W. E. B. Du Bois Breaking the Color Line

” The Souls of Black Folks :Revisited” by John Obafemi Jones 2013 Mix Media on Paper

I am posting portions of an essay written about W.E. B. Du Bois seminal book The Souls of Black Folk. Part ethnographic study, personal account, anti-racist polemic and advocacy of education of the former slaves and their descendents in the Jim Crow south of the turn of the Twentieth Century, the book is a convincing polemic.

Violence against Blacks led to their disenfranchisement as soon as federal troops left the former Confederacy.
Credit: Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 24 October 1874 from blackhistory.harpweek.com

The Du Bois book is of literary interest due to his style and innovative use of music and personal experience interwoven with history, political polemic, anthropological notes and advocacy for the interests of Black Americans. It also picks up essentially where Douglass leaves off historically. The subject of the collection of essays that makes up the corpus of the work deals directly with considerations of class, race and racism in the United States. As Du Bois states at the very beginning of his text, “How does it feel to be a problem? (Du Bois 1). With this the issues of race, identity, class and how to best deal with racism are treated within the seminal work on American race relations.

Southern jails made money leasing convicts for forced labor in the Jim Crow South. Circa. 1903. Credit: Everett Collection / SuperStock

Published in 1903, Mr. Du Bois, book describes the struggles of Black people struggling to achieve the same rights as the rest of Americans in the post-Civil War USA. Written at a time when Jim Crow laws had recently passed judicial scrutiny after Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision, had in 1896 held that “we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment” (Plessy). Du Bois introduces the concept of double consciousness that is part of the life of black men “One ever feels his twoness, - 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” (Du Bois 2).

W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1929. CREDIT: “20th Annual session of the N.A.A.C.P., 6-26-29, Cleveland, Ohio.” June 6, 1929. Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The text is an introduction to the civil rights struggles of the last century by framing it in a wider context than just the experiences of Blacks in the USA. Du Bios puts it this way “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” (9).

Art in the service of Colonialism. “East African Transport ~ Old Style” (1931) and part of “East African Transport ~ New Style” (1931) by Adrian Allinson, in Graphic Design: A New History (2007) by Stephen J. Eskilson

Du Bois, who ended his days as a citizen of Ghana when he died in 1963, lived the majority of his life when the Jim Crow laws ruled supreme. He battled his entire life for the rights of all minorities. His activities were instrumental in the beginning of the collapse of Jim Crow as seen in court cases such as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. He was a major participant in the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement to bring an end to racism in the USA (Ward iii).

The Pan-African Congress in session, Paris, February 1919; seated in the middle front row is W. E. B. Du Bois, secretary Credit: wyatt.elasticbeanstalk.com

The connection to the beginnings of the Pan African Movement is evinced by his closing speech at the first Pan African Convention in 1900 where his speech “To the Nations of the World” Du Bois introduced his famous line “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line…” (1900). Later he was a founding member of the NAACP in 1908. His 1947 petition to the United Nations, “An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress” (1947), presented by the Soviet Union, was an important element in pressuring the Truman administration to “enlarge and strengthen the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department” (Horne 80).

Du Bois with Mao in 1959. This image is from the Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst Du Bois collection

Ever active even in his eighties, Du Bois celebrated the founding of the Non Aligned Movement with the Bandung conference of 1955 (Mullen and Watson, xxiv). A conference he was unable to attend due to travel restrictions placed upon him by a State Department black listing charging him with “alien sedition” in 1952 (xi). Nations newly emerged from European colonial domination, had organized around “core principles of the Bandung Conference were political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality” (Bandung). Not long after, Du Bois relocated to an exile in Ghana where his good friend Kwame Nkrumah was President (Mullen and Watson, ix).

W.E.B Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. nairaland.com

Du Bois considered the color line to be such an essential part of the problems of the Twentieth Century that he based the majority of his professional career upon it. Starting with his speech at age 22 in Paris at the Pan-African Conference, and consistently there after he fought to smash the color line. As he put it in 1906:

The Russo-Japanese War has marked an epoch. The “magic” of the word white is already broken, and the Color Line in civilization has been crossed in modern times as in the great past. The awakening of the yellow race is certain. That the awakening of the brown and black races will follow in time, no unprejudiced student of history can doubt. (qtd. in Mullen and Watson, vii).

Tying this back to the text, The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois leads the charge against Booker T. Washington’s approach “Mr. Washington represents the Negro through the old attitude of adjustment and submission” (Du Bois, 30). He accuses Washington of doing nothing to fight the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South of his day and argues for a militant move to enfranchisement, gaining civil equality and education for black youths (32). He describes the history of the Freedman’s Bureau, calling it “a full-fledged government of men” (17).

Du Bois was critical of Booker T. Washington’s willingness to go along with Jim Crow disenfranchisement of Blacks to get Whites to support his program to educate Blacks in the Vocational Arts. usslave.blogspot.com

Du Bois advocated the reform of education as he says “They made their mistakes, those who planted Fisk and Howard and Atlanta before the smoke of battle had lifted; … [Du Bois, writing of post-Civil War Atlanta and the founding of Negro colleges], The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization” (52-53). This theory, in which he advocated for a Black elite “of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths (52), led to a focus on the proper role for black leaders which some such as Nella Larson in books like Quicksand critiqued (Larson, 1732).

Schools set up after the War by New England Women Teachers were gradually underfunded as the North turned away from the Freed Slaves. Du Boils was an advocate of education improvements for Southern Blacks. ncpedia.org

Du Bois has autobiographical sections of his own early days teaching in a backwoods Tennessee community with intimate descriptions of the local inhabitants (Du Bois, 37-45). His own revulsion is documented of the wasted lives of black people, waxing poetic and expressing pathos:

How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure,—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?
Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car (45).

An intellectual and moving writer, Du Bois who makes in this book a declaration of his intentions as an advocate for the minority races of the world oppressed by White led imperialism, racism and colonialism. Du Bois deserves more than passing reference in some academic environment. The Souls of Black Folk is a classic read.

There was a major campaign in the 1930’s to end Lynching by Federal Decree. President Roosevelt was afraid to alienate Whites in the Democratic Jim Crow South and upset his reelection bid.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Ed. Candace Ward. New York: Dover Pub. Inc. 1994. Print.
Horne, Gerald. Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963. New York: SUNY Press. 1986. Google Books. Web. 18 May 2014.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. Vol. D. Ed. Mary Loefflhol. New York: Norton & Co. 2007. 1721-1802. Print (photocopy).
Mullen, Bill V. and Cathryn Watson. “Introduction: Crossing the World Color Line.” Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. W.E.B. Du Bois on Asia: Crossing the World Color Line. Eds. Bill V. Mullen and Cathryn Watson. Oxford, MS: U. of Mississippi P. 2005. vii- xxvii. Googlebooks.org. Web. 18 May 2014.
Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537. Supreme Court of the United States. 1896. Ethical Issues in the Courts. Ed. Van Camp, Julie C. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.2006. Print.
United States. U. S. Department of State. Office of the Historian. “Bandung Conference (Asian- African Conference), 1955.” Milestones: 1953–1960. Washington: Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. n.d. Web. 18 May 2014.
Ward, Candace. “Note.” The Souls of Black Folk. By W. E. B. Du Bois. 1903. Ed. Ward. New York: Dover Pub. Inc. 1994. iii. Print.
“(1900) W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘To the Nations of the World,’.” BlackPast.org. BlackPast.org. n.d. Web. 18 May. 2014.

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