Scholarship, Poetry, and Story in The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 4 of 6)

In 1903, Du Bois compiled and edited a collection of fourteen of his essays under the collective title The Souls of Black Folk, a book that has proved an enduring classic of American letters. The very title of the book proclaims its thesis, masking its depth with an apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of meaning. Du Bois’s use of the plural “souls” here is intended not to refer to the souls of African Americans as a group, but the duality Du Bois believed to be present within the soul of each African American, an idea which he acquired from the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel through the work of Du Bois’s friend and professor William James at Harvard. The term “folk” is an intentional borrowing by Du Bois’s from the nationalist movements of Europe, especially the German volk of Otto von Bismarck, who had only recently unified the German-speaking peoples of central Europe and upon whom Du Bois had chosen to write his undergraduate thesis at Fisk University.[36] Du Bois, then, is taking up, applying, and simultaneously transforming the thought of the vanguard of American and European intellectuals and political leaders with the intent of racial uplift for African Americans. In so doing, he seeks to find a place for African Americans within these paradigms while also serving the cause of racial vindication through the quality of his scholarship.

        One of the most influential and often discussed ideas introduced by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk is the notion of “double consciousness,” the source of the title’s plurality of “souls.”[37] As Du Bois describes it in the opening chapter,

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. One ever feels his two-ness,—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.[38]

There is, of course, more than a little autobiography in this description of the state of being, so to speak, hyphenated. Du Bois’s many numerous experiences with rejection—from the little girl who had refused his card as a child in Great Barrington to the ending of the funding for his studies at the University of Berlin—had been frequent and painful because they had been based merely on the color of his skin and all in spite of his enormous and undoubted intellectual abilities. Du Bois sought to undermine this denial of opportunity that he had so often experienced himself and which had been even greater burden to so many other African Americans through a simultaneous appeal to the consciences of his white readers and careful elevation of African-American contributions to culture to a place alongside the contributions of Europeans and European-descended Americans.

        In one of the most famous passages from The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois movingly writes,

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?[39]

Du Bois’s invocation of the name of Alexandre Dumas alongside Shakespeare, Balzac, Aristotle, and Aurelius and the unnamed but nonetheless invoked Plato and Moses is significant. Dumas, like Du Bois himself and like most African Americans, was of mixed racial descent; his grandfather was black, which made Dumas, according to the race scientists of Du Bois’s time, black and a sharer in the innate inferiority of blacks. Du Bois intentionally places Dumas alongside other great authors who were of entirely European descent, calling attention to his undoubtedly deserving location alongside them as “a co-worker in the kingdom of culture.”[40] Just as he had through history and the social sciences, Du Bois here makes his case against racial hierarchy through an appeal to the humanities and the contributions people of African descent have made therein, coupling this with the accusation—undoubtedly correct—that other people of African descent were being denied the opportunity to participate in and contribute to the culture. As was the case with his treatments of black freedom under American slavery and black poverty in Philadelphia, Du Bois once more turns the accusations of the racists against them, pointing to racism and its proponents as the reason for the relative dearth of cultural contributions by those of African descent and the possibility, realized in Dumas, of such contributions by those who are allowed to contribute.

        Du Bois, in fact, drives this point home at the beginning of each chapter. For each of the chapters of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois chose a dual epigraph featuring lines of poetry from mostly European and white American poets and lines of musical notation from one of the Negro spirituals, for the latter of which Du Bois coined the nomenclature “sorrow songs.”[41] As Dolan Hubbard points out, Du Bois uses these epigraphs as a means of philosophical justification for African Americans by entering into the realm of aesthetics, in which hitherto “the canon of beauty adhere to a European standard.”[42] This canon of beauty, as has been noted, became one of the primary means by which scientific racists denied the full humanity of people of African descent. The comparison of skull shapes featured in Gliddon and Nott’s Types of Mankind, for example, clearly relied upon an assumption that the reader would immediately recognize difference and therefore a relationship of superior to inferior in their presentation of the head of the Apollo Belvedere, a well-known Roman statue widely considered to be the standard of artistic and physical beauty, alongside a caricatured drawing of a the head of an African. By positing people of African descent outside of the standard limits of beauty, Hubbard explains, the scientific racists had cut them off from humanity. “Any theory of life must begin with a theory of the sublime and beautiful, the ultimate cultural capital,” writes Hubbard, “for they are closely tied to our perception of as well as relationship with the Divine.”[43] Therefore, says Hubbard, “blacks struggle to become human” while “whites struggle to become God.”[44] 

        By positioning music from the spirituals alongside poetry written and respected by whites, however, Du Bois undermines this assumed racial hierarchy. Instead, as Zamir writes of this and other aspects of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois is adopting and modifying Plato’s allegory of the cave in such a way as to imply that the prisoners in the cave—here, equated by Du Bois with African Americans—have a message for those outside it just as much as those who are outside of the cave have, as in Plato’s original allegory, knowledge to impart to those within it.[45] As Du Bois writes, “Negro blood has a message for the world.”[46] This phrasing is indicative of both Du Bois’s subverting of the traditional racial hierarchy and the assumptions attached to it as well as his inability to entirely get outside of it. Such was the pervasiveness of the assumption that physical and cultural difference were intertwined that not even Du Bois seems entirely able to break free of it. His fight, then, was not necessarily one against race essentialism itself but instead a fight to prove that the essence of the African was different from what was thought by the advocates of racism.

        Early reviews of The Souls of the Black Folk along with Du Bois’s response to those reviews are particularly telling in this regard. One anonymous reviewer writing in the New York Times, for example, writes,

To a Southerner who knows the negro race as it exists in the South, it is plain that this negro of Northern education is, after all, as he says, “bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh” of the African race. Sentimental, poetical, picturesque, the acquired logic and the evident attempt to critically fair-minded is strangely tangled with these racial characteristics and the racial rhetoric.[47]

Du Bois’s response to his critics, published in The Independent in 1904, far from rejecting such race essentialism, embraced it as an important aspect of his book and his self. There, he writes, “In its larger aspects of the style is tropical-African. This needs no apology. The blood of my fathers spoke through me and cast off the English restraint of my training and surroundings.”[48] While such statements sound jarring to modern ears, it must be acknowledged that there was a limit to the extent to which Du Bois could depart from the racial assumptions of his time; such race essentialism was, after all, scientific fact according to the greatest minds of his day. What was possible for Du Bois, however, and what he could realistically set out to do, was an alteration of the assumptions that attached to the shared character of African-descended people.

        In many ways, this willingness to compromise with race essentialism as well as Du Bois’s methods in attempting to redefine the characteristics attributed to the essence of African-descended people is a further reflection of Du Bois’s interest in and influence by German nationalism, already seen in his adoption of the word volk, his Fisk senior thesis on Bismarck, and his happy experiences studying in Germany. The famous brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, for example, had been engaged in a project of searching for the essence of the German volk when they set off into the German countryside to collect and classify stories and to study the origins of the German language.[49] Just as fairy tales were seen by the Brothers Grimm in their proto-anthropological studies as constituting one of the aspects of the essence of the German volk, Du Bois points to the sorrow songs, both in their music and in the stories they tell, as essential aspects of the “soul” of the African American folk as well as defining features of the American cultural landscape:

We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.[50]

For Du Bois, then, the music and stories of African Americans are their essence and their contribution to America and to the world. These are, writes Du Bois, “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”[51]

        This contribution, in turn, places people of African descent alongside the members of the great civilizations of world history as contributors to the world’s knowledge and culture. “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son,” writes Du Bois.[52] Du Bois turns the rhetoric of the scientific racists against them to make this assertion; he writes,

The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. . . . Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?[53]

Just as whites of Northern European descent saw themselves standing atop a racial hierarchy with people of African descent at the bottom, writes Du Bois, it would have been possible for a Roman or a Greek to point to the Germanic and other peoples of Northern Europe and to assume a certain racial inferiority of these peoples given those peoples’ relative cultural inferiority. They did not, however, and, indeed, “the Teuton,” as Du Bois refers to these descendants of Northern Europeans, later made his mark on the world’s culture and civilization. It is the Teuton, however, a relative latecomer to civilization, who currently judges those whom he sees as not yet having made their mark to be incapable of doing so and therefore acts to deprive them of the opportunity of doing so.

[36] Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 28.

[37] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 3.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 109.

[40] Ibid., 4.

[41] Ibid., 250.

[42] Dolan Hubbard, “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Invention of the Sublime in The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 305.

[43] Ibid., 312.

[44] Ibid., 311.

[45] Zamir, 184–186.

[46] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 4.

[47] Erica L. Griffin, compiler, “Reviews of The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 21.

[48] Ibid., 33.

[49] Megan Christine Thomas, Orientalists, Propagandists, and Ilustrados: Filipino Scholarship and the End of Spanish Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 207.

[50] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 11–12.

[51] Ibid., 251.

[52] Ibid., 3.

[53] Ibid., 262.