February 1, 2014

Souls of Black Folk: the grain of truth

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.

Thus opens the preface (or, as the titled it, "The Forethought") of The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, dated from Atlanta, Georgia on February 1, 1903. The book, a major title in African American writing, offers a series of essays on contemporary concerns for black Americans – or, as Du Bois says it, "I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive." He ends his preface by asking if he needs to be clear that he is one of the "black folk" in question ("bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh").

Portions of the chapters had been previously published in esteemed journals like The Atlantic Monthly, The New World, and the revived Dial. Making it even more literary, Du Bois opens each chapter with a lyrical epigraph quoting, among others, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Vaughn Moody, plus Lord Byron, Friederich Schiller, and Elizabeth Barret Browning. Further, each chapter includes music from traditional slave songs, intentionally creating a tension between the high culture art of poetry and the history of repression and enslavement.

In his first chapter, Du Bois says the book is a response to the unasked question, "How does it feel to be a problem?" He argues that black people in America have a long history to overcome before they can be joyful souls. Their struggle did not end with Emancipation, he makes clear. The book ends with a response to his preface, titled "The Afterthought" (italicized here as it was first published):

Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful. Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare. Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed

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