10 September 2014

In The Name of Human Opportunity

My guess is that if you read this blog, you have never read any W.E.B. DuBois. In fact, I'll bet that if you read this blog, you cannot tell me who this fellow is. Since last week we cited the greatest aspirational speech ever in our nation on the topic of race, I thought it would be perfectly and sincerely vital to look back a little further into the history of Black people in this nation to the man who might be the one who has best explained the world they live in. If I have any concerns about reprinting this here today, it is only that it leap-frogs backwards in time to a place before the height of Black culture in America. But that time would never have existed without DuBois' writings and thoughts.

Before we go there, let me say this as the last breath of my hiatus goes away: anyone asking the fellows at TeamPyro for some insight about theology and racism who have not themselves read DuBois and Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and James Baldwin and so on (forgive me for listing none of the great voices of Black women) -- please don't lecture me about who I ought to have invited to dinner. Please don't expect me to take you seriously when what you think we ought to do is simply accept that we are ignorant and awful.  We didn't expect that the best we could do to take in the Black experience was to listen to rap music -- as if the White experience could be gleaned from country music.  Some white people have grown up among black people, and wanted to love them, and listened to them as they told us from their best voices what we ought to believe about who they are. We listened then, before most of the users of the internet knew there was a world bigger than their own neighborhood, and we decided early on that our expectations for any person would be the ones we had for ourselves -- namely, to expect the best, forgive honest mistakes and the faults of immaturity, and to do to any person what we would expect to be done to us.

The text below is from the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, copied and pasted from bartleby.com.  I have updated the paragraph breaks for internet readers.

fter the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—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.

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.

This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.

These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro past flits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness. Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man’s turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness. And yet it is not weakness,—it is the contradiction of double aims.

The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan—on the one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde—could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks. The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people.

This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.

Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries. To him, so far as he thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; Emancipation was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the eyes of wearied Israelites.

In song and exhortation swelled one refrain -- Liberty; in his tears and curses the God he implored had Freedom in his right hand. At last it came,—suddenly, fearfully, like a dream. With one wild carnival of blood and passion came the message in his own plaintive cadences:
“Shout, O children!
Shout, you’re free!
For God has bought your liberty!”
Years have passed away since then,—ten, twenty, forty; forty years of national life, forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthy spectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation’s feast. In vain do we cry to this our vastest social problem:
“Take any shape but that,
and my firm nerves Shall never tremble!”
The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,—a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.


The bright ideals of the past,—physical freedom, political power, the training of brains and the training of hands,—all these in turn have waxed and waned, until even the last grows dim and overcast. Are they all wrong,—all false? No, not that, but each alone was over-simple and incomplete,—the dreams of a credulous race-childhood, or the fond imaginings of the other world which does not know and does not want to know our power. To be really true, all these ideals must be melted and welded into one.

The training of the schools we need to-day more than ever,—the training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears, and above all the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds and pure hearts. The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence,—else what shall save us from a second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek,—the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire. Work, culture, liberty,—all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.

We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.

Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?

Merely a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic is the Negro Problem, and the spiritual striving of the freedmen’s sons is the travail of souls whose burden is almost beyond the measure of their strength, but who bear it in the name of an historic race, in the name of this the land of their fathers’ fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.


Jacob Phillips said...

Really good stuff here. W.E.B. Dubois was singularly talented -- his views were radical but relatively mainstream (at least in the academic world) at the same time. And it's amazing how relevant his writings about how white racism influences some of the sociological findings of African-American culture are today.

Michael said...

Thanks for posting this, Frank. I want to hear more from this guest speaker. I aim to seek this book out. Your intro, in which you exhort us to have an actual foundation laid by the reading of the works of thoughtful, intelligent black men (and women) before going off half-cocked is wise advice. Kanye West may not be the most stable of foundations.
Michael Rudnick

Jim Pemberton said...

Herein is the tension between individual and corporate identity. Where America has been called the great melting pot, the term seemed originally limited to the mixing of different cultures... from Europe. It didn't include tribes of aboriginal Americans, early Chinese settlers, or Africans brought in as slaves. The homogeneity of subtle cultural distinctions is possible, but outright pluralism results in a tension of subcultures that can rise to critical mass. Something has to give.

I could say something about how politicians try keep the population of the US politically manageable by taking advantage of this dynamic. But more importantly, it's a dynamic that affects the memberships of churches. Assuming relative doctrinal orthodoxy, churches can differ greatly in the methods, forms and functions of church life depending on the predominant culture of the membership. Related to Dan's article yesterday, adding new members to the church is bound to change the church. If these members are significantly different, then the church will likely change significantly. Enough people adamantly don't want that to happen which keeps our churches mostly segregated even today. Their individual cultural identity is erroneously tied to their identity in Christ and it translates into an ideal church culture that they have trouble giving up.

This also works itself out in a similar way in a pluralistic society, where we gain familiarity from our neighborhoods. TV mitigates this somewhat exposing regular watchers to an array of artificially construed homogenous cultural constructs that we are expected to watch and adopt. The problem is precisely that they are artificial. So people from different cultures adopt different aspects of the artificial cultures presented and remain segregated in practice.

From this, the perception of the media presentations are apprehended through the lenses of the individual cultures in a manner like the classic optimist/pessimist "glass half-full/empty" illustration, namely that we either see the media's presentation positively as favorable to our subculture with some minor differences or negatively as unfavorable to our subculture with some minor acknowledgements. Those with the negative view typically feel the most disenfranchised by society. If one places value in society, then the perceived disenfranchisement will typically lead to identity problems. If one places value in Christ, then one's identity will remain steadfast regardless of his or her subcultural status.

Webster Hunt said...

This paragraph seems to pinpoint our day and time for the black culture:

"This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves."

And this:
"Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment... The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,—a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people."

I live in the Memphis, TN area, and had the pleasure to hear a white man who had been de-segregated into a mostly black school describe what he saw in his adult years during the "Beautification Memphis" project and throughout the years of black-led education in the early years of de-segregation.

Of the latter, he said that, in their zeal to produce black leaders, that they would pass their children up through the grades, whether they'd learned the material or not, just so that they could produce leaders. What they did - perhaps in fear that again their freedom would not be found, much like the aftermath of Emancipation that Dubois is talking about here - was promote the ignorant to a position they were not trained nor educated for and effectively shot their descendants in the foot on the altar of freedom.

Correct me if I'm misunderstanding - because all I'm writing is an attempt to understand correctly - but it seems that this disappointment over no divine moment has led to cries of racism when there hasn't been, and a distaste for the law that, when exercised rightly, seems to be for their good.

Frank Turk said...

Web -

I think we need to be on special guard against trying to divine the motives of the hearts of others, and I hold at arm's length anyone who says that Black culture intentionally is trying to put the least and worst out as their leaders.

What DuBois says here with words, however, is this: an indisputable part of (American) Black culture which other ethnic groups have never had to wrestle with is the idea that the rest of the world has them in a fish bowl, and what the world thinks of their culture (including their self image) is often how this people will think of themselves.

That's a terrible burden to the extent that it is true.

Webster Hunt said...

I've still got a lot to learn and think through, obviously. I'm sure my public library has the authors you listed at the beginning, so I'll read up and anticipate your unhiatused posts here, as it seems you're working up to that (I think you even said as much).

Thanks for this. Great post.