I don’t like to admit when I’m struggling, but I have to say, I have been having a difficult time with The Souls of Black Folk recently. I didn’t realize that I was until we read “Of the Passing of the First Born;” part of the problem with reading the book both not in order and in a manner that breaks up the work into smaller chunks makes it difficult to grasp the work as a definitive whole, which is something I have been trying to do recently. While it is a collection of essays and thus some discrepancy in tone is expected it is still worth considering the work in its entirety; after all, DuBois chose to publish these essays together, not separately.
This past week, I sat down and actually thought about the work as a whole and the crux of my struggle with the tone of the work is this: certain chapters, such as “Of the Passing of the First Born,” are incredibly personal and the ways that the way that the Veil and Double Consciousness affect DuBois personally are so clear. However, some chapters are so deeply impersonal that they read more like an anthropological or sociological survey than a work that deals with fundamental societal issues that the author himself experiences. This divide makes it difficult to grasp the work in its totality, especially as the more anthropological sections come across as almost judgemental (more on this later).
I believe these sections of The Souls of Black Folk were influenced by anthropological and sociological practices at the time, or rather, DuBois helped to cement the practice of sociology as a tool for the study of race relations in America so of course his work was reflective of the time. This article cites The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, the published findings of a fifteen-month-long study of the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia that DuBois conducted in 1898. This work was “…extolled as the first study in the social sciences to apply a scientific method, and was quickly held up as a model for future studies in the field.” Scholars are only just now recognizing DuBois’ contributions to the field of sociology, as he seems to have been written out of the history of the discipline. We know he was in contact with Max Weber and Karl Marx, or at least known to them, and those two are commonly cited as the modern founders of sociology. So why is DuBois often left out? We can at least assume that racism is a part of it; there is a long history of the contributions of minorities being left out of history, and it certainly has to do with the outcomes and methods of his studies and the attitude of his works.
The common method of sociological studies at the time was much different than it is today. Dubois called it “‘car window’ sociology, in which observations were so superficial that the analyst might have merely driven by without taking the time or effort to understand the community he (for it was almost always a he) was theoretically studying.” As mentioned before, DuBois was one of the first to apply the scientific method and empirical research to sociological surveys. For this, and so many other reasons, he can be considered a truly interdisciplinary scholar. And of course, this attention to detail allowed him to make claims counter to the prevailing beliefs of the day about black people. Ethnology at the time justified scientific racism, claiming that the physical attributes of black bodies proved their inferiority. Prior to the Civil War, scientists both in the North and South justified slavery with pseudoscience, even going so far as to claim that Egyptians were white in order to prove white superiority (which Sabrina brilliantly wrote about in a blog post last semester); in fact, Frederick Douglass spent a good amount of time fighting against these obviously incorrect scientific assumptions. “I have long been interested in ethnology,” he wrote, and “I have wanted the evidence of greatness under the colored skin to meet and beat back the charge of natural, original and permanent inferiority.” Like Douglass, who went to Egypt to try to prove that the ancients there were black, DuBois used his own scientific inquiry to fight against popular opinion at the time. This might be the reason that he was erased from sociological history — his research fought back against racist assumptions that allowed white people to declare themselves superior and “scientifically” justify discrimination. Racism is a powerful tool for editing history, and the fate of the legacy of DuBois as one of the first sociologists is one that fell prey to it. Luckily, scholars such as Morris, whose lecture and book I referenced before are working to undo this editing.
I’d like to acknowledge here my own discomfort with what comes next. I am going to criticize DuBois and the sociological sections of The Souls of Black Folk, and as it is one the foundational texts of race studies in post-slavery America with an important message that is still incredibly potent today, it is incredibly uncomfortable for me as a white woman to call out what I see as shortcomings in his writing. Please keep in mind that I absolutely agree with the crux of his analysis and recognize the importance of the work as I point out what I find incongruent about certain chapters of the work and by no means do I mean to dismiss the importance of his work and legacy.
However, to this end, I do find that the attitude of some chapters of The Souls of Black Folk is sociological to a fault. What I mean by this is that though DuBois means no harm by it, his studies and surveys are impersonal and generalizing to a point that it can seem almost judgemental or degrading. “Of the Faith of the Fathers” is one that really stood out to me as having this attitude. One part reads “The Negro has already been pointed out many times as a religious animal,— a being of that deep emotional nature which turns instinctively toward the supernatural. Endowed with a rich tropical imagination and a keen, delicate appreciation of Nature, the transplanted African lived in a world animate with god and devils, elves and witches, full of strange influences… “ (178). This kind of generalization is one that could be read as to perpetuate “savage” stereotypes of Africans. If I saw a claim that black people were “beings of a deep emotional nature that turn instinctively toward the supernatural” in a work written by a white man, I would mark that as a sign of prejudice, which makes it discomfiting to find in a work written by a black man about his own race.
Other sections of the work also read with this sense of not-quite disdain — DuBois almost seems to victim blame in certain cases. “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece” comes to mind. On pages 137 and 138, he talks about a sharecropper who overpays for various goods. Dubois writes, “Here was a man paying five dollars for good which he could have bought for three dollars cash, and raised for one dollar or one dollar and a half. Yet it is not wholly his fault. The Negro farmer started behind…” (138). The fact that the qualifier “wholly” is there implies that it is at least a little bit the fault of this farmer that he can’t get out of this system and overpays for goods he could make himself. In this way, DuBois reminds me a little bit of Henry David Thoreau, who, in Walden, advocated for self-sufficiency while ignoring the fact that most people don’t have the means to start an independent life from scratch.
This sense of victim-blaming comes up more often— DuBois in part blames “…the freedman who regarded freedom as perpetual rest…” as being part of the reason that black Americans were so disadvantaged post-slavery (35). I understand the point that he is trying to get across in this section— that the onus of progress is on African Americans to do for themselves, which is partially true, but it also feels like “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” discourse. But, as Dr. Benjamin L. Perry, Jr. points out, “Those misinformed citizens who ponder why Black America has not lifted itself by its bootstraps should be aware that when the black man was brought to America by slave traders he had neither boots nor bootstraps. … For over 300 years the black man in America has been isolated from the so-called ‘bootstrap’ culture.” (This article is also a super interesting read on the origins of the phrase, which is not what I expected so please give it a read!)
My point in saying all this is that sometimes it feels that DuBois falls victim to being too impersonal and generalizing and this can come across as contemptuous. Thankfully, I am not the only one who sees this problem with DuBois. One criticism of The Philadelphia Negro reads “What emerged from this field research was a stern, unsentimental book; at times, Du Bois’s disdain for his subjects, especially what he called “the dregs,” seemed as great as his outrage at the discrimination they faced. He observed, in language much harsher than Moynihan’s, the large number of unmarried mothers, many of whom he characterized as “ignorant and loose.”
This research made me think of my favorite part of Kim Vaz-Deville’s lecture, which was the way she described building sustainable relationships with the Baby Dolls. It was clear that she genuinely cares about them for more than just an academic studying a subculture — according to what she said in her lecture, she truly cares for them as people and feels connected to them, which makes her work with them that much richer. The way that she talked about her close relationships with members of the Baby Dolls, the ways that she tries to help them by giving rides and showing up to all of their events, helping with literacy so they can read her research, and the way that she so clearly empowers them and they empower her really made me think about the way that I conduct my own research. Some of the research I did while studying abroad in Senegal involved doing interviews with college-aged women and I wish that I had the chance to help and follow up with them the way that Vaz-Deville does with the Baby Dolls.
Vaz-Deville’s research and methods of building sustainable relationships with the subjects of her research so that they don’t become an object to her are not antithetical to DuBois’ methods — DuBois writes about his experiences with specific communities that are much more personal, as is his writing about the death of his son. Rather, it makes the focus of the research community-based rather than trying to generalize about a giant group. Some of the shortcomings of DuBois work certainly comes from the scale of what he is writing about. Addressing the condition of a whole race is much different than a group of people where each person can be personally known to the researcher. Still, I stand by my critique of certain parts of The Souls of Black Folk and offer Vaz-Deville as an alternative I much prefer.
To come back to the art of Steve Prince, I really like the way that community art pieces like Urban Garden straddle the line between addressing larger issues, like Dubois, and building a sustainable relationship with the community that it involves, like Vaz-Deville (not to say that Vaz-Deville doesn’t engage with larger issues, it’s just that the scale of the community that her work deals with is much smaller than DuBois). Urban Garden works because it is based on one of the largest topics you can imagine, the good and bad parts of society, but it relies on the engagement of individuals to come to completion and the fact his work as part of a continuing relationship between Prince and the Geneseo community is icing on the cake, which is not unlike the work that Vaz-Deville does with the Baby Dolls. Art that engages with societal issues requires input from the society, just as good sociological research requires input from the people studied.
To bring this post to an end, I’d like to invite people to respond to my criticisms of DuBois. What do you think about the way he handles large scale sociological issues? Do you think that I am correct in detecting notes of disdain in his treatment of certain issues? How does this affect your reading of the work? These are some of the questions I am struggling with, and I invite you to struggle with me.