W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,

2003.

 

Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.

Natasha Tretheway, Thrall

Tretheway, Natasha. Thrall. Mariner Books, 2015.

Summary of Work
Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall is a collection of poems that explores what it means to be mixed race, both through her own personal experience of growing up as a half-black woman and the documented experiences of others through various mediums. She largely looks at paintings: the pictorial representations of the Miracle of the Black Leg, the myth that white men could be saved from their amputated limbs or illness by taking the left leg of an Ethiopian or black man and grafting it onto the white man’s body; the paintings representing the Book of Castas, the documentation of the different blood permutations of blackness in Spaniard blood in Mexico: mulatto, mestizo, casto, etc, believing that once the blood had mixed, there was no way to stop what they saw as a regression to black primitive natures; the paintings of great artists like Velasquez, who kept a mixed blood slave and finally manumitted him in 1650, training him to be a painter, the man who gave us the Calling of St. Matthew, Pareja. All of the examples she brings forward cause us to question why not only the painters painted people of mixed race that way, but how they could participate in the creation of life and yet be so disdainful of it or clinical in the way they looked at it.

She describes the clinical surgical experimentation on black women as the white doctors determined what the female body’s ideal was and what its makeup was. She describes the way, in an anonymous painter’s work, the painter within the portrait is horribly mischaracterizing the black woman who seems to be his wife. She describes the children of those mixed race unions, having her readers question what those children’s lives would have been, how the white men represented in the paintings can be so possessive and yet so dismissive of the things they love. Similarly, she goes through these same questions and experiences in her own life, as she tells us of her mother’s struggles of having people give her money in grocery stores when they found out a child, who they originally thought she was maid to, was actually her half-white daughter. She tells us of her struggles to love her father, who left and marginalized her mother until her death, who would always insist that Jefferson could not have fathered children by a slave woman, because he was so against slavery. The collected work takes plenty of time to describe the conflict and turmoil within mixed-race individuals who have to deal with not only the derision and questioning from the outside world, but with the conflict within their own families as they learn what it means to be mixed race, and to have a mixed-race family member.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme within the work is what it means to be from two different races. There are also themes, however, of objectification, slavery, and possession along with white colonialism and how words on a page, documenting the official narrative, also obscure the narrative, and those obscured stories are told in the white space of the pages. The book also calls for people to recognize that the past is inextricably tied to the present for those people who are mixed race and are dealing with both the history and the racism in the present day, even from their own parents.