I had a brief period of believing I was an activist. I was swept away by a few of my friends who were deep within the Black Lives Matter Movement here in Denver. I found myself disoriented and in many ways I am still unpacking the impact of those few months. One question I found myself asking over and over again was “What now?” I was not content allowing my Black Lives Matter experience to sit on a shelf in my mind and become some anecdotal story I could bounce back to from time to time. I felt like an entirely new world had burst into my consciousness and I knew I needed to take some kind of a “next step”.
It was around this time that I listened to one of my favorite podcasts. Krista Tippett was interviewing a few people, including Maya Angelou, about a book and man I had never heard of–Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’ ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. Their conversation convinced me that this book was the answer to my question of “What now?” So I picked up a copy and began reading it alongside a friend. The conversations that have come out of doing this are still happening and are packed full of more grace and beauty than a simple blog could communicate.
I just finished the book and decided I would do my best to articulate why it is one of the most influential things I have ever read. My one disclaimer is that I want to share this with you, and I also feel incredibly out of my league in doing so. I am going to be speaking out of my ignorance as much, or more, as out of my knowledge after having read the book. As a white man, I am not sure I am truly capable of understanding this work and all it contains.
Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was born in 1868. He wrote ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ in 1903. For those of you not super brushed up on your American History, he wrote this book exactly 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. His context of writing sat with great tension between the Emancipation of somewhere around 4 million men, women, and children who were enslaved and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. This is a period that almost felt non-existent in my history studies. It seemed that the narrative felt something like: “Slavery ended, then came Dr. King…and now racism is over.” This short, but incredibly dense book offered a dramatic picture of what life for the Black community was like between Emancipation and “I Have A Dream”.
Dr. Du Bois was a poet and scholar and this book reflects the depth of both of those realities. It seems that his mission was to, on one hand, make a case for the inclusion of the Black community in the shaping of American culture. In fact, he pointed out some ways this was already happening. On the other hand, another clear objective was to illuminate the evil barriers Black folks were coming up against that the white community was blissfully ignorant, or even gleefully supportive of. And throughout the book, he deeply affirms the beauty, strength, wisdom, and love of the Black man and woman–against strong belief to the contrary. He illuminates how White America–including the majority of Christianity–is complicit with the harsh reality he is describing. He tells stories that are sure to trouble you, sure to inspire you, and sure to leave an imprint of his struggle toward freedom for his people on your heart and mind.
The one line I have shared with my friend over and over again as we discuss this book is that I am struck by how everything and nothing has changed in our country since 1903. It is impossible to read this book and not walk away with a sense of gratitude for how we as a country have progressed toward a greater understanding of racial justice. But it is also impossible to walk away without a clear awareness that in many cases the struggle is exactly the same and it feels like reshaping language has been called “progress” while the open wound of injustice continues to fester.
I hope that you will read ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. In many ways it feels like the words of this moral and intellectual giant are more relevant to us in 2016 than they were when they first found themselves on the page in 1903.