Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois
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What was risky about using excerpts from negro spirituals in Souls of Black Folk? This is a question in my Eng. Lit. class. I am thinking it might be  that in Du Bois's time the songs may have been inflammatory and would have angered white folks.

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The Souls of Black Folks is a collage of essays that chronicles the living conditions of African-American in post-bellum America to the turn of the century. Du Bois is meticulous in his approach because he provides us with glimpses into many aspects of black life, or the "color line" as he terms it. In "The Coming of John" he probes into what it means to black, all other things being equal; in "The Passing of the First-Born" he shows that blacks suffer no less than whites.

And you are right by assuming that his use of Negro spirituals may have angered white readers. But why? African Americans at the turn of the century were still utterly oppressed and lynchings, for instance, continued for another thirty to forty years without consequences to speak of. If one is truly at the lowest rung of society, what threat can he/she pose?

The inflammatory nature of negro spirituals then has to do with the fact that African Americans produced something that eluded the grasp of western, white civilization with its firm belief in rationality and scientific positivism. The starkest examples in African American literature are such tropes as flying or ghosts, which clearly elude scientific explanation.These are essentially spiritual, escapist fantasies that reflect the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the separation of spirit and body. In other words, the black body was enslaved ( the hymns originated during slavery), but the spirit was free...and singing. The idea must have been troublesome to whites who attempted to eradicate the psychological burden of slavery by bringing Christianity to the slave quarters.

The singing of the spiritual also validated Du Bois assertion of a "veil" or double consciousness. The underlying idea is that we all look through colored glasses, or lenses that are shaped by our experience. Whites, having grown up in a white world,  look at blacks from a white perspective. Blacks on the other hand have learned to read two worlds, the one of the white oppressor, because adaptation guarantees survival, and their own. The latter must always be disguised in front of the white man. Singing was part of the disguise.

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