Saturday, November 24, 2012

School Notes: Week 9- The Souls of Black Folk

It's been a long term. But here's some recent thinking:

            As an undergrad, I majored in History and English. In both departments, I focused on issues of colonization and struggles to decolonize. As a result, I have encountered this text numerous times in excerpt form, but have never read the entire work (my own fault really). While masking and the concept of the veil were familiar to me, I had never read the chapter “Of the Passing of the First-Born[1]” and in reading it for the first time, I was deeply moved, and cannot help but wonder why it has taken so long for this chapter to become part of my life.
            Perhaps it has been delayed because of the very same features which rendered it so remarkable to me. Especially striking, is the writing. Here Du Bois’ prose is, perhaps even more so than in other sections of this book, highly poetic and intensely beautiful. His language conveys with intensity the pain of the child’s death and how it is so deeply commingled with the father’s pain of knowing the social evils which the child never grew old enough to cognitively experience even though they cost him his life.[2]
The world loved him; the women kissed his curls, the men looked gravely into his wonderful eyes, and the children hovered and fluttered about him. I can see him now, changing like the sky from sparkling laughter to darkening frowns, and then to wondering thoughtfulness as he watched the world. He knew no color-line, poor dear,—and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yet darkened half his sun (156).

All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in my heart,—nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darkly through the Veil,—and my soul whispers ever to me, saying, “Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.” No bitter meanness now shall sicken his baby heart till it die a living death, no taunt shall madden his happy boyhood. Fool that I was to think or wish that this little soul should grow choked and deformed within the Veil! I might have known that yonder deep unworldly look that ever and anon floated past his eyes was peering far beyond this narrow Now. In the poise of his little curl-crowned head did there not sit all that wild pride of being which his father had hardly crushed in his own heart? For what, forsooth, shall a Negro want with pride amid the studied humiliations of fifty million fellows? Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you (157).

Work of this kind, work that is artistically rendered, deeply personal and emotionally rich rarely appears in academic coursework (outside of particular disciplines designed to deal with such material: poetry, literature, film studies etc…).  Perhaps this is part of the reason why some people have difficulty reading this text as a work of sociology. But why should that be so?
         The academic standards, created and enforced by white men, prioritize (as Weber so aptly points out in his introduction to the Protestant Work Ethic) cold rationality. To be rational, to be a scientist, is to be disconnected from the personal, the emotional, and the artistic. Clearly, Du Bois is too powerful a thinker to be ignored completely, and so excerpts found their way into my course work from time to time, but only those excerpts which might seem to fall closest in line with standard academic (objective? abstract?) ways of analyzing the world.[3] Now, in my fifth year of graduate study I am offered this chapter, (as part of the entire book of course, perhaps to retain context) and offered it in a Sociological Theory class to boot. What does one make of so much emotion being presented as theory at this point in the process of “intellectual development”? Is there even a place for this type of work in contemporary sociology? Was there ever a place for it, or did Du Bois’ position at the social margins allow him the flexibility to produce a work that was both a piece of literature and a contribution to sociology? 

[1] This chapter, details the birth and death of his son Burghardt, to whom the book is partly dedicated.
[2] This passage called to mind the small portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he speaks of the pain involved in explaining the color line to children. He writes: “ you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"
[3]  “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” – For it outlines his basic understanding of the color-line, the veil, the “negro problem”, “Of  Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” – because it is too historically rich and significant to be ignored in any class on the Reconstruction, “Of the Faith of the Fathers” – for the ethnographic type analysis of spiritual development within a particular social environment. 

1 comment:

Maureen Reddy said...

This is my favorite chapter in one of my favorite books, and I cannot read even the excerpt you included here without ending up blinded by tears. It is also evidence of what writing in sociology COULD be but seldom if ever is.