History and Race Vindication in The Gift of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 5 of 6)

Twenty years after the initial publication of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to expand upon his use of history for race vindication with his 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk. There, Du Bois built significantly upon his previous lists of African American contributions in yet another attempt. Published by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, as part of a series of three volumes exploring the contributions of persecuted ethnic groups to the United States, The Gift of Black Folk, along with the other two volumes in the series—one on Jewish people and the other on Germans—was part of an attempt to combat rising prejudice in the interwar United States by highlighting the achievements of members of ethnic minority groups.

        The book takes its title, argument, and structure from an assertion Du Bois originally made in The Souls of Black Folk:

Here we have brought three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.[54]

The chapters of The Gift of Black Folk begin with a discussion of “the gift of sweat and brawn.” Starting with the earliest explorers of the Americas and stretching through the history of the United States, Du Bois describes the numerous ways in which African American manual labor has contributed to the development of America. “Hard manual labor, and much of it of a disagreeable sort, must for a long time lie at the basis of civilized life,” Du Bois writes in response to those who would devalue this sort of work.[55] “In an ideal society it would be highly-paid work because of its unpleasantness and necessity.” Following this discussion of the contributions of black labor to the building of the United States, Du Bois transitions, via a discussion of the participation of African Americans in all of the United States’ wars, to a discussion of the cultural and intellectual contributions of African Americans to American society.

        Expanding on his claims in The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois once again highlights the role that African Americans played as active agents in securing their own freedom. In so doing, claims Du Bois, African Americans accomplished a great victory for democracy and thereby expanded and secured the liberties of all peoples. Du Bois links African Americans’ struggle for and achievement of emancipation to the history of the United States as a whole: “There have been four great steps toward democracy taken in America: The refusal to be taxed by the English Parliament; the escape from European imperialism; the discarding of New England aristocracy; and the enfranchisement of the Negro slave.”[56] By gaining their own freedom, then, African Americans became participants in the expansion of freedom that has marked American history more generally. It is an “inescapable fact,” explains Du Bois, “that as long as there was a slave in America, America could not be a free republic.”[57] The self-emancipation of African Americans, then, is a victory for all Americans.

        Du Bois also extends this discussion to encompass the overturning of social hierarchies more generally, attributing to the emancipation of the African American slaves of the South and the subsequent period of Reconstruction in that region the advent of “democratic government . . . free public schools . . . [and] new social legislation” which ended the Southern slaveholding oligarchy and thereby made the South more democratic, granting access to education and representation to whites of the non-slaveholding classes as well.[58] Du Bois would significantly expand upon these thesis in 1934 with his publication of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. There, taking a more clearly Marxist turn in his historiography, Du Bois countered the claims of the scientific and historical racists that African American leadership failed during Reconstruction and that the good that came out of the period was to be attributed to whites with, as was typical of his style, another thoroughly researched and well-documented historical discussion.[59]

        The last half of the book Du Bois dedicates to the gifts of song and spirit, the contributions by African Americans to American culture which he had highlighted as the most significant in The Souls of Black Folk. Writing as he did in 1924 during the Harlem Renaissance Du Bois is now able to expand upon his previous discussions of these contributions by pointing to the rising importance of African American music as well as the numerous contemporary African American poets. As Du Bois writes, these musicians and poets “form a fairly continuous tradition and a most valuable group expression” that rose out of the spirituals and became the definitively American musical and poetic forms.[60] Just as American culture was shaped by the musical and poetic traditions of African Americans, writes Du Bois, American religion—that great center of all culture—bears the “imprint of Africa on Europe in America.”[61] In the final chapter, Du Bois discusses the numerous contributions of Africans and African Americans to American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, including leadership, hymns, and styles of worship. As Du Bois had shown, then, African Americans had contributed to the United States in body, mind, and soul.

[54] Ibid., 262–263.

[55] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk [1924] (Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2009), 17.

[56] Ibid., 81.

[57] Ibid., 59.

[58] Ibid., 106.

[59] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (London: Cass, 1966).

[60] Ibid., 144.

[61] Ibid., 151.


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