I wrote an essay for a class on African American Literature to satisfy this prompt:
In the last decade or so, commentators have speculated about the advent of a “post-racial” turn in U.S. culture and politics. These commentators sometimes acknowledge that both ordinary racism and structural racial inequality still exist, but point to a fundamental shift in the nation’s racial “imaginary.” For instance, proponents of this view argue that Americans can now imagine a black president and other iconic figures, whereas such a possibility seemed unthinkable a relatively short time ago. In another register, African American creative writers and artists now imagine and represent race—if they imagine or represent it all—in very different ways than their predecessors, and in the process cast doubt on whether conventional racial categories are useful or tenable any longer. If the post-racial theorists are right, then their arguments raise the question of whether a text like Souls of Black Folk is now of basically historical interest. Souls may have spoken to readers throughout the 20th century, so the argument goes, but it is far less relevant in the 21st century: the text is now interesting as a not-too-ancient relic, an eloquent testament to the valiant struggle of black Americans and a reminder of a painful and (thankfully) bygone era. Skeptics of the post-racial turn might well argue that Souls remains relevant, and that its most compelling ideas transcend the context of African American history or the dilemmas of racism. Citing evidence from Souls throughout, write an argumentative essay that takes up either position.
At the dawn of the modern era in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois prophesied in The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” This line demarcates the political, economic, and cultural divide which our country has inherited from the peculiar institution of kidnapping, forced labor, murder, and rape characterizing the slave industry that built the United States of America. According to Du Bois, the line is a problem because it splits the Negro consciousness with a Veil:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a 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.
The Veil is both a cause and an effect of the color line; the racial “imaginary” is propagated by the false dichotomy between self and other, which in turn is nurtured by the socio-economic institutions that sprang from “the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black.” Du Bois is concerned that even though Emancipation has physically freed the slaves, the Veil is preventing African Americans from achieving their political, economic, and cultural freedom in America. In order for a black man “to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another” and he must “merge his double self into a better and truer self.”
Du Bois argues that the stakes are extremely high, threatening the very foundations of African American Civilization— the key concerns of material, intellectual, and familial existence:
He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance,—not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.
Certainly, “with such foundations a kingdom must in time sway and fall”, and the slave-owning society of the South along with the North, “her co-partner in guilt”, did comparatively little to find “peace from its sins”, and in fact perpetuated legal, economic, and cultural “institutions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks.” It seems an insurmountable task, to begin to legislate against segregation in a land where “only colored boys are sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor”, and to fight poverty when “the shadow-hand of the master’s grand-nephew or cousin or creditor stretches out of the gray distance to collect the rack-rent remorselessly, and so the land is uncared-for and poor.” How can a race achieve self-realization when its educational system has been warped “from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life?” In such a caustic environment, it was inevitable that the African American family structure would suffer. “Mother and child are sung, but seldom father; fugitive and weary wanderer call for pity and affection, but there is little of wooing and wedding; the rocks and the mountains are well known, but home is unknown.”
This is the Negro Problem: how are African Americans to integrate into White Society without losing their Black Souls? Du Bois refers to the apparent weakness of the strivings of post-Emancipation freedmen as “the contradiction of double aims”, painting an image of poorly mixed values and goals leading to the failure of various social groups within Black Culture:
The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan—on the one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde—could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause.
To achieve Progress in the modern world, the “child of Emancipation” must mature and utilize his “dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect” to see “some faint revelation of his power, of his mission.” The promise of the Enlightenment was the liberty, equality and fraternity of all men, but like the Promised Land those ideals will remain out of reach for African Americans until the “self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression” are overcome by successfully developing “the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.”
In 2008, America elected its first African American president, Barack Obama. It was an historic moment which many people worked diligently for years to achieve. However, it was not the moment when the color line was erased, the Veil became transparent, and the Negro Problem went away. Indeed, the campaign, election, and administration of this colored man point out some interesting continuances of post-Emancipation America that have spilled into our so-called modern era.
Throughout Obama’s campaign and Presidency, our country has exhibited a disgusting lack of shame for its racist mentality. Imagery comparing Obama to primates, to African witch-doctors, and to various behaviors attributed stereotypically to Blacks was distributed across the Internet and fouled many screens. His Kenyan ancestry and hypothetically fake birthplace were constantly assailed, as a means of attacking his citizenship and patriotism. If anyone thought the raw, emotional form of racism that drives bigots to mouth-foaming condemnation of a man for his skin color was extinct, the campaign season of 2008 must surely drive that notion from his mind.
Anything Obama said or did for the benefit of black people in this country was immediately targeted as being preferential treatment, and he was forced to moderate his views on virtually every issue of importance to his own racial community because he didn’t want to risk the specter of favoritism. This echoes the early struggles of Black leadership as pointed out by Du Bois: “By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks.” By placating the concerns of the Whites and catering entirely to their needs, Obama fell into a leadership trap, appearing to rule Blacks with the blessings of the Whites:
Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,—criticism of writers by readers,—this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society. If the best of the American Negroes receive by outer pressure a leader whom they had not recognized before, manifestly there is here a certain palpable gain. Yet there is also irreparable loss,—a loss of that peculiarly valuable education which a group receives when by search and criticism it finds and commissions its own leaders. The way in which this is done is at once the most elementary and the nicest problem of social growth. History is but the record of such group-leadership; and yet how infinitely changeful is its type and character! And of all types and kinds, what can be more instructive than the leadership of a group within a group?—that curious double movement where real progress may be negative and actual advance be relative retrogression.
A prime example of the kind of racial back-peddling that exemplifies the Obama Administration is the case of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested in his own home because of a call to police about some black men allegedly seen breaking through the back door. When the controversy first struck, Obama commented at a press conference that racial profiling by law enforcement is an established fact, thereby setting off an enormous round of conservative criticism. Obama backed down, apologized to the arresting officer, and even held a “Beer Summit” between Professor Gates and the policeman. It seems very ironic that the structural injustices which have prevailed since before Obama was a glimmer in the eye of his Kenyan father caused a highly-charged political situation which forced him to deny the very existence of said injustice, and to paper over the incident with an American cultural tradition, the drinking of beer, while downplaying the abrogation of civil rights.
If The Souls of Black People weren’t relevant today, African American presidents would be fairly run-of-the-mill and could govern according to their true will, educational standards would be fairly applied, jails would hold a fair mix of colors, our economy would reward hard-workers equitably, and the black family would be a safe and happy place. However, since we know these conditions haven’t been met, we must assume that we are most certainly not living in a post-racial America.