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.

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1952. Vintage International, 2013.

Summary of Work
John, the stepson of Gabriel Grimes and son of Elizabeth, is sure he is expected to be a man of God, but he worries he is not yet saved. He knows that there is sin in him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. He goes to church regularly with his family. Elisha, the preacher’s son, comes into town, and he teaches Sunday school. John is having a hard time paying attention because he is focused so much on Elisha. He gets to watch Elisha dance before God and pray and sing, and he wants to be very much like Elisha. Elisha is once reprimanded for spending time with Ella Mae, Harriet Washington’s ward. They are publicly shamed in front of the congregation and made an example of for being together so often unchaperoned and unmarried. After that, Elisha never sees Ella.

John wakes up the next Saturday to realize it’s his fourteenth birthday, and wonders if his family will remember. Sometimes his family has completely forgotten. But he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He goes downstairs for breakfast and his mom and his brother Roy are having a heated discussion about their father Gabriel. Gabriel, a man of god and a former preacher, regularly beats his sons for disobedience. They are not allowed to play outside with other children or go to the movies or do anything that Gabriel Grimes considers unholy. So they spend their days in the house or at school doing work and they go to church as a family on Sundays. They also go on Saturday evenings to the prayer service and they regularly have Bible lessons.

When his mother asks him to do chores, he believes his mother has forgotten about his birthday. He does the chores, and afterwards his mother calls him in the kitchen. She gives him some coins and tells him he can go out and buy what he wants for his birthday, but that he needs to do so before his father comes home. He goes into New York City and determines that he will go see a movie, an activity which has been forbidden him by his father. He feels guilty as he starts watching the film, but as the film goes on he empathizes with the main character. John is tormented because he cannot decide if he wants to follow religion or if he wants to participate in what his father determines are sinful activities. He knows that the people in his school and at other places are good people, even though his father says they are sinners. His father has also told him to never trust a white person.

When he gets out of the movies he sees his sister Sarah running home with a package. He quickly follows and finds that his brother Roy has been sliced open with a knife from his temple to his eye. He had gone to the West side of town and picked a fight with white boys. His father is taking care of his son and is angry that John has been gone so long. John goes to take care of his baby sister. And his Aunt Florence is also there. They argue over what happened and over his wife’s inability to keep his son in the home, and Florence is defending his wife Elizabeth when Gabriel strikes his wife. Roy tells his father never to strike his mom again or he will kill him.

That evening John goes to the Church early to clean it before the Saturday evening prayer service. Elisha also comes along. They wrestle and then clean the Church. Slowly people come in and they start to pray as Elisha plays a sad tune on the piano. As Florence prays, she thinks back on her past: she was a girl born to a former slave, and her mother saw no need to move North. She forced her daughter to stay home instead of go to school so she could learn what her mother saw as the skill set she needed to be a wife, mother, and housekeeper in the South. Florence resented her brother Gabriel’s opportunities to learn and be out and about doing whatever he pleased, and felt disgusted at his philandering and drinking and gaming. His mother always asked him to come to God, but he never would. Then, as Florence’s mother was about to die and her employer had asked her to be his concubine, she decided to buy a ticket to New York and leave everything behind. Her family tries to stop her, but she goes North and gets a job and finally meets a husband, who is a bluesman and who wastes his money on drink and frivolous things. She loves him, but always fights with him. One day he comes home and they have a large fight and he never comes back. She finds out from his mistress years later that he has died in the war in France. She is heartbroken.

As Gabriel watches his sister pray, he prays and thinks back on his life. After his sister left he became a preacher, and he was very successful. He marries Deborah, a woman who had been gang raped by white men in a field as a young girl. She is plain and eight years his senior, but very faithful and a woman of God. She is barren, and one day he meets a young woman named Esther who he is tempted by. While they are at work together, she gets a little drunk and lures him into the house, and he decides to sleep with her. They have sex together for nine days, and then he determines he can no longer be unfaithful and ends the affair. But she gets pregnant. He will not leave his wife and marry her and wants nothing to do with her, so he steals his wife’s savings and gives it to Esther to go to Chicago. She dies in childbirth there, and her family brings her body back and buries it, and take care of the baby, Royal. Royal is the name he was going to give his firstborn son. He watches his son grow up but will not claim him, and he dies in a knife fight in Chicago when he is 18. When he learns this and breaks down, Deborah admits that she knows about the affair and wants to know why he never admitted it and claimed his son. She tells him that he had better repent and keep repenting until he knows for certain God has forgiven him. She dies soon later from her illness. Florence also knows about her brother’s sins because Deborah sent her a letter about it.

Elizabeth was the daughter of a bluesman. Her mother died young, and she was taken away from her father by her Aunt, who believed her father would not raise her right. Elizabeth resented her Aunt for it her whole life and hated the church. While living in the South she met Richard, the store boy, and they fell in love. She follows him to New York City, and they work in the same hotel together. She starts sleeping with him and gets pregnant, but doesn’t tell him. One early morning when they stay out too late, he takes her back to Harlem but then gets caught in a bad situation that lands him in jail. The cops tell her he robbed a store, even though he didn’t and was simply caught in the crosshairs. He will not sign a confession, and he is severely beaten. The cops let her see him, and he stands trial and is found innocent on others’ testimony. He is broken when he gets out of prison and he kills himself, and she never gets to tell him she is pregnant. She still works to take care of herself and the baby, and now she lives in her own space instead of her Aunt’s friend’s home, but she is miserable. She meets Florence, and confides in her about her son and his daddy. She becomes fast friends with Florence, and when Gabriel comes to town, she doesn’t understand why Florence doesn’t like him. Gabriel ends up marrying Florence and promising he will raise the child like his own. She thinks about his promise and that he kept the word but not the spirit. Gabriel hates that John is more righteous than his own son, and cannot stand the thought of John being better than his flesh and blood.

John falls under the power of the Lord and has a vision of going through the gates of hell and being under Satan’s power, and being lifted up by Christ. The congregation is elated that he has been saved. Elisha helped him through the process. The only people who are not so happy are his mother and stepfather. As they walk in the morning light, for they have prayed all night long in the Pentecostal Church, Elisha and John talk about praying and staying on the path to God. Florence and Gabriel talk about Gabriel’s past and Gabriel is furious that Florence knows and that she knows how much he hates John. Elizabeth is crying for her past love and for the lack of love Gabriel has for her son and herself and the sorrow he has brought into her life as the other members of the Church talk about how amazing it is that John has so young discovered the path to God and been saved. As Elisha and John get to John’s home, John wishes to tell him about his father, but only asks for Elisha to always pray for him and be with him. He walks into the house at his father’s bidding before Sunday services later that morning.

Brief Note on Themes
Religion and how it works within people is a large theme in this book. This is particularly true for how certain truths for certain individuals lead them in specific paths and often lead to their downfall as they think their way is the only right way. What does it mean to be saved? How can a person come to be saved through Christ? And can a person stay saved, or are they destined to continually fail and fall into sin?

There is also a theme of finding identity and what it means to be religious and American and living in the North versus the South as a black person. Black identity is also overtly discussed, as each of these people come to learn what it means to be black in America and to in one way or another fear and resent white people and their power.

The power of the word of God through the Bible and through prophecy are always present in the work. There is a big tension between being part of the world and being part of religion. This is always in some way or other expressed using the blues and bluesmen and the jook joint spaces they are played in as a secular representation, and the church and the Bible and God as contrast. That tension is a long and well established running theme in black history, and many preachers were at some point bluesmen before they turned to God. Others were originally preachers who turned to blues. So there is a lot to explore in the ways the “world” is represented in comparison to religion. It’s also interesting that dance is associated with the Bible and God, and there does seem to be a sense of possession, much like the mounting of the Vodun, in black Christian worship in the book. When blues is mentioned, any activities surrounding it are always linked to sex. This continues to show that the music and dances, both done secularly and religiously, have the same call and response ties, the same roots.

Family relationships and sexual relationships and dalliances, are also very common in this work, and love as real and love as convenience are explored. Gabriel loves for duty or convenience: he marries those he thinks will bring him closer to God because he is called to lift them up. Elizabeth comes the closest to finding true love with Richard because no matter what they stick together until he commits suicide. Florence falls into the trap of loving someone to have someone around, and though she does love her husband, she cannot truly forget his faults.