Magazine article Monthly Review

The Souls of White Folk

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Souls of White Folk

Article excerpt

"The Souls of White Folk," as it appeared in Du Bois' Darkwater (1920) and is reprinted here, was based on an essay in the Independent, August 18, 1910, together with part of a another essay, "Of the Culture of White Folk, "Journal of Race Development, April 1917. The final version in Darkwater was reworked numerous times up to its final publication in 1920.

The dates are significant. During the First World War, in his essay "The African Roots of the War" (1915; reprinted in this magazine in April 1973), Du Bois had emerged as a leading critic of imperialism--in the very same year that Lenin wrote his classic Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In 1919 Du Bois organized the First Pan-African Congress in Paris, presenting the claims of colonized nations against the colonizers in response to universal demands in the wake of the First World War for self-determination and liberation from racist imperialism.

By the end of that year sixty-six black men and women, mostly in the rural South, were lynched, while some 250 more died in urban riots in the North and in the Arkansas Delta. These events came to be known as the "Red Summer" of 1919. As David Levering-Lewis wrote in the second volume of his biography of Du Bois: "The revised 'Souls of White Folk' now belched fire in Darkwater as Du Bois seemed almost to scream ("Merciful God! In these wild days and in the name of Civilization, Justice and Motherhood") at what had been done to men and women of Negro descent in the United States through 'orgy, cruelty, barbarism, and murder'.... As this pulsating essay made clear, he construed the failure of American racial democracy to be integral to the evolving European world order.... The Great War was not aberration nor insanity, he wrote: 'This is Europe: tiffs seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture--back of all culture--stripped and visible today.'"

On the hundredth anniversary of The Souls of Black Folk we are once again face to face with the ongoing absence of "racial democracy" at home and with an imperialism that walks naked abroad. "The Souls of White Folk," like The Souls of Black Folk before it, remains required reading.--The Editors

High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk.

Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage. Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language. Mine is not the knowledge of the traveler or the colonial composite of dear memories, words and wonder. Nor yet is my knowledge that which servants have of masters, or mass of class, or capitalist of artisan. Rather I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious! They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth! My word is to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped--ugly, human.

The discovery of personal whiteness among the world's peoples is a very modern thing--a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. The Middle Age regarded skin color with mild curiosity, and even up into the eighteenth century we were hammering our national manikins into one, great, Universal Man, with fine frenzy which ignored color and race even more than birth. Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful!

This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts; even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone, saying. …

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