Blackness in The Souls of Black Folk
Amy Helene Kirschke
W. E. B. Du Bois often spoke passionately about the veil that African Americans had to endure, shut out from the white world, always seeing themselves through the revelation of the other world. This double consciousness, the topic that is woven throughout The Souls of Black Folk (1903), also applies to the visual arts. Du Bois began to establish his commitment to the visual arts when he was writing andcompiling The Souls of Black Folk, a commitment that he later carried out in his years as editor of the Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP. Although there are only a few specific references to the visual arts in Souls, Du Bois nevertheless believed in the significance of the visual arts as an important part of the development of a black aesthetic. The power of a visual artist to express the ideals of Du Bois is exemplified in the artistic contrast of the works of Henry O. Tanner, an African American artist active when Souls was written, andAaron Douglas, the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, who worked diligently for Du Bois in the 1920s at the Crisis.
From his writing in Souls, it is evident that Du Bois understood that Americans saw high culture as a measure of their greatness and level of civilization. Yet the opportunities for African Americans to receive training or pursue a career in the arts were extremely limited, in fact almost nonexistent, when this book was published. The black artist could attempt to uplift himself in the eyes of white men, couldserve his race by creating objects of beauty that would be worthy of great pride, but in order to do this, the artist would need proper training. (This dilemma was one that white artists in the United States faced as well but was a far more profound problem for African American artists.) Du Bois also referred to the confusion anddoubt 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,
The author wishes to thank Thomas Schwartz andBeth Aplin Rollins for their helpful comments and criticisms of earlier drafts of this essay.