essay canon dispatch no. 2 — “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1900’s)

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Imagine holding a copy of THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK in your hands in 1903. The black cloth covering, the title in austere gold text, the epigraphs. These elements should be seen as the first text, as a professor revealed to me once. And to me, the elements here announce austerity and solemnity. The first chapter of this volume is today’s stop in the CNF Journal Essay Canon reading mission, and the salient theme for this post, I think, will be introductions. “On Our Spiritual Sufferings” introduces invaluable concepts to race theory, the veil and the second sight, which are creative and recurring metaphors. The essay functions as an introduction to the rest of the book. It’s also an introduction into the 20th century, coming after the failures of Reconstruction, and a prophetic declaration of the color line as the foundational problem on the century to come, perhaps part of the journal’s choice to have it represent the last century’s first decade. And, what I want to focus on the most here, the text’s opening is a masterclass in mood.

It begins with lines from Victorian poet Arthur Symons, images of running water that shall never rest, water that cries mournfully. The speaker is listening to the crying of the water all night, connects it with the voice of his heart.  My eyes slow down. I don’t read poetry often enough, and while my reading speed is already slow, I inevitably gear down and take in the look and sound of the lines before diving into the main text. The melancholy poem is haunting, maybe because of the strange image of crying water and its nocturnal torment. But then you see this:

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Readers who know music notation might recognize the tune of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” It reinforces the mournful tone laid down by Symons. Two cultural pieces, both going after the same feeling, but the divisor between them is everything. The Victorian poem, in written text, narrates those familiar intense personal feelings. The notes represent a song brought forth from African American spiritualism and the misery and abominable traumas of slavery, a song to which the white northern educated readers of Du Bois have been willfully deaf. Maybe one can put on a happy face and see the pairing of different traditions, of different souls, of totally different racial worlds, as showing the common ground in the experiences which produced these pieces. Instead, the use of musical staff signifies the apartness from anglophone letter shapes (graphemes if you will). These notes are from an-other voice, singing in a different language. Du Bois is offering us a way to give voice to this other story, buried by but also shaped by the white hegemony and its violence. The story will come in a language we can understand, nay, Du Bois will be better at commanding the language of Shakespeare and Milton than most yts could ever dream of doing.

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it.

“The other world,” such a wonderfully open phrase that casually rolls by. The unasked question comes from white people. They stammer and stumble around the pointed anti-blackness of this question, so it comes out sideways in a benign form of racism: “I know an excellent colored man in my town.” Du Bois puts down the now famous question that all of these white remarks reflect: How does it feel to be a problem?

Next Du Bois writes a personal narrative of when he first realized he was a problem. He outlines his location as an educated Black man in Massachusetts. (Apparently a white reviewer in the Times complained that his status as a Nothern black man meant he was unqualified to write on the black experience in the south.) In a great passage, he introduces “a wee wooden schoolhouse,” which was racially integrated. It was when a new white girl student refused a greeting card from the young Du Bois that “the shadow swept across me.” Du Bois is determined to out-perform his white classmates, because enough is never enough for a Black USen; they have to be better by a mile to be almost considered equals.

The difficulty of the interactions between white and black people, from microagressions by clueless liberals to the most horrible of white supremacist violence, has necessitated what Du Bois identifies as “second-sight.” It is a “double-consciousness,” a “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.” Black people are condemned to navigate in each and every public interaction not only the points that threaten white fragility but the entrenched stereotypes which they have to avoid evoking. Either mistake is to be seen as the aggressor. It’s a game set up to make Black people and PoC lose out. It’s a game that keeps Black people busy advancing themselves for white approval, as “cold” white statisticians record “the inches of progress here and there” (a great observation). As Toni Morrison said, there will always be something else, another lack that can be used by whites to compound the “Black problem.” When all this time, the real problem of Amerikkka has been white men going berserk. The double-consciousness is not the same as a “true self-consciousness.” Black people have been held back for too long and deprived of a formal Western education to have such a valued consciousness. Instead, they wear a veil which prevents an understanding of the self outside of white contempt and superiority.

The excerpt below goes in-depth on what Du Bois calls the spiritual strivings. It’s a striving to realize that consciousness with the tools so long deprived by white people. After these paragraphs, he launches a collective narrative of Black Americans after the emancipation, the failures of federal Reconstruction, the tensions and violence that remain across the color line. Just as relevant today as the above observations by Du Bois is a bit near the end of the essay about the components of US culture:

there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore 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 American be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her course and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?

No words.

“Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” from THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W.E.B. Du Bois

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. Through 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.


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