Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5814
W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk is not a book that can be read in ignorance of its historic milieu; to focus exclusively on the text would be to cripple it. First published in 1903, it was written in an America in which the white majority only grudgingly accepted the idea that black folk even had souls. The images most white Americans had of blacks were stereotypical; blacks were a demonized group which had to be controlled by terror or an idealized group of self-sacrificing Uncle Toms and Mammys; they were seen as embodying a sexual potency and promiscuity secretly envied by whites, or they were represented as primitive, laughable clowns. All these stereotypes were given form and (for many Northerners) largely brought into being by the century-old tradition of minstrelsy, in which white comics blackened their faces with burnt cork and performed an imitation of black life for a (usually delighted) white audience. It is this tradition and its effects that Du Bois seeks to subvert in The Souls of Black Folk; he removes what Houston Baker calls the ‘‘minstrel mask’’ from his entire race, taking back from the blackface theater the characteristic art form of his race, its music, which the minstrels had appropriated for their own purposes.
I read The Souls of Black Folk as a political text, embedded in its historical environment and at odds with the dominant culture—a reading shaped by some of the insights of new historicism. New historicists, such as Stephen Greenblatt, have posited “transactions’’ or “negotiations’’ between components of a society (Greenblatt's term is “exchanges’’ in his essay on Shakespeare and the exorcists, to which my title pays an oblique homage). This essay will use the term “appropriation’’ for the process of cultural exchange, because the exchange that motivates The Souls of Black Folk is less a transaction than a theft. The blackface theater appropriated black music and transformed it to suit its own ends, the fairly straightforward ones of getting laughs and making money. Not all but a significant number of whites adopted the images of the minstrel fiction and applied them to the African American reality, seeing in the streets characters from the stage; blacks very quickly learned, in their dealings with whites, to put on the mask. For Du Bois, the mask is a Veil to be rent. In Souls, he addresses two audiences: for white readers, he wishes to demonstrate the worth—even the humanity—of the race many have imagined the minstrel comedian to adequately represent; and to blacks, especially young black artists, he communicates the richness of their heritage. The latter project is accomplished largely by the re-appropriation and rehabilitation of the music that minstrelsy had deformed, music being a vital form of expression for a people only recently literate (and, in 1903, still only partly so). After considering some of the implications of minstrelsy's variegated appropriation and distortion of black culture, and popular response to it, this essay will examine Du Bois's project of retaking black American music.
The long, long run enjoyed by minstrel acts on the stages of America (comics blacking their faces with burnt cork to perform “darky’’ roles has been traced back at least as far as 1975) is a phenomenon familiar to anyone reasonably conversant with the history of the nineteenth century, as is the great love of so many Americans for this curious distraction. What is not as well known is that this love affair is not a simple or straightforward matter; neither was the form itself consistent. Minstrelsy changed frequently throughout its evolution, starting as a forum for a single performer, most famously Thomas Dartmouth Rice, originator of the Jim Crow routine. It changed in the 1840s, after the advent of the Virginia Minstrels, to a highly ritualized two- or three-part show by four musicians/comedians/acrobats, shifting again in the 1850s with the popularity of ‘‘Tom shows’’ (minstrel versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin), and again after the war, with blacks entering the business and white troupes swelling to form massive traveling spectacles. It finally faded only after first penetrating the motion picture industry (Amos and Andy, played on radio by white actors, represent a strong late survival of the tradition). And while this evolution is clear in retrospect, it was surely less clear at the time; the various forms overlapped, co-existed, borrowed from each other, and were subject to great variability within individual acts, matched by a high variability in the reaction of the audience.
For instance, when one thinks of the minstrel stage, one may picture its characters as happy and carefree. However, the minstrel character was not always happy; from the 1840s on, tearjerkers were common on the blackface stage. ‘‘By focusing on farcical elements it is easy to overlook the fact that minstrelsy was a very sentimental art form,’’ Gary Engle writes in his introduction to a reprint of the 1871 blackface lachrymatory Uncle Eph's Dream. He continues: ‘‘The minstrel show's first part invariably included mother songs or pathetic ballads which helped balance the comic songs and exchanges between interlocuter and end men. Numerous performers were renowned for their ability to leave audiences weeping.’’ This sounds like a sympathetic broadcasting of the slave's (or, in 1871, freedman's) plight, of which Du Bois might conceivably have approved. Uncle Eph's Dream shows that this is not the case. Eph mourns his lost wife and children, but he also mourns the loss of Mr. Slocum: “He used to be my massa and a mighty good massa he was too—but we got no more massas now; de poor old slaves will hab to look out for demselves.’’ Happy or sad, here is one aspect of minstrel characters which appears often: whatever their age, they have a tendency to be not fully adult. Despite the mutability of the form the minstrel show took during its century of ascendency, certain themes do emerge.
The variability of audience response is perhaps the most complex aspect of the minstrel phenomenon. A major attempt to sort out this complexity of both performance and response is Eric Lott's recent Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. In minstrelsy, he sees a dialectic play of opposites, not merely a putdown of blacks:
What I have called the social unconscious of blackface suggests that the whites involved in minstrelsy were far from unenthusiastic about black cultural practices or, conversely, untroubled by them, continuous though the economic logic of blackface was with slavery. As often as not, this involvement depended on an intersection of racial and class languages that occasionally became confused with one another, reinforcing the general air of political jeopardy in minstrel acts.... At every turn blackface minstrelsy has seemed a form in which transgression and containment coexisted, in which improbably threatening or startlingly sympathetic racial meanings were simultaneously produced and dissolved. Neither the social relations on which blackface delineations depended, the delineations themselves, their commercial setting, nor their ideological effects were monolithic or simply hegemonic.
Instances of this co-existence of transgression and containment abound; one example is the Tom show, which enjoyed such an extraordinary run from the 1850s until well into this century. Because “no laws existed copyrighting fictional material for stage use,’’ Harriet Beecher Stowe had no control over the form her novel would take when dramatized; her only profit was a free seat when one of the many productions came to Hartford, during the performance of which she had to ask her companion to explain the plot. The 1850s saw a plethora of wildly variable versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, some broadly abolitionist, some anti-abolitionist, with a few that contrived to be a little of both, the theatrical situation reflecting the broader political disintegration of the country. But despite the complexity of Lott's reading of minstrelsy, he does recognize certain broad features shared by many of its productions, from which he begins his “complication’’ of the phenomenon:
While it was organized around the quite explicit “borrowing’’ of black cultural materials for white dissemination, a borrowing that ultimately depended on the material relations of slavery, the minstrel show obscured these relations by pretending that slavery was amusing, right, and natural. Although it arose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshly investments through ridicule and racist lampoon.
For the present purpose—examining Du Bois's attitude toward minstrelsy—this essay will focus on these two tendencies in blackface: minstrelsy was an appropriation of black culture, and it deformed what it appropriated.
Its very beginning was an act of theft; Thomas Dartmouth Rice's famous Jim Crow routine was ‘‘borrowed’’ from a crippled stablehand of that name. That Rice had been the one who discovered and appropriated Jim Crow's song, dance, and name was established by the 1880 autobiography of Rice's employer, thus settling an old controversy. ‘‘The foggy folklore and apocrypha regarding the origins of ‘Jim Crow’ vary with the interpreter and with the time of retelling. Jim Crow has been authoritatively and geographically discovered in Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and obscure outposts of the Great Southwest. Progenitors of ‘Jim Crow’ surfaced all over the land.’’ Although scholars have traced the origins of the Jim Crow stage routine, separating Rice's valid claim from those resulting from faulty memory or worse, few have considered the deeper meaning of its vague etiology and multiple discoverers. In one sense, this ‘‘foggy folklore and apocrypha’’ is not constructed merely of falsehoods; rather, it represents accurately the relationship which developed between the minstrel theater and the innumerable, nameless black informants who gave the theater its material. Thomas Rice's appropriation of Jim Crow's song was a prototype from which thousands of copies sprang. Rice's stellar success led other performers to take up his technique of appropriation, mingling among the slaves and free blacks of antebellum America in search of ready-made routines. Robert Toll, who describes this process as ‘‘primitive fieldwork,’’ quotes a number of the early minstrel stars on the topic, like Billy Whitlock, who while touring the South would ‘‘steal off to some negro hut to hear the darkies sing and see them dance, taking a jug of whisky to make things merrier.’’
Such direct testimony is uncommon; ‘‘blackface performers rarely credited specific material to blacks because they wanted to be known as creative artists as well as entertainers.’’ Creative they were; it would be a grave mistake to imagine that productions of minstrelsy adequately represented nineteenth century black culture. Indeed, after the Civil War, minstrel troupes began to include stereotyped German, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Chinese characters, portrayed in blackface, in their shows, a move which Gary Engle credits to competition from the ethnic comedies of variety theater. Any connection with African American reality, in these shows at least, was stretched beyond the breaking point. The content of many blackface performances, however, reveals that minstrels did borrow heavily from black culture; they ‘‘used Afro-American dances and dance-steps, reproduced individual Negro's songs and ‘routines’ intact, absorbed Afro-American syncopated rhythms into their music, and employed characteristically Afro-American folk elements and forms.’’ Plainly, a very one-sided exchange—an appropriation—took place. Black informants (there must have been an enormous number of them, during the long history of minstrelsy) surrendered bits and pieces of their culture to the minstrels, who proceeded to put them to use. Many of the latter grew wealthy, while the former got nothing (before Abolition, at least) and rarely survive even as names. But it is not merely the act of appropriation which is of interest here. Just as important is the use to which this appropriated culture was put, a use which had the final effect of hanging the minstrel mask on black America; it is this use which motivates Du Bois's work of re-appropriation in The Souls of Black Folk.
In the absence of any real communication between the races—an absence Du Bois seeks to fill—the minstrel show defined what blacks were for most of its audience. What was the black ‘‘reality’’ created by the average minstrel show? Its characteristics are still well known, perhaps because traces of the minstrel form survived so long in the motion picture industry and showed a remarkable resiliency in live theater. Ralph Ellison in a recent introduction to a new edition of Invisible Man, reports witnessing a Tom show in Vermont during World War II and Harry Birdoff writes that there were still a few Tom troupes scattered around the country as late as 1947. Again, this reality was a complex one, but often the black, as portrayed by the blackface theater, was a buffoon: ‘‘With their ludicrous dialects, grotesque make-up, bizarre behavior, and simplistic caricatures, minstrels portrayed blacks as totally inferior.’’ For pre-war Northern audiences, minstrels frequently created fantasy plantations populated by fantasy slaves who—like Uncle Eph—were happy in their bondage, devoted to their masters, content to frolic like children all day. Beginning in 1853, Christy Minstrels produced one of the more popular inverted versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The following lyric, from the piece entitled ‘‘Happy Uncle Tom,’’ captures its spirit:
Oh, white folks, we'll have you to know
Dis am not de version of Mrs. Stowe;
Wid her de Darks am all unlucky
But we am de boys from Old Kentucky.
Den hand de Banjo down to play
We'll make it ring both night and day
And we care not what de white folks say
Dey can't get us to run away.
When the (mistakenly) desired gift of freedom was granted the minstrel slave, it might be voluntarily surrendered, as in Stephen Foster's 1851 ‘‘Ring, Ring de Banjo!’’:
Once I was so lucky,
My massa set me free,
I went to old Kentucky
To see what I could see:
I could not go no farder,
I turn to massa's door,
I lub him all de harder,
I'll go away no more.
Lott sees in this a contradictory message, as one might expect, given that his project is—rightly—to complicate our perception of minstrelsy. He considers it as one of many minstrel songs that ‘‘briefly or obliquely kick against plantation authority’’; later in the song, massa dies, a ‘‘death that may be a murder,’’ but, he continues, ‘‘is just as surely an unfortunate orphaning.’’ For all its complexity, it was very often the case that the ‘‘minstrel show's message was that black people belonged only on Southern plantations and had no place at all in the North. ‘Dis being free,’ complained one minstrel character who had run away from the plantation, ‘is worser dem being a slave.’’’ Before it became the anthem of the white Confederacy, that characteristic example of Southern homesickness expressed in music, ‘‘Dixie,’’ had been a minstrel song. Minstrelsy often created for its audience a black America which wanted only security and endless play—which could exist only in a state of arrested childhood.
The entry of freedmen into the theater did little to change this situation. Blacks were largely excluded from both the audience and stage of the pre-Civil War white theater. With Abolition, this situation changed rapidly, with many freedmen taking to the stage and adopting the minstrel forms unaltered. It is not surprising that this first black venture into theater was a venture into minstrelsy; the audiences of these new troupes were mostly white, and pre-war minstrelsy had led them to expect nothing else. During the waning decades of the nineteenth century, a number of black minstrel performers became quite successful. Perhaps the most famous was Billy Kersands. Houston Baker, in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, likens Booker T. Washington's ‘‘mastery of minstrel form’’ (Washington's ability, when needed, to selectively play the minstrel clown for the edification of white philanthropists) to that of Kersands; both took up ‘‘types and tones of nonsense to earn a national reputation and its corollary benefits for the Afro-American masses.’’ It is a pragmatic attitude, and a very sane one. What else could Washington, or Kersands, or any other ambitious black person do in the hostile environment of late nineteenth century America? Besides, as Nathan Huggins notes, ‘‘some black performers attempted to achieve the distance between the stage character and themselves by the very extremities of the exaggeration.’’ Kersands, for example, became famous for his ability to deliver a speech with a mouth full of billiard balls. ‘‘Grotesques, themselves, could allow black men, as they did white men, the assurance that the foolishness on stage was not them.’’ Nevertheless, the common delusion that minstrelsy and African American reality were one could only have been strengthened by the presence of ‘‘the real thing’’ on stage.
After the war, partly in response to the competition of the new black troupes, white minstrel shows began to swell. By 1880, the United Mastadon Minstrels, to give only one example, ‘‘featured a ‘magnificent scene representing a Turkish Barbaric Palace in Silver and Gold’ that included Turkish soldiers marching, a Sultan's palace, and ‘Baseball.’ And that was just one feature of the first part of the show.’’ It is a long way from crippled Jim Crow to Turkish Barbaric Palaces in Silver and Gold, but by 1880, any minstrel show which relied on the old stereotypes—especially in the North, where the black population grew daily—was becoming an exercise in schizophrenia. The black minstrels who put on the old make-up and performed the old routines were, as one scholar has put it, "an imitation of an imitation of plantation life of Southern blacks.’’ White minstrels had appropriated such elements of black culture as they thought would sell theater seats, ignoring some elements, highlighting others. When audiences exercised their economic power over the performers—their power, that is, to choose the most pleasing performance—the minstrel spectacle took another step away from the black reality. Between the black minstrel and his white audience there hung a veil of misunderstanding and make-believe: the black partially-selectively—silenced, the whites paying to see a cherished fantasy made briefly real. When members of the white audience left the theater, they hoped, often expected, sometimes demanded, that the minstrel play continue among the blacks they met in the street. Such was the environment in which The Souls of Black Folk was produced. In Du Bois's America, the color line had been partly drawn by the forward edge of the minstrel stage.
In their break with formalist criticism, the new historicists have perhaps been most radical in their insistence that, since all texts are embedded in the ideological discourse of their time, none are uninfluenced by ideology; all texts are political. While he is, of course, not a new historicist critic, Du Bois could hardly agree more with this insistence. ‘‘All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of purists,’’ he writes in ‘‘Criteria of Negro Art’’:
I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
Much of Du Bois's career was devoted to breaking this silence. The main work of Souls is anticipated by his 1901 New York Times articles, in which he invites white readers to place
themselves within the negro group and by studying that inner life look with him out upon the surrounding world. When a white person comes once vividly to realize the disabilities under which a negro labors, the public contempt and thinly veiled private dislike, ‘‘the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes’’—when once one sees this, and then from personal knowledge knows that sensitive human hearts are enduring this, the question comes, How can they stand it?
When the question is finally asked by enough whites, he believes, social change for the better, for ‘‘the right of black folk to love and enjoy,’’ will finally happen. This project is continued two years later in The Souls of Black Folk, which is thus first and foremost a political text; Du Bois speaks for the folk who, except for the unreal language of minstrelsy, had long been stripped and silent. Du Bois's fundamental design—his political agenda—is to subvert the color line which minstrelsy has helped to construct.
Du Bois aims to accomplish this end by offering convincing detail that black folk are just as human as any other folk. By focusing each chapter on a different aspect of black life, he demonstrates that ‘‘the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts.’’ Du Bois argues that, although they do not yet know it, whites have much to gain from black culture. Du Bois's enemy is ignorance, both the ignorance of poor, unlettered blacks and that of whites still enamored of the minstrel fantasy. His audience lies within both races, but his terms of address are pointed mostly toward whites. Thus, in his ‘‘Forethought,’’ he explains that he has ‘‘stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.’’ His ultimate goal is to arouse not pity, but acknowledgment of a shared humanity. In ‘‘Of Alexander Crummel,’’ he writes of the nineteenth century as
the first century of human sympathy—the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves, and millionaires and—sometimes—Negroes, became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, ‘‘Thou too!’’
Having entered the twentieth century, his goal is to extend this sympathy to African Americans until it is no longer occasional, a deviation from the norm.
Du Bois's dominant metaphor for the communicative impasse which exists between the races is the Veil. It is an image that has received considerable critical attention. For such African American critics as Houston Baker, the metaphor is comprehensive: it ‘‘signifies a barrier of American racial segregation that keeps Afro-Americans always behind a color line—disoriented—prey to divided aims, dire economic circumstances, haphazard educational opportunities, and frustrated intellectual ambitions.’’ Keith Byerman sees the persona narrating ‘‘Of the Passing of the First Born’’—who is consoled by the thought that his dead son will not grow up ‘‘choked and deformed within the Veil’’ as ‘‘a man robbed of his vitality and jealous of his son for dying. What he has been made to feel as a result of his skin color has left him only with a death-wish. He has suffocated beneath the Veil.’’ Jerold Savory identifies a possible Biblical source of the Veil image; the ‘‘most frequent Biblical use of the term,’’ he writes, ‘‘is in reference to the Temple in which a large curtain (sometimes a double curtain) was hung to separate the ‘holy of holies’ from the public.’’ Only high priests could pass within the veil; it is thus associated with power and oppression, and is ‘‘rent in twain’’ when Christ dies on the cross. Savory sees a connection with Du Bois's ‘‘conviction that the rending of the Veil must begin ‘at the top’ through the enlightened efforts of the ‘Talented Tenth’’ of liberally educated Blacks qualified to assume positions of educational, economical, and political leadership.’’ Arnold Rampersad sees an even more powerful connection between metaphor and actual oppression. According to Rampersad, Du Bois ‘‘links his image of the veil to the symbol of an ongoing slavery; at one and the same time, he records ‘the wail of prisoned souls within the veil, and the mounting fury of shackled men.’’’ Into this single image, then, the color line and all the evils that flow from it are compressed.
Like the color line, the veil is insubstantial; it is much more a construct of perception and attitude than of any tangible difference. It is a creation of, among other influences, the minstrel fantasy. The fantasy itself is destructive (for instance, what banker would risk a loan to a black when he believes this person to be a happy, childlike clown?), and by showing black folk to be as human as white folk, Du Bois seeks to deconstruct both the fantasy and the color line. Although he does not often mention minstrelsy by name, he challenges the minstrel tradition quite clearly in his commitment to re-appropriating the Sorrow Songs.
Du Bois reveals that he is very much aware that an appropriation has taken place, and he specifically identifies the minstrel theater as a culprit. ‘‘Away back in the thirties the melody of these slave songs stirred the nation, but the songs were soon half forgotten. Some, like ‘Near the lake where drooped the willow,’ passed into current airs and their source was forgotten; others were caricatured on the ‘minstrel’ stage and their memory died away.’’ He understates the popularity and staying power of the many hit songs minstrelsy produced, all based ultimate on slave music: ‘‘Turkey in the Straw,’’ ‘‘Dixie,’’ ‘‘Camptown Races,’’ ‘‘Old Folks at Home,’’ ‘‘My Old Kentucky Home,’’ ‘‘Old Black Joe,’’ ‘‘Beautiful Dreamer,’’ all were minstrel songs. They also all exhibit key elements of the minstrel fantasy; when sung by the blackface performer, they expressed the sentiments of a simple, playful people, homesick for massa and the plantation. Along with other ‘‘debasements and imitations,’’ Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk refers to the minstrel tradition as ‘‘a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro music.…’’ In subverting the minstrel renditions by returning to the forgotten roots from which these songs sprang, his work of re-appropriation is partly a means to an end; showing black folk to possess a creative art form uniquely their own further rends the Veil. ‘‘They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy. I can easily believe this of some, of many. But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart-touching witness of these songs.’’
But Du Bois's re-appropriation is also an end in itself; his recovery of the Sorrow Songs is a project which underlies the entire book. We see this in those odd, enigmatic bars of music which stand as silent epigraphs at the head of each chapter. To the reader who cannot decipher music notation—which is to say, most readers today—they are as meaningful as the lines of poetry which accompany them would be to an illiterate slave. It is not until the final chapter that we learn the names of the songs to which these bars of music belong, and their lyrics. It is so by design. By the end of the book, the white reader has been introduced to life behind the Veil. If Du Bois's aim has been fulfilled, he or she will know that black folk possess souls as intricate as his or her own. If not thus prepared, the white reader might dismiss these slave songs as minstrel foolishness. The Souls of Black Folk is at least partly structured to enable such a reader to accept these songs as works of art.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the marginal status of the Sorrow Songs, from the time of their composition until Du Bois came to their aid. Most are religious in nature, but they were rarely permitted to be sung in church, especially before Emancipation. In the North, even black ministers disapproved of them as vulgar. Daniel Alexander Payne, for instance, at different times a minister, historian, and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, condemned the Sorrow Songs, calling them ‘‘cornfield ditties.’’ In the South, religious gatherings of slaves, like all gatherings, were suppressed; but even in their secret gatherings, or in those permitted by lenient masters, ‘‘the slaves generally adhered to conventional forms of worship,’’ singing only psalms and hymns approved by the Methodist or Baptist churches. ‘‘Judging from the evidence, the singing of religious folksongs was not encouraged in formal services. [Plantation owner and memoirist R. Q. J. Mallard seemed to be proud of the fact that sometimes, when in a generous mood, he would let the slaves sing ‘their own improvised spiritual’ at church services.’’ And while the success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, among other touring black college groups, certainly lifted the status of the Sorrow Songs, such performances were no longer what they had been, by Du Bois's day.
When the spirituals were removed from the original setting of the plantation or the Negro Church and sung by persons who had not directly experienced slavery, these songs no longer served their primary function. Concert singers could present to the public only an approximation of how the spirituals had been sung by the slaves.
Independent of the liberties minstrelsy had taken with slave music, it enjoyed no great prestige when Du Bois took up its cause.
Du Bois communicates his sense of the cultural importance the Sorrow Songs possess in the first chapter: ‘‘there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.’’ This statement is reinforced by, again, Du Bois's dual chapter epigraphs. In this case, he plays a subtle and little noticed joke on the white reader. All fourteen of the slave song epigraphs are examples of ‘‘true American music,’’ works of art belonging to a genre which is distinctly ours. But what of the poets whose works stand above those of the anonymous slaves? Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (twice), Swinburne, Tennyson, Arthur Symons—the list is rather British. ‘‘The music of Negro religion … [,] despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil.’’
But the importance of the Sorrow Songs does not lie merely in their ability to satisfy the literary nationalist; its potential role is too vital for that. As noted, Du Bois is confident that black folk have much to offer whites, and one of their latent gifts is their music. ‘‘Will America be poorer if she replace … her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?’’ Robert Stepto refers to this as Du Bois's ‘‘call for a truly plural American culture,’’ involving ‘‘nothing less than his envisioning fresh spaces in which black and white Americans discover bonds beyond those generated by social-structured race rituals.’’ The Veil is not merely to be lifted; positive cultural bonds are to replace it.
Du Bois's re-appropriation of the Sorrow Songs is not, however, a project aimed at rehabilitating them in the eyes of white Americans alone. Even more important is their rehabilitation in the eyes of the Talented Tenth of his fellow blacks.
The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soulbeauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people.
According to James Weldon Johnson, Du Bois succeeded. In Along This Way, Johnson refers to The Souls of Black Folk as ‘‘a work which, I think, has had a greater effect upon and within the Negro race in America than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom's Cabin.’’ Du Bois was not the first to treat the slave songs as something more than the raw material for minstrel buffoonery. As noted, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had already brought the Sorrow Songs before the white public, and with considerable success, earning the astonishing sum of $150,000 toward the support of Fisk University. Du Bois, however, may be the first to argue that the Sorrow Songs are works of art as important—and really no different than the high poetry with which they share his chapter headings.
In this way, Du Bois's project of re-appropriation anticipates in a surprising way—and by about eight decades—one of the central arguments of new historicism—that the border between the literary and non-literary, between high art and low pastime, is an artificial construct of the ideology that prevails at any given time, and that such borders are permeable. His violation of the boundaries between high and low art is a radical one; beneath each of his chapter titles, the very highest and very lowest mix as equals. It is not so surprising when one reflects that all cultures possess a literature. In an analphabetic culture, the literature will be an oral one. The legendary Homer the anonymous Beowulf poet, the ‘‘Turoldus’’ who recites the Song of Roland (and who is to us, like Jim Crow, no more than a name)—all three, whoever they were, produced works regarded as great literature by Du Bois's America, and our own. Though the forms are different (‘‘primary’’ epic versus folk song), they were engaged in the same cultural pursuit as the slaves who created the Sorrow Songs. Still, for Du Bois to equate the Sorrow Songs with the work of Byron, Tennyson, Shiller, and all the others is a subversive act indeed.
In so doing, he lays the foundations of the Harlem Renaissance during which Alain Locke would declare black spirituals to be
thematically rich, in idiom of rhythm and harmony richer still, in potentialities of new musical forms and new technical traditions so deep as to be accessible only to genius, they have the respect of the connoisseur even while still under the sentimental and condescending patronage of the amateur.
The Renaissance would have happened without Du Bois, of course. However, his confident assertion of equality between native black forms of aesthetic expression and those of the white majority—remarkably confident, at that early date—is an important precursor to Locke's very similar assertion. By re-appropriating the music which minstrelsy had debased, Du Bois provides the Harlem Renaissance with an example of an art form which is distinctively African American. His was the pioneering voice. As Johnson's Ex-Colored Man puts it, the future black novelist or poet will have an opportunity ‘‘to give the country something new and unknown, in depicting the life, the ambitions, the struggles, and the passions of those of their race who are striving to break the narrow limits of traditions. A beginning has already been made in that remarkable book by Dr. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk.’’
Source: Scott Herring, ‘‘Du Bois and the Minstrels,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 3-16.
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