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The Forethought

September 6th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

WEB_DuBois_1918

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.[1]

At the beginning of the twentieth century W.E.B. DuBois published a little collection of essays entitled The Souls of Black Folks. DuBois was one of the giants of American progressivism but I fear he is overlooked. He grew up in the relatively progressive Northeast and was the first black man to be awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard. If you read a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr,. you will no doubt be informed that he was influenced by DuBois, but rarely is that influence detailed, and DuBois himself remains a mystery. But he was and is not mysterious at all. During the Depression, he gravitated toward socialism as did many other intellectuals of the day. In the aftermath of WWII the anti-communist witch hunts captured him in their web. Although The Souls of Black Folks is a hopeful book, by the 1950s DuBois had become convinced that Americans would never be able to overcome racism. He renounced his American citizenship and moved to Ghana, where he died in 1963, one day before Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.

At the beginning of the book there is a short introduction DuBois calls “The Forethought.” In it he notes that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” DuBois makes a number of insightful observations in this small volume but at its base is the idea that white and black people do not inhabit the same space. Black people live in a world behind the “veil” that was conditioned by slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. White people cannot see behind the veil but only the sheer covering, and upon that canvas they project perceptions of “otherness,” fear and inferiority.

DuBois invites the reader to enter the world behind the veil to experience the life of the black person in America in 1903. Now, well into the second decade of the Twenty-First century, we find ourselves still beset by the problem of the color line. Was DuBois right? By peering into each other’s’ worlds can we learn to make a new America that is neither white nor black but draws upon the best of both worlds?

I urge you to sample DuBois’ elegant prose, particularly “The Forethought,” “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” Then take heed of his admonition in “The Afterthought:”

Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into 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 THE END.

The Souls of Black Folks online

[1] Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; [Cambridge]: University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A., 1903; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/114/. [September 6, 2016].

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