The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later

By Dolan Hubbard | Go to book overview

W.E.B. Du Bois and the Invention of
the Sublime in The Souls of Black Folk
Dolan Hubbard

The Music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmic melody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life andlonging yet born on American soil.

—W. E. B. Du Bois


Background Considerations on the Sublime

I approach this critique of the sublime in the firm belief that it is important to attend to both aesthetic and cultural questions as we examine the issue of representation, especially as it relates to the African presence in the modern Western world. Admittedly, it is difficult to cover the whole of this topic, especially within the pages of a single essay. However, this essay can serve as a reevaluation of a term—the sublime—that an Anglo-European intellectual cartel has reservedfor themselves andthat apparently resides only in the ether of their imaginations. Though discussions of the sublime are by nature rife with subjective evaluation, W. E. B. Du Bois recognized that such discussions, nevertheless, are laden with objective implication. The underlying significance is that this notion creates a linkage of knowledge with power, as we see in the dislocating effects of knowledge without power for black and colored people.1 In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois challenges this aesthetic doctrine.

My project is guidedby three interrelatedquestions. First, how do postEnlightenment ideas of the sublime shape our notion of humanity in the modern Western world? Second, why does Du Bois feel compelled to invent the sublime? Du Bois deconstructs the European notion of the sublime and constructs a black sublime. He locates this sublime in the religiosity

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1
Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 5–14.

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