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The Souls of Black folk--a teachable moment.

"Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed, we were here. Here we have brought out three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of storytelling and song ... the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil and lay the foundations of this vast empire ... a gift of the spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; and of the nation's heart we have called all that was best--to throttle and subdue the worst."

W.E.B. DuBois

The recent confrontation between the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University again shined a light on our race problem.

Gates is arguably the foremost interpreter of the African-American legacy in the country today. What happened to him in the confines of his home--his arrest and handcuffing--could have happened to anyone of us in our present-day world. But what magnifies this incident all the more is Gates is black and a friend of President Obama.

Prof. Gates, once married to a white woman, has lived in the confluence of two cultures. He is brilliant, hot tempered and determined to confront racism in America. What is more, he is the director of the W.E.B Dubois institute for African and African-American research.

While the controversy surrounding the encounter between Gates and Sgt. James Crowley raises many issues, the crux of the matter for many is the smoldering reality of racism in our society. We simply do not understand blacks and whites in America. Where do we begin? I suggest the work of DuBois, "The Souls of Black Folk." It's a must read for anyone who wants to be a part of the solution and not the problem.

William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963) was irascible, aristocratic, arrogant, aloof, egotistical and possessed of a tooth-jarring moral rectitude. He was courageous, honorable, loyal, indomitable and brilliant. As with all of us, he was a mix of virtues and vices, but different because he could see into the heart of things.

DuBois, the first black PhD laureate out of Harvard, was a defining presence in 20th century America. His book, "The Souls," is a road map into the black experience. It is a beacon, a rallying cry for the world's dispossessed people. In its pages, DuBois demonstrates how the race problem is forever linked to the American dream and what is at issue--the will to implement solutions, the courage to look inside ourselves where any fundamental change must begin, and then to learn the histories of the immigrants who call America home.

He knew that we couldn't know and interpret the history of this sweeping national experience unless we engage and understand the souls of black folk. The book was published in 1903 and appeared almost without fanfare. DuBois was quite explicit about his intentions, saying, "Herein lies buried many things that, if read with patience, may show the meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century."

The book consists of 13 essays and one short story. It addresses a wide range of topics including the story of the freedmen during Reconstruction, the political ascendancy of Booker T. Washington, the sublimity of spirituals and the death of DuBois' only son, Burghardt. Hailed now as a classic, the book has been re-published in 119 editions.

Black living two lives

DuBois' subject was the largely unarticulated beliefs and practices of American blacks who were impatient to burst out of the cotton fields and take their place in society. As he saw it, African-American culture in 1903 was at once vibrant and disjointed, rooted in an almost medieval, agrarian past, and yet fiercely restive. Born in the chaos of slavery, the culture had begun to generate a richly variegated body of myths, plots, stories, melodies and rhythms. In "Souls," DuBois peered deeply into the legacy of his kin and saw the face of black America-or rather he saw two faces.

"One ever feels the two-ness, an American, a Negro," DuBois wrote "Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." He described this condition as double consciousness. Already psychologists were developing this theory in psychoanalysis.

But DuBois transposed this concept from the realm of the psyche to the social predicament of blacks in America. "This American world," he said, "yields the Negro no time for self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the window of the other world--always looking at oneself through the eyes of others-measuring one's soul by the white man's measure.... the double standard every American Negro must live by, as a Negro and as an American, leads inevitably to a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence."

The result is "a double life, with double thoughts, double duties and double social classes.... double words and double ideas, which tempt the mind to pretense or to revolt, hypocrisy or to radicalism," DuBois wrote. According to Gates, "DuBois wanted to make the American Negro whole and he believed that only desegregation and full equality could make this psychic and social integration possible."

The noted psychiatrist Carl dung visited the United States in the heyday of the racial political "separate but equal" doctrine and observed that the shocking thing wasn't that black culture was not equal; it was that it was not separate. "The native European, "he wrote, "thinks of America as a white nation. It is not wholly white, if you please. It is partly colored and that explains, the slightly Negroid mannerisms of the American. Since the Negro lives within your cities and even in your houses, he also lives within your skin."

"It wasn't just that the Negro was an American," as DuBois wrote, but that "the American was Negro." As the writer, James Baldwin put it: "Each of us helplessly and forever contains the other, white in black and black in white."

For "Souls" is finally a work of art whose existence creates a resounding response to the critics, detractors and destroyers of black life. Neither DuBois nor "Souls" stands hat-in-hand looking for charity, articulating any special pleading, representing any special interests. Now more than a century after its issuance and subsequent inclusion in the American Canon, the disquieting reality that everything DuBois saw and said remains so relevant, so perceptive, and so clairvoyant of what's wrong now, because nothing has really changed in the heart of our darkness.

DuBois moves to Ghana

In 1961 at the age of 93, DuBois moved to the African nation of Ghana where he was received with warm respect and financial support as a "scholar in residence." Not long afterwards, he was enrolled as a Ghanian citizen, a symbolic decision because the U.S. Embassy refused to renew his passport.

In August 1963, DuBois' health began to deteriorate, and on the eve of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 27, DuBois died. On the dais in Washington, as millions assembled, the word was passed, "The Man is dead." In the roar of the tumult, the people said, "Amen." No official from the American Embassy attended the state funeral for the Man in Ghana. But, no matter, DuBois was a citizen of the world.

Recently in his visit to Ghana, President Obama said in ringing tones, "the blood of Africa flows in these (his) veins."

Racial profiling is a way of life in America as most blacks will tell you, having experienced it. There are things that police Sgt. Crowley will never understand, and Henry Louis Gates cannot help him, for in spite of his brilliance, Gates too is crippled by anger. It is the Cain and Abel story writ large. Brothers who cannot be brothers but are brothers nonetheless.

Robert W. Zabscott is a Presbyterian minister and is founder of the Elijah Lovejoy Society, a historical research center in Webster Groves.
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Author:Tabscott, Robert W.
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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