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African American Identity and The Souls of Black Folk

Hausarbeit 2008 22 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents:


1. A History of Oppression

2. A child of its time: The Souls of Black Folk

3. Fatherhood, race and racism in “Of The Passing Of The First-Born”

4. Minstrel Shows

5. Black identity and “double consciousness”
5.1 The internal conflict of African Americans
5.2 “Double consciousness” as a medical term

6. Social exclusion
6.1. The image of the Veil
6.2 Racism in historiography and the sciences
6.3 Stepping out of the Veil: Idealism v. Materialism

7. Challenging the rule of the father

8. Conclusion

Works Cited



The present paper investigates the significance of African American identity in relation to the historical circumstances of the post-Reconstruction period. It is a simple truth that history rarely presents us the whole picture: Facts may be distorted, specific times or events may be over- or underrepresented, or left out altogether. In The Souls of Black Folk, written by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, we find an attempt to rectify one-sided historiography. This book, probably the best-known of his many scientific and literary writings, features forays into autobiography, fiction, eulogy and even musicology.1 Despite the different approaches included in the work we find a feature that all the chapters of Souls have in common: Their poetic policy consists in the demarginalization of the colored race and the stress on African American identity. Du Bois introduces his readers to black culture and focusses on the psychological problem of self- identification blacks encounter in the wake of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Their internal duality, their two-ness, is at the very core of this problem, and will be dealt with in detail in the present paper. First of all, however, I deem it necessary to give an overview over the historical processes that have led to this feeling of alienation.

1. A History of Oppression

When The State of Mississippi v. Isaak Jones (1820) case brought up the question whether the killing of a slave was to be considered murder as defined by the common law in terms of “taking the life of a ‘reasonable creature’ with malice aforethought,” the court decided that it was.2 The presiding judge explained his decision by referring to a precedent documented in the legal proceedings of the State of Virginia: “At a very early period in Virginia, the [master’s] power of life over slaves was given by statute, but ... as soon as these statutes were repealed, it was at once considered by their courts, that the killing of a slave might be murder.”3 In addition, the judge cited both the Constitution of the United States and the Mississippi legislature in order to prove that on legal grounds slaves held the status of persons in the sense of “reasonable and accountable beings,” the life of which was to be protected by law.4 It must be pointed out that although this decision may seem to be a rather singular one from a perspective informed with the subsequent events, it was not at all unusual for U.S. courts both in the North and the South to confirm the legal position of slaves as equal human beings. While the “institution” of slavery was still frequently regarded as an exception at the beginning of the 19th century, the situation for blacks as legal subjects deteriorated tremendously with the annexation of Missouri as a slave state in 1821 and the ratification of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that allowed settlers in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether to endorse slavery or not. Three years later the U. S. Supreme Court stated in its Dred Scott v. Sandford decision that slaves were essentially property, belonging to their owners like a bale of cotton. Being thus deprived of their legal status, slaves found themselves in a position that denied them their intrinsic value as human beings and demoted them to level of chattel. At the outbreak of the war in 1862, their status had not under- gone any significant change to the better, as W. E. B. Du Bois documents in his treatise on Black History entitled Black Reconstruction in America. The Civil War was not primarily designed as a war to free slaves, but as a war to preserve the integrity of the Union.5 Originally, the northern states had intended not to touch the issue of slavery at all6 ; under the pressure of European countries that despite their economic bonds with the South strongly promoted the liberation of slaves7, but also on the grounds of strategic considerations (freed slaves could be used as field hands, soldiers, and spies), slaves gradually lost their status as “contraband of war.” When after long years of war the Confederate troops in Virginia and North Carolina were forced to surrender, the Civil War was over, leaving the victors to think about the future. It was sufficiently clear that the Civil War had changed the face of the nation: The “institution” of slavery was abolished and 3.5 million slaves were free. Lincoln’s solution for the Negro problem was plain and simple: Colonization. Black people were to be removed to Liberia, an independent African country established to accomodate large numbers of former U. S. slaves.8 When Lincoln received a committee of colored men in 1862, while the war was still raging and there were no signs of impending victory, he said that “this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. Your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”9 Instead of integrating black people into American society, Lincoln thought of dislocation. In a confidential talk with A. K. McClure he even went so far as to suggest reimbursement payments to the South amounting to as much as $400,000,000, in order to compensate for the economic losses caused by Emancipation. Lincoln seems to have understood that the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy was primarily an economic one. And indeed the abolition of slavery resulted in an economic crisis that left its impact on postbellum society: Although many of the new freedmen were willing to resume their work as farm hands, the terms of labor were changed: The former slaves demanded cash wages, a limited working day, freedom to come and go, and they refused to work under the field-gang system any longer.10 As a consequence, the labor supply dropped by nearly a third, which, of course, left its repercussions on the economy, and it did not take long until public opinion turned against the blacks in which especially poor white citizens found their perfect scapegoats. They held a grudge against them, because they felt that slavery was the main cause of the war, a war that had exclusively served the interests of rich southern planters and for which they had sacrificed their lives and received nothing in return. Feeling forsaken in the midst of post-war destitution, the southern white were quick to blame the Negro for his alleged laziness and disloyalty towards his former masters. And even more decisively, for the first time in American History blacks were competitors on the free labor market, a workforce that was more often than not willing to toil for less than white workers.11 These factors, along with the presence of the Union Army as a police force, represented a perfect breeding ground for racism to develop. At the same time the rights of black individuals were expressly discussed on both the political and legal stages: The amendments to the Constitution enacted in 1865 (13th Am.), 1868 (14th Am.) and 1870 (15th Am.) comprised the first open mention of slavery, race, and color.12 Up to that point, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and even the Gettysburg Address had widely avoided the issue of ethnic minorities.13 While the Declaration mentions native Americans, presenting them as “merciless Indian savages” that “threaten the inhabitants of our frontiers,”14 it does not explitictly refer to African Americans. According to Jefferson’s notes from the Congressional meeting this striking omission was due to “particular interests of certain states,” both in the North and the South.15 Although the three amendments guaranteed basic civil rights to black Americans, the southern states easily found their way around these regulations. In the period between 1890 and 1908, ten out of eleven states that had formerly constituted the Confederacy passed new constitutions and laws tying the eligibility to vote to certain preconditions, such as payment of poll taxes, the passing of literacy tests and residency requirements.16 As a result, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were practically disenfranchised, together with many thousand members of the underprivileged poor white proletariat. Only about 25 years after the end of the Civil War, the blacks found themselves discriminated against and far from being accepted as fellow citizens with equal rights both before the law and in everyday life.17

It is in this historical context that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois raises his voice on behalf of the members of his race. His book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, is one of the most important documents of the impediments black people had to suffer during the era of Reconstruction and beyond.

2. A child of its time: The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk represents a climax in Du Bois’s already dazzling career as a writer and social scientist. This work, which is probably the best-known of Du Bois’s writings, assembles many different articles that cover personal, sociological, aesthetic, historical and biographical perspectives. By offering such a bouquet of perspectives, Du Bois ensures that his (white) readers become aware of the many facets and aspects of black American culture. His goal is to give a synopsis of what Negro life is about, to take the reader behind the “Veil” and personalize an experience that had hitherto only been discussed broadly and reservedly by the white public.18

For Du Bois Souls is a turning point insofar as it indicates the author’s gradual departure from the field of empirical science, which is completed when in 1910 he leaves Atlanta University (nevertheless, the study of social phenomena continues to be a special field of interest for Du Bois).19 With the mysterious disappearance of his “Negro Labor” and “Negro Home” studies (which according to the U.S. Census Bureau “had been destroyed,”20 Du Bois suffered a substantial setback.21 Another event that has left its impact on the scientist and prompted him to reconsider can be seen in the Sam Hose lynching of 1899. Sam Hose was accused of murder, sexual assault, bodily injury, and larceny.22 After the Governor of Georgia, Coweta County and the town of Palmetto had placed a bounty of $500 for his capture, Sam Hose was arrested and returned to Georgia, where a lynch mob of 2.000 people already waited for his arrival. In the course of events the black man was murdered and mutilated, and his knuckles were put on public display in the local grocery store.23 Du Bois realized that after such atrocities he could not possibly carry on with his soberminded, scientific approach to racism. It dawned on him that racism could no longer be exclusively explained in rational terms, on the grounds of economic calculations and scientific data. Furthermore, he found it hard to maintain his role as a scientist while he was personally affected. In retrospect, Du Bois states that “Two considerations thereafter broke into my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved; and secondly there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing.”24

In The Souls of Black Folk we find an incident redolent of the Sam Hose lynching. Chapter VIII, entitled “Of The Coming Of John,” tells the story of a young black man who leaves his hometown of Altamaha in southeastern Georgia to receive higher education at a northern institute. After inital failure John returns home, resolved to put his knowledge to good use. Improving the black community of his hometown seems to be his utmost concern; however, he finds it hard to readapt to the values and convictions cherished in Altamaha, and in no time he offends the local community, saying that “the world cares little whether a man be Baptist or Methodist, or indeed a churchman at all, so long as he is good and true.”25 He discounts their Christian faith as “littleness” and calls on his fellow men to “look higher,” but his words fall on deaf ears. By so reviling one of the cornerstones of black public life in the rural South, he conveys a sense of alienation and aloofness that places him into direct opposition to everything held sacred in this community. Black education may form the better man insofar as it provides people with a larger sense of humanity, but it seems to do so at the expense of the individual’s ability to function properly as a member of a social and historical society.26 Plain and modest living is insufficient to black John who is capable of seeing the opportunities American society has to offer to the members of his race.

But as soon as he tries to instil the idea of equality in black people, his school is shut down and he himself is discharged of his duties as a teacher because, in the words of Judge Henderson, “the white people of Altamaha are not spending their money on black folks to have their heads crammed with impudence and lies.”27 Finally, when he finds the judge’s son, white John, molesting his sister, he takes the law in his own hands and kills him “in the tradition of Southern chivalry.”28 At the conclusion of the chapter a lynch mob approaches black John to take revenge.


1 Cp. Sundquist, Eric J.: The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 97

2 Cp. Berns, Walter: Making Patriots. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 108f.

3 Cp. ibid., p. 109

4 Cp. ibid.

5 Cp. Du Bois, W. E. B.: Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1998, p. 55

6 Cp. ibid., p. 60

7 Cp. ibid., p. 79

8 Cp. Du Bois, W. E. B.: Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1998, p. 145

9 Cp. ibid., p. 147

10 Cp. Brogan, Hugh: The Penguin History of the USA, 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 358

11 Cp. Lemert, Charles: „The Race of Time: Du Bois and Reconstruction“; in: boundary 2 (27), 2000, p. 231

12 Cp. Velikova, Roumiana: “W. E. B. Du Bois vs. ‘the Sons of the Fathers’: A Reading of The Souls of Black Folk in the Context of American Nationalism“; in: African American Review 34 (3), Fall 2000, p. 432

13 Cp. ibid., p. 437

14 Cp. ibid, p. 435

15 Cp. ibid., p. 433

16 Cp. Brogan, Hugh: The Penguin History of the USA, 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 371

17 In the Reconstruction era black political participation had already been denounced as “a travesty.” Cp. Warren, Kenneth W.: „An Inevitable Drift? Oligarchy, Du Bois, and the Politics of Race between the Wars”; in: boundary 2 (27), 2000, p. 163

18 Cp. Rampersad, Arnold: The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 70

19 Cp. Blight, David W.: “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Struggle for American Historical Memory”; in: Fabre, Geneviève (ed.); O'Meally, Robert (ed.): History and Memory in African-American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 54

20 Cp. Farland, Maria, “W. E. B. Du Bois, Anthropometric Science, and the Limits of Racial Uplift”; in: American Quarterly 58, December 2006, p. 1018

21 ibid.

22 Cp. Holt, Thomas C.: “Marking, Race-making, and the Writing of History”; in: American Historical Review 100, February 1995, p. 3

23 Cp. ibid., p. 5

24 Cp. Bogues, Anthony: “Working Outside Criticism: Thinking Beyond Limits”; in: boundary 2 (32), 2005, p. 81

25 Cp. Du Bois, W. E. B.: The Souls of Black Folk. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 196

26 Cp. Byerman, Keith E.: Seizing the Word: History, Art, and Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994, p. 32

27 Cp. Du Bois, W. E. B.: The Souls of Black Folk. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 200

28 Cp. Byerman, Keith E.: Seizing the Word: History, Art, and Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994, p. 32


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African American Identity Souls Black Folk



Titel: African American Identity and The Souls of Black Folk