By Chet Yarbrough
The Souls of Black Folk
Written by: W. E. B. Du Bois
Narration by: Mirron Willis
“The Souls of Black Folk” describes a veil of discrimination that covers the face of white America. Published in 1903, it reflects on the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, America’s reconstruction failures after the civil war, and a veil that fell like an iron curtain between black and white America. It is a veil that distorts the truth of human equality.
W. E. B. Du Bois is a great American who finally abandoned his country late in life because he could no longer tolerate the capitalist consequence of social, political, and economic discrimination. He describes discrimination in “The Souls of Black Folk” as a veil, a fine gauzy material that hides the details of black Americans who have the same potential as white overlords. The details are political, social, and economic discrimination imposed by a majority on a minority. Du Bois identifies that minority as people of color; i.e. specifically black Americans.
Du Bois is the first black American to receive a PhD from Harvard University. First he received a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, a storied black college; went to Harvard to receive a second bachelor’s degree, and on to a PhD. Du Bois studied black history and wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” to explain what it is like to be black in America. He began with the end of the civil war and carries it through 1903 when the book is published.
Du Bois explains how black Americans are treated, how they feel about it, and how they react to it. In the clarity of his writing, Du Bois presumes readers will understand humans, of any color, are the same. Du Bois notes that black Americans are offered freedom without a way of making a living, without education, without any respect by fellow Americans. Though they were no longer slaves by law they remain slaves to potential employers who see them as less equal, and less capable. Du Bois notes blacks are denied the tools of education, opportunity for work at a living wage, and the right to participate in the politics of leadership.
Without money, power, or prestige blacks are left with deception as their only defense against oppression. “Shucking and jiving” became a pejorative description of black behavior without white’s understanding of its necessity.
It is little wonder that Du Bois wandered to the idealism of communism with its false promise of equality for all. White America gave Negroes little alternative. However, Du Bois misreads history. The revolution of 1917 may have started with a minority of people called Bolsheviks but they were a part of a white majority. They promised a future of plenty to an uneducated population who were members of a majority. Not only did Du Bois misunderstand the difference between Russian and Chinese revolutions and American capitalism, the future proved promises of communism were false. This does not change the truth of Du Bois’s realization that a white majority denies minorities with false promises of capitalist equality of opportunity.
Du Bois clearly shows how black American education, employment, and political participation are subverted at every turn in American history. Du Bois chastises Booker T. Washington for being an apologist for white suppression. Du Bois sees that, though education is improving for black Americans, they are still denied equal opportunity for employment, and are failing to capitalize on the potential of political power. Nearing 90 years of age, Du Bois gives up on America. Ironically, this is in the 1960’s when the Black Panther’s movement is forming.
Du Bois is a great American because he understood how American capitalism undermines core political beliefs like equality of opportunity and the equality of all human beings. The inherent nature of man “to be greedy” makes fools of us all. Du Bois understood the importance of education, equal economic opportunity, and political power.
Du Bois misunderstood that the drive for money, power, and prestige distorts pursuit of the “good” in all forms of government. Communism, socialism, and capitalism require a Hobson’s choice; i.e. “a choice of taking what is available or nothing at all”. Even for minorities, it seems capitalism offers the best hope because it attempts to regulate the worst parts of human nature.