USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

W.E.B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois was a giant of American letters, scholarship, and activism. His work as a scholar, activist, and writer broke all boundaries and combined history, politics, law, sociology, philosophy, economics, and more. The first black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Du Bois trained his magnificent talents on the study of the black experience in the United States (and elsewhere) and the fight for black rights and equality. In some sense, Du Bois was a product of his age—he spoke many languages, classical and modern, and was sensitive to, and focused on, the problems that emerged with industrial society and modernity as well as the deeper historical and social dynamics of slavery and imperialism. In some ways, Du Bois fit into the mold of a progressive—especially when he harnessed the new social sciences to intervene in social and political debates. And yet, it would be a mistake to place Du Bois in any category. His interventions into U.S. history and the real and philosophical implications of U.S. race relations transformed the landscape of discussion about American society, setting the stage, more than any other single thinker, for how to think about and unravel (and combat) the race-based hierarchy and tyranny/terror of American life. The modern civil rights movement, the heir to the great abolitionist movement of Frederick Douglass and others, was pioneered and led for decades by W.E.B. Du Bois—one of the most radical voices the country had ever heard. To this very day, one can pick up a book by Du Bois and see, amazingly, shockingly, and sadly, the contemporary world mirrored in those century-old words.

One of W.E.B. Dubois’ seminal works was a series of essays—historical, sociological, philosophical—written in the early twentieth century, which tried to capture the dimensions of black life in the decades after the end of the U.S. Civil War, especially in the American South. The book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), falls a little bit outside of the temporal framework of this chapter, but it is such a central and enduring text that I would like to spend some time on it here.

If we turn to the famous beginning of chapter two, we find the following pronouncement:

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points, of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict.

A couple of things are interesting in this opening. Du Bois links the issue of U.S. race relations to its global context, to the era of European/American imperialism and domination in Africa and Asia. Du Bois knows that racial definitions and racial “science” are being used throughout the world to justify a vast system of exploitation conducted by mostly white Europeans and Americans against indigenous populations. The issue of the color-line leads directly into the issue of power. Two types of power, of course, are implied here: military/police power and economic and industrial power.

In addition, Du Bois engaged the great historical questions surrounding the Civil War: what was the ultimate meaning of the Civil War? What had caused it? Why did the South secede? Why did the North respond with force? How should one think about the postwar period called Reconstruction? What accounts for the “failure” of Reconstruction to remake the South? Du Bois understood, writing at a short remove from the Civil War, that memory, the historical construction of the war's import and meaning, was more than an academic question. The South's popular and institutional efforts to promote its "Lost Cause" ideology shrouded the roots of the Civil War in treason and white supremacy, giving its white elite renewed license to reassert political, social, and economic control over the descendants of its enslaved population.

In 1903, these questions were still viciously contested, and various narratives emerged, many of which, especially those in the South among an enduring white supremacist society, sought to play down the importance of slavery as the catalyst for the Civil War. Indeed, with the failure of Reconstruction to uproot and destroy white supremacy, the stage was set for the politics of memory of the Civil War to recast the conflict as a war of northern aggression, as one between systems of values, ways of life, of regional or states’ rights versus centralized, federal authority. Du Bois recognizes this, and he understands that this reshaping of social memory acts in support of the white supremacist regime that took over after the end of Reconstruction. Du Bois, cutting against views in both popular culture and the professional historical establishment, wants to preserve and champion the (correct) interpretation that the Civil War was primarily about the status and future of slavery in the United States. Like Frederick Douglass, Du Bois saw the war as a national moral reckoning. The status of the Civil War in American life was still very much an open question and continued to be for many decades after Du Bois wrote this book. It would take the Civil Rights movement and a veritable revolution within the American historical establishment to dislodge the apologetic view of Southern history.

Equally important, the period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction was framed by the dominant historical narrative in purely negative terms with regard to the agency of southern black people and their northern allies. In short, Reconstruction, especially in its “radical” phase, was an attempt to break the hold of white supremacist, racist power in the south, to give black Americans equal rights and equal protections, to educate the citizenry (both black and white), and to promote or at least not block black access to local and federal political power. These efforts were backed by constitutional reforms in the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. In addition, Congress created the Freedman’s Bureau to help with the transition of southern blacks from slavery to freedom. It is hard to capture the vehemence of the opposition to Reconstruction and the tenacity with which southern whites sought to rebuild the hierarchies of slave society. This meant de-legitimizing black power during Reconstruction and defining Reconstruction as a whole as a social and political failure caused by opportunist northern whites and unprepared and incompetent blacks. By the turn of the twentieth century, these narratives of Reconstruction had cemented themselves in the American consciousness, driven by southern and northern scholars and intellectuals, not least by the power of mass media (newspapers, novels, and soon films).

Du Bois recasts the entire question. Reconstruction failed, of course—so much was obvious by the conditions of black life in the south. But it didn’t fail, Du Bois argues, because of northern exploitation or southern black deficiency. Rather, it failed because the government didn’t have the will to commit to real improvements in black life, because nothing was done to check the rising terrorism in southern white society, because the economic foundation of prosperity was not established for former slaves and their children, because, in short, the attempt was partial, commitment to it shaky. For these reasons, Du Bois argues, the Freedman’s Bureau and Reconstruction in general should be viewed as glimmerings of success, as suggestions of how things could have been. Du Bois writes:

Thus did the United States government definitely assume charge of the emancipated Negro as the ward of the nation. It was a tremendous undertaking. Here at a stroke of the pen was erected a government of millions of men, -- and not ordinary men either, but black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of slavery, centuries old; and now, suddenly, violently, they come into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, in the midst of the stricken and embittered population of their former masters.

On the issue of education, the Freedman’s Bureau saw considering short-term success:

The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written, -- the tale of a mission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than the quest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang the rhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South. They did their work well. In that first year they taught one hundred thousand souls, and more.

While the issue of education was a bright spot, the real question was an economic one: how to deal with the fact that the newly freed slaves were without property and penniless. To deal with this problem meant attacking economic base of white power. Reconstruction, even in its radical form, focused mainly on political power and legal rights. The idea of large-scale economic re-engineering of southern society, along the lines of General Sherman’s “forty acres and a mule” was dismissed. Du Bois writes:

Three characteristic things one might have seen in Sherman's raid through Georgia, which threw the new situation in shadowy relief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the Negro. Some see all significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the bitter sufferers of the Lost Cause. But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens of thousands. Here too came the characteristic military remedy: “The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John's River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by act of war.” So read the celebrated “Field-order Number Fifteen.” All these experiments, orders, and systems were bound to attract and perplex the government and the nation.

For Du Bois, the great equalizer, the great democratizer, in the South was the issue of land, and it would be the ultimate failure of Reconstruction to base black American (former slave) freedom on a solid foundation of property. About abandoned lands of the South, Du Bois writes: “Now Congress had not appropriated a cent, and no sooner did the proclamations of general amnesty appear than the eight hundred thousand acres of abandoned lands in the hands of the Freedmen's Bureau melted quickly away.”

As a historian and sociologist, Du Bois was always thinking about how particular events, in this case the attempts of the Freedman’s Bureau, related to the broader context. Here is how Du Bois masterfully sketches the postwar reality in the South: 

To understand and criticize intelligently so vast a work [Freedman’s Bureau], one must not forget an instant the drift of things in the later sixties. Lee had surrendered, Lincoln was dead, and Johnson and Congress were at loggerheads; the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, the Fourteenth pending, and the Fifteenth declared in force in 1870. Guerrilla raiding, the ever-present flickering after-flame of war, was spending its forces against the Negroes, and all the Southern land was awakening as from some wild dream to poverty and social revolution. In a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, the social uplifting of four million slaves to an assured and self-sustaining place in the body politic and economic would have been a herculean task; but when to the inherent difficulties of so delicate and nice a social operation were added the spite and hate of conflict, the hell of war; when suspicion and cruelty were rife, and gaunt Hunger wept beside Bereavement, -- in such a case, the work of any instrument of social regeneration was in large part foredoomed to failure. The very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and better men had refused even to argue, -- that life amid free Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments.

This is a powerful paragraph, emotionally charged and poetically presented. It is in this context that we find in The Souls of Black Folk one of the most powerful images in American literary history, the presentation of an old southern white man and this man’s former black maid and slave. For Du Bois, the metaphorical power of these two figures captures emotional, psychological, and political aspects of the past and present and points into the future. Du Bois first presents the white man, the former slave master:

The one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes.

This is a man with personal history, but who reflects not only one life but a longstanding tradition, a social structure. Slavery had been the foundation of Southern life and Southern culture. It was ripped violently away. This creates, in Du Bois’ image, a character with a deep psychic wound. Respect for ancestors, adherence to traditions, gender roles and gender understanding, in this case Southern masculinity, were tied to the institution of slavery. Beyond that, there is the entire economic arrangement of the South; it is built on slavery, built on the backs of slaves. This is no mere picture of an injured man; it is a fatally wounded man living within a disgraced society. The result: hate.

Du Bois turns to the woman:

... and the other, a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife, -- aye, too, at the behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne away a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the wind by midnight marauders riding after “damned niggers.”

The image of the woman’s suffering reaches into just about every zone of life imaginable. It contains the historical injustice of slavery. It reveals the utter servitude that the woman was forced to give to her master. It presents the strange mixture of dedication to and hate for her oppressor, especially with regard to the innocent children in her care. The image emphasizes the total humiliation of her repeated rape by her master, an act of possession, domination, and tyranny over her body. The image contains the devastating pain of watching her child die at the hands of terrorists. These are wounds that reach the deepest places in the human heart and soul. There is no possibility to recover from such wounds.   

What is Du Bois’ point when sketching these two figures? They stand for postwar Southern society—for these two figures will have to coexist amid the southern social structure, and they will have to do so, Du Bois thinks, without a way of reconciling. These are two irreconcilable positions: historically irreconcilable, psychologically irreconcilable, sociologically irreconcilable. If the Freedmen’s Bureau were to succeed, it would have to succeed, Du Bois posits, in doing the impossible. It would have to allow or enable these wounds to close up, to create the conditions for coexistence. However valiant the attempts, the bureau and the broader Reconstruction movement did not do this. The South fell back into a violent, racist, white supremacist, and undemocratic society. It would be the old white man’s hate, along with the inherited and conditioned hate of his sons and daughters, which would define the era of Jim Crow.


This page has paths: