The Souls of Black Folk


Over the next few months I plan to take a personal journey. I invite you to consider joining me along the way, particularly if you are a part of Redemption Hill Church. Please take the time to see the motivation and reading list

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk comes up over and over again in discussion. After reading it, I can see why. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard and a co-founder of the NAACP. This book is a collection of essays published in 1903, a seminal work in African American scholarship.

I don’t think I really had any expectations about what I was getting into with reading this book. I knew it was important, and talked about a lot. I also am a firm believer in getting to original sources rather than just skimming the top through later books and commentary on them (footnotes are our greatest allies in this pursuit!). I wanted to read Du Bois’ own words and writing. I think I had a naïve hope that the reality he faced and described in 1903 would be different from what is true now, but still wanted to engage that time.

These lines caught me –

“It is peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

- WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 5.

This is not antiquated.

It isn’t different than what I hear from friends today in 2017.

I had to set the book down and it took me a few days to really process it, to think about it. He captured something here that is equal parts beautiful, eloquent, poetic, insightful, devastating, and desperate. Du Bois captures an internal wrestling and struggle that I have heard my African American friends describe. There is a uniqueness to the African American experience and history in this nation. The experience of people I know and love and respect. Something about the way Du Bois wrote drove things home in a different way for me.

I’m learning that this is why “color-blindness” is so dehumanizing. It looks at a soul-crushing struggle and whitewashes it. To someone, “I don’t see the color of your skin” is to say, “The struggle you face isn’t real, it’s just skin deep, you can be just like me.” It’s a way to ease our own conscience by assuming that our own experience is the normative experience. Later on Du Bois writes about how this struggle for African Americans has “even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.”

Why is it so hard to acknowledge that? African American people are as rooted in the American story as anyone, and more so. This country was both metaphorically and literally built on their backs. And yet, it’s still not home. Our Constitution still displays the 3/5 compromise, declaring people less than human. We can’t just move on from that. We can’t just pretend that it doesn’t exist as just one sign of a deeper problem. We can’t assume that the collective experience, identity, and consciousness of an entire population can or should be erased.

This collective experience and consciousness extends through today. Black Lives Matter exists as a movement because there is an entire population in this nation crying out that they are still being treated as less-fully-human, based on a history that has repeatedly and systemically declared that to actually be the case. It’s a cry for help. It’s a cry that comes from being torn apart by “two souls, two thoughts, to unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”

If my response is to stand against that outcry, I am not responding in a Christ-like way. Before some of you get too defensive, understand that I am not speaking into or endorsing the entirety of the politics of any one particular movement. Here’s what I want to say to my African American friends and neighbors:

Your life does matter. Black lives matter.

White friends, if we can’t say that, then we don't understand the Imago Dei and we are not living in light of the implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Saying someone's life matters, and that there is legitimacy to their pain and outcry, does not indicate a tacit endorsement of all of an organization’s perspectives or solutions. If I say I believe in this republic it doesn’t make me a Republican, or if I’m an advocate for democracy it doesn’t mean that I’m a Democrat. Black lives matter. And this country has communicated the opposite for a long time. So it does need to be said. And saying it doesn’t say that other lives don’t matter.

Christians need to be able to enter into the pain and suffering and brokenness of others, weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15), and to fight against injustice and oppression (Isa. 58). It’s what Jesus did when he sat with the woman at the well in John 4, obliterating cultural norms and expectations to meet her and reach her heart.

I am resolved to be:

Quicker to hear and slower to speak
Quicker to take responsibility and slower to brush off or blame
Quicker to lament and slower to correct
Quicker to stand alongside and slower to stay safe
To not just raise a voice, but to seek ways to give a voice to the voiceless

History has implications. We need to understand our collective story if we want to have any hope to see healing and peace. Reading Du Bois helped me to see more clearly.

“The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people.”

            - DuBois, 6.

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