Friday, June 18, 2010

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. DuBois, 278 pages

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line." Written by DuBois 1903, one of the many insights into race, power, community, priviledge and oppresion. Monumental in scale and focus this is a great work. Highly disturbing, naturally, but it deals with fundamental problems of the time and to an extent today, and it expresses uncomfortable truths that need to be said.

A lot of insights and rhetoric in here that I don’t feel qualified to really address. I’d need a closer re-reading and more intensive study of early twentieth century racial conditions in the United States to really do it justice. Reading it, the parts that struck me the most forcefully were:

*Rebuking the notion of progression as applied to African Americans. It’s perhaps the most obvious point, but also the most central, exploring the ways that the black situation hadn’t improved, the forms by which violence and exploitation continued systematically.

*The meaning of religon and intense commitment in the context of this oppression. Involving both spiritual and cultural elements it provides considerable force, as well as a lot more nuance.

*The argument with Brooker T. Washinton over way to advance black welfare, in particular providing an argument against moderate reform and alliance with white liberals, and in favor of a more forceful and unified direction. The utility of black power stances can be problematic, but at least at this era the underlying logic emerges pretty forcefully.

This is accurate and devastating analysis of some of the fundamental inequalities that define the United States. Not just at the establishment of the Republic, either, or the familiar abuses of slavery. DuBois’ work assesses the ongoing abuses that occured in official liberation, and the way they were anything but incidental to the socio-political life of the country. The work is powerful for what it says, but also for the fact that it’s a black writer saying it, that it’s not a case of a white intellectual chastising his society. Instead it’s a figure who even in the midst of the horrirfic social apartheid and racist terrorism of intercentury race realtions was able to achieve intellect and deliver a statement of incredible powerful. The indictment stands.

Better than: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Worse than: ?

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