back on Huggins, Du Bois, and Washington, surrounded as they all are by the contexts of the Civil Rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, the Tuskegee Institute, even the legacies of Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown—I can see stepping stones, building blocks, interdependence and interconnectedness. “[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” Du Bois wrote. I can see the path of that line tracing backwards.
I hear voices, see words, feel connected. I continue to awaken to my own role in that long dialogue. I understand, just a little better, the “souls of black folk”—and in doing so understand, too, my own.