The Urgency of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Review of “The Souls of Black Folk”

Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (Amazon | Indie Bound) in these times is not only necessary, but also critical. Apart from this list of resistance literature I compiled earlier this year, this classic originally published in 1903 bears a resounding message of hope and of liberation. At the same time, it also outlines what has been done, what has worked and what hasn’t as he explored the state of black Americans’ road to liberation.

As a non-black immigrant from the Third World, understanding the struggles of black folks is rooted and grounded in the collective struggle for justice, liberation and self-determination. My survival is bound with those of others — those who have suffered from European imperialism down to its newer, more toxic form, U.S. imperialism.

I admit: the book was a challenging read for me because I wasn’t used to his diction and style of writing. But form aside, all fourteen chapters are explicit in illustrating what emancipation looks like — from raising self-consciousness, the formation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the importance of education, the role of religion and the church and a pointed, materialist analysis of black leadership.

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Source: Amistad Murals by Hale Arpacio Woodruff

He started with an examination of identity, of being black in the U.S.:

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

When I read this, I immediately thought of what’s happening today with the recent Muslim ban. Many folks are leaving their home countries because of war and economic hardships, eager to start a new life in the U.S. These are parallels, as over and over again, we see how history repeats itself. Ravaged in your home country, you flee to places with opportunities only to be spurned and rejected.

Whether you’re black, Muslim or a refugee, Du Bois reminded of an important historical fact: forced migration isn’t a new phenomenon — the greatest forced migration in history was actually the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade during the 15th through the 19th centuries (PBS).

Still, the longing to transcend the past no matter how painful takes center stage. The “American Dream” is still a yearning for so many. But is “pulling yourself up by your boot sraps” a legitimate pathway to attain the dream when success in the country cannot be quantified alone on an individual’s hard work? Du Bois answers:

To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, —not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance.

What we’ve witnessed too, specially with the current administration is the proliferation of the idea that the enemy is the other — those who don’t look like you — instead of the system and the top 1% it protects.

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Source: The Underground Railroad by Hale Arpacio Woodruff

Du Bois also wrote about black peasantry and land ownership, of the reality of starting disadvantageously while living in the guise of promised prosperity. I don’t hear too much about black farmers anymore (until I started watching Queen Sugar) but it reminded me of the land reform struggle of so many Filipinos back home.

The Negro farmer started behind,—started in debt. This was not his choosing, but the crime of this happy–go–lucky nation which goes blundering along with its Reconstruction tragedies, its Spanish war interludes and Philippine matinees, just as though God really were dead. Once in debt, it is no easy matter for a whole race to emerge.

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Source: “Sharecropper” by Elizabeth Catlett

Faced with debt, exploitative landlords and a system that befits the top 1% of the population, what are the chances of making it — what are the chances of survival? Pointing out these institutional economic, political and social policies is crucial, and Du Bois does reiterates them solidly.

When I was reading, my thoughts also turned to Sandra Bland would’ve turned 30 on February 7, to Trayvon Martin would’ve been 22 on February 5. Both were black, both victims of police and state violence that Du Bois also called out pointedly in the book:

…the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge.

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Source: Tumblr

But perhaps the biggest thing that resonated with me was how Du Bois spoke out against colonial aggression and imperial expansion, something I also feel strongly against and have built my life around resisting.

In a piece titled Peace written for The Crisis magazine, Du Bois writes that:

Peace today, if it means anything, means the stopping of the slaughter of the weaker by the stronger in the name of Christianity and the culture. The modern lust for land and slaves in Africa, Asia and the South Seas is the greatest and almost the only cause of war between the so-called civilized peoples. For such “colonial” aggression and “imperial” expansion England, France, Germany, Russia and Austria are straining every nerve to arm themselves; against such policies Japan and China are arming desperately.

As we navigate a political terrain riddled with fascism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and really — U.S. imperialism — we need to think of deepening the connections between our struggles in the country and beyond, where U.S. has encroached on people’s rights and livelihoods violently.

“The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”

* * * 

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The Souls of Black Folk  
(Amazon | Indie Bound) by W.E.B. Du Bois
November 28, 2014 edition
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (124 pages)
My rating: ★★★
The Souls of Black Folk

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