Both of my last two blog posts have honored Black History Month. The first was devoted to the monumental work, From Slavery to Freedom, A History of African Americans, by the eminent historian John Hope Franklin and his distinguished colleague, Alfred Moss, Jr. And the second post followed with a review of the excellent book, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift, by Jacqueline M. Moore.
As this year’s final tribute, I am adding The Souls of Black Folk, by the great black intellectual and civil rights leader, W.E.B. DuBois. As the note introducing this masterful and eloquent volume states: “Part social documentary, part history, part autobiography, part anthropological field report, The Souls of Black Folk remains unparalleled in its scope.” And I would add, not only true at the time of its publication in 1903, but equally true today.
When I began this work, I knew many things about W.E.B., facts like he was a great intellectual, of his differences with Booker T. Washington, on how best to uplift the black race after their emancipation, and that he was one of the prime founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And while I had read that he was a fine writer, I had never met him on the printed page in person, and was therefore unprepared for his masterful abilities with language.
In his preface, W.E.B. introduces himself to his reader and instantly forms a personal relationship with him or her by humbly asking, “I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me…seeking to find the grain of truth hidden there.” And when the reader accepts this kind and generous offer, he or she is very quickly rewarded with such an in-depth exploration of the struggles of the freed blacks to survive and slowly progress in the hostile world they faced after emancipation, a struggle so vividly portrayed by W.E.B., with a rare combination of pathos and dignity, that the reader will come as close to possible to stepping into the shoes of the oppressed people portrayed.
In just 164 pages, W.E.B. takes the reader on a journey from the Reconstruction Era to 1900, educating him or her with first-hand accounts of what it was like for a black person seeking help from the Freedmen’s Bureau, then struggling to create a hardscrabble living from farming, and learning to read and write, all in the face of a hostile white society. Further along the path, when blacks began migrating north, W.E.B. then takes the reader further inside minds and hearts of those blacks seeking to find housing and acquire skills and having done so, being rewarded by facing virulent racial bias in the job market.
Religion and music, and their important roles in the cultural lives of blacks, during slavery and onward along the slow and painful path that they traversed as freedmen is also treated by W.E.B. Once again, the first-hand accounts so vividly described in detail leap off the page to surround the reader to experience both the positive and negative effects of these great influences on a people seeking desperately to live.
In the end, after years of effort that resulted in personal success, an exhausted W.E.B. formed the opinion that the white bias of inherent superiority was so deeply ingrained that blacks would never be treated as equal members of American society, and he emigrated to Ghana and lived out his life there. Today, despite the progress that has been made, despite the gains resulting from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and even despite the election of an African American President, race remains a major problem for America. In The Afterthought attached to his vitally important book, W.E.B. did offer what to me is a prayer for justice that is as fully applicable today as it was in 1903.
“Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born unto the world-wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful. (Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare.) Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and These crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed.”
This book inspired me to try harder to do my share to make that prayer come true. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all who would seek a similar experience.