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Critical Essay by Stanley Brodwin
SOURCE: "The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, March, 1972, pp. 303-21.
In the essay below, Brodwin examines theme and structure in The Souls of Black Folk and remarks on Du Bois's presentation of black consciousness.
No student of black culture in American can escape the melancholy conclusion that, amid the wide range of human tragedy slavery and racism have inflicted on an entire race, black men of talent and genius have had to suffer in more complex ways than their less-gifted brothers. Apart from the general agony he shared with his brethren, the black artist or intellectual has always been forced to channel his natural abilities and personal aims into political and social arenas where they could best be used to achieve civil rights and human dignity. Black intellectuals had to accept the sacrifice of personal ambition, recognizing that there were issues and causes that transcended individual goals. The spiritual compensations for such sacrifice could be great, as DuBois himself pointed out: "And to themselves in these days that try their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is to their finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by being black." But the price still had to be paid in order to soar above the smoke. The price was particularly heavy in literature, for no black writer could escape the racial imperative thrust on his work or person. Even the colonial poetess, Phillis Wheatley, whom Richard Wright described as being "at one" with her American culture and who carefully kept militant racial themes out of her work, was made the subject of racial controversy. Important nineteenth-century black writers such as William Wells Brown, James Madison Bell, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delany, Frances E. W. Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt all had to turn their literary efforts into attacks against slavery, disenfranchisement, or cultural stereotyping, using a variety of strategies in their works to do so.
Novelists like Sutton Griggs (and Chesnutt) finally turned away from fiction as a weapon with which to break down racial injustices. In the twentieth century, the writers of the "Harlem Renaissance" struggled to reconcile the claims of art and propaganda, a problem debated by such contemporary figures as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Baraka), and Eldridge Cleaver. But in the whole spectrum of black writing from the colonial period until today, W. E. B. DuBois stands out as the one acknowledged genius who poured his energies into almost every literary form available to him. Indeed, he lived his thesis that the Negro is "primarily an artist." Today, however, despite his image as a propagandist, his academic reputation rests rightly on his great sociological and historical works, beginning with The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1683–1870 (1896). Yet he wrote a small body of effective poetry, five novels, an autobiography, and several volumes of what can only be called poetic essays which mix autobiographical and sociological matter. Out of all this work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) alone has reached a wide audience, in more than twenty editions. In the burgeoning Black Studies programs throughout the country, it is required reading, and is now—belatedly—included in American history and literature courses in some universities. James Weldon Johnson, who himself was a fine writer and scholar, wrote that The Souls of Black Folk has had "a greater effect upon and within the black race in America than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom's Cabin." In short, the work has become an established part of American literary culture and history. However, apart from an occasional appreciative glance at the literary aspects of this unified collection of essays, the book has received no extended criticism.
When it is examined, it is nearly always in terms of DuBois' radical break with Booker T. Washington's accommodationism and its evocation of a new spiritually militant mood from the black intelligentsia. The book's most famous line, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line" is invoked as DuBois' central insight, though DuBois later revised this idea in terms of a more general Marxist orientation. And there is no doubt that the book was in the vanguard of a social revolution that was soon to create, under DuBois' aegis, first the Niagara Movement and then the NAACP. It is only when The Souls of Black Folk is studied as a literary phenomenon, however, that its true meaning emerges. For beyond the clear sociological analysis of the black man's plight during the nineteenth century, DuBois presents an intensely personal vision of how one man confronted and transcended the complex tragic life generated in living behind the veil of the color line. To this end, DuBois employed a variety of literary techniques handled with skill: rhetorical tropes, allegory, symbolic patterns, personal confession, biography, and musical motifs from the sorrow songs or spirituals. Using all these elements to create his organic vision, DuBois structured fourteen essays in the form of a neo-Hegelian dialectic whose stage of synthesis carried him—and by extension, all those who would follow—into a spiritual realm of historical and racial understanding that does not merely rend, but transcends the veil of color. This literary strategy is at once relevant to both black and white man, giving the work its universal dimension.
DuBois recognized the fact that the black community could not, with its weak power base, achieve a social revolution completely on its own. He was able to see the symbiotic relationship between white and black in America, and he strove to enlighten his white audience as to the specific psychological and economic tensions and bonds that affected both races. Therefore The Souls of Black Folk had to be not only a force in awakening black pride, but also a spiritual guidebook for whites, most of whom had little awareness of the genuine strivings and psychic realities in black folk. Like many black writers, DuBois had to speak to audiences of two different mental and cultural dispositions, and bridge the gap between them. He had to integrate the "protest" or propaganda aspects of the work with the purely descriptive and personal. And beyond both of these tasks—intrinsic to the very nature of black writing in America—DuBois had to reconcile the "twoness" within himself, if only to give personal validity to his larger social and spiritual aims.
All this DuBois sketches in for the reader in "The Forethought." He will talk about the spiritual strivings of blacks and the effect of emancipation upon them; he will talk of "the two worlds within and without the Veil," and the "central problem of training men for life." Finally, he will speak of the "deeper recesses" of black souls. What this structure actually does is to delineate three major phases of black history and strivings. The first phase is that of revolt and freedom—the whole Civil War complex—the second phase is that of moral, intellectual, and economic adjustment, attendant with all the temptations of the white man's values for blacks, passivity in the face of white power, and the effect of personal tragedy on DuBois' own striving; the third phase deals with the necessity to affirm life in the face of tragedy as seen through Alexander Crummell, "John Jones," and the sorrow songs themselves.
Throughout this pattern runs the thread of DuBois' spiritual autobiography. In the first chapter, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," DuBois tells us how, as a young man growing up in New England, he discovered the Veil between himself and his fellow white students, and how he "held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows." Here we have a passive transcendence which will gradually develop over the years into a dynamic and intellectual action. But this passive transcendence enabled DuBois to reflect upon his own inner life and that of his race. Reflection yielded two spiritual poles around which the whole work revolves: self-consciousness and culture. Indeed, it would not be an oversimplification to say that these two concepts embodied the values implicit in DuBois' whole life. For he saw that the Negro—"born with a Veil"—lived in a world which "yielded him no true self-consciousness, but only lets [sic] him see himself through the revelation of the other world." A black man "ever feels this twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two unreconciled strivings." Therefore, the "history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." This "truer self" admits of no subordination of one side to another. Although DuBois did push his American identity aside in order to affirm his being a Negro when he came to Fisk University, at this point he wishes only to make it possible "to be both a Negro and an American." The result of this synthesis is to allow the Negro to be a "co-worker in the Kingdom of culture." DuBois knows, too, what the pitfalls will be before one can reach such a synthesis. For in his attempt to be a coworker, the Negro may actually find himself slipping backward instead of going forward. Indeed, as DuBois asserts: "real progress may be negative and actual advance be relative retrogression." To dramatize the Negro's problem in this respect, DuBois employs the Greek myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes:
Perhaps Atlanta was not christened for the winged maiden of dull Boeotia;… swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who outraced her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in the way. She fled like a shadow, paused, startled over the first apple, but even as he stretched his hand, fled again; hovered over the second, then, slipping from his hot grasp; flew over river, vale and hill; but as she lingered over the third, his arms fell around her, and looking on each other, the blazing passion of their love profaned the sanctuary of Love, and they were cursed. If Atlanta be not named for Atalanta, she ought to have been.
DuBois was troubled that the growth of industrialism in the South would gradually brutalize the last vestiges of a Southern humanistic tradition though feudal myths might still linger in them. The goal of wealth was replacing the Platonic ideals of "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness" and posing a genuine spiritual threat to the "Black World beyond the Veil." In a vivid image, DuBois sees "this young black Atalanta" infected with "mammonism," degenerating into an economic miscegenation with the South: "lawless lust with Hippomenes."
It is this condition—or temptation—that makes the Negro peer into himself "darkly as through a veil." Here the allusion to St. Paul's message to the Corinthians carries the double suggestiveness as to what black salvation is in the dark veil-mirror of existence, and as to what might be the depth of black guilt if the race cannot penetrate to spiritual values instead of material ones. For the black man may see himself, as all others, darkly, affirmatively, and save himself for himself. "So," DuBois writes "dawned the time of Strum und Drang" within the black soul. The storm and stress is, of course, also within the whole structure of black adjustment to emancipation and the economic stresses that soon followed. These problems are studied carefully in the essay on Booker T. Washington, whose compromising speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, according to DuBois, set back the black struggle for manhood and civil rights. And in the essays "Of the Wings of Atalanta" and "Of the Training of Black Men," DuBois formulated his doctrine of the "Gospel of Sacrifice," insisting that young, dynamic blacks "learn of a future fuller than the past, and hear the voice of Time: 'Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.'" Like Goethe's Wilhelm Meister [the protagonist of the play of the same name from which the preceding German quote was taken], they must learn to renounce, and renounce they must. DuBois is grateful to the Freedmen's Bureau for what it was able to accomplish for Negro education during Reconstruction, though it failed to fulfill its purposes entirely; he is grateful for the New England "schoolmarms" who came down South to teach blacks; but the Negro intellectual elite, the Talented Tenth, was not being reached. Under the control of Southern white money, Negro schools were kept basically industrial and second-rate, blunting the drive toward a genuine higher education blacks so desperately needed, but which seemed to threaten white supremacy. The question of higher education was DuBois' idée fixe, and he strove to be a living example of black intellectual accomplishment. DuBois wrote of the universities that they must be the "Wings of Atalanta" which will bear the Negro past the "temptation of the golden fruit." The university was central for the movement that would lead blacks into a meaningful synthesis between self-consciousness and culture:
The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of a popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. Above our modern socialism and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centers of culture protect; there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-government; that will love and labor in its own way untrammeled alike by old and new.
This is a statement that derives from DuBois' immersion in New England intellectual life as well as his own firsthand knowledge of black needs; it is a statement that consciously evokes the values and rhetorical language of Emerson and William James. For we must not forget that DuBois studied with James at Harvard and held him in supreme regard.
At the end of this chapter, DuBois brings his personal dialectic to its climax. His blackness (thesis) and his Americanness (antithesis) have been bridged by learning, teaching, and confronting the duality within himself; then, bearing himself past the temptation of the golden apples which threatened to destroy any spiritual reconciliation, DuBois is at last able to penetrate to his own self-consciousness and culture (synthesis):
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.
Here DuBois has replaced the lure of the golden apples with the lure of the knowledge that transcends color; in so doing, he has made himself the incarnation of the ideal which perceptive white, as well as black, men cherished. A meeting ground is established for both races, but it is a ground which implicitly flatters and inspires each at the same time.
While a dialectic progression to a high synthesis was perhaps DuBois' most important strategy of form, he did not ignore other techniques. One of the most important of these is thematic imagery. As a man "who probably felt much more poetry than he wrote," DuBois was well aware of the powerful impact vivid imagery makes in any kind of literature. At least two of his poems, "The Song of the Smoke" (1899) and "A Litany at Atlanta" (1906) are notable for their remarkable images and have become indispensable to any study of black poetry in America. The Souls of Black Folk contains a wide range of imagery which derive from four main sources: war, the Bible, Greek mythology, and nature, DuBois speaks of the "advance guard" of young black students climbing toward their "Canaan"; of the need to use the ballot as a "weapon" against gradual disenfranchisement and economic rape; of the need for the white man to know that if "your heart sickens in the blood and dust of battle," for a young black boy "the dust is thicker and the battle fiercer." There is the necessary warning that the black will grasp at a "gospel of revolt" if his conditions are not ameliorated. DuBois said clearly that "the doctrines of passive submission embodied in the newly learned Christianity" and wielded by that all-important life-phenomenon for the black—his church—were creating "a note of revenge" in the souls of his people genuinely seeking freedom.
Biblical imagery and allusions appear constantly in The Souls of Black Folk, and I have already alluded to a few of them. DuBois accepted—as a basic metaphor, if nothing else—the traditional black identification with the Children of Israel and the search for their Promised Land. DuBois' language often takes on biblical rhythm and syntax as when he cries "Why did God make me an outcast in mine own house?" After speaking of his being "wed with Truth," DuBois asks America: "Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?" Then there is the religious "awakening," when "the pent-up vigor of ten million souls shall sweep irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living—Liberty, Justice, and Right—is marked 'For White People Only.'" The universal biblical image of death is repeated, most poignantly, in the chapter on the death of his son, "Of the Passing of the First-Born." The "Shadow of Death" covers his child, who was born within the Veil. DuBois had struggled to transcendence through sacrifice and knowledge, but his child achieved it through death:
Are there so many workers in the vineyard that the fair promise of this little body could lightly be tossed away? The wretched of my race that line the valleys of the nation sit fatherless and unmothered; but Love sat beside his cradle, and in his ear Wisdom waited to speak. Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to be wise. Sleep, then, child—sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet—above the Veil.
Yet, in the following chapter, "Of Alexander Crummell," he uses the same imagery with a note of affirmation. For Alexander Crummell, a remarkable black clergyman who spent many years in Africa as well as America fighting for black dignity and culture, triumphed over the "temptation[s] of Hate … Despair … and Doubt, that ever steals along with twilight. Above all, you must hear of the vales he crossed,—the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death." We immediately think of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, as DuBois wishes us to do, and to see in Crummell a black Christian who will one day sit with a King: "a dark and pierced Jew, who knows the writhings of the early damned, saying, as he laid those heart-wrung talents down, 'Well done!' while round about the morning stars sat singing."
Along with biblical patterns and images, DuBois exploited the Greek tradition in Western culture. The myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes was used to penetrate the dilemma young black intellectuals found confronting them. In the chapter "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece," DuBois uses another myth to illuminate the plight of the black worker and sharecropper. The essay is a brilliant analysis of the economic conditions in the ante- and postbellum South and the role cotton played in shaping them. Land values, rent, crops, and the economic heritage of slavery are all discussed, and it is made clear how the black man was forced into unending debt and peonage. The golden fleece of cotton now covers a "Black and human sea" in America, far from its mythical home in Asia Minor, the Aegean and Black Sea lanes where … "one might frame a pretty and not far-fetched analogy of witchery and dragon's teeth, and blood and armed men, between the ancient and the modern quest of the Golden Fleece in the Black Sea." The wry pun on the Black Sea gives the passage a glint of bitter humor, but the conception as a whole makes startlingly vivid the transformation of the past's noble and imaginative mythology into the dehumanizing Southern myth of King Cotton and the pseudo-aristocratic plantations built on serf-black labor. Indeed, the city of Atlanta, Queen of The Cotton Kingdom, had already been dubbed by DuBois as the "new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world." DuBois well knew he was struggling against a system which seemed to most blacks fate itself.
Finally, one passage may be used to illustrate DuBois' frequent use of nature imagery in vivifying his narrative. He is imagining Crummell's confrontation with Bishop Onderdonk, a corpulent white clergyman who has rejected the idea of Negro representation in his Church convention:
I seem to see the wide eyes of the Negro wander past the Bishop's broadcloth to where the swinging glass doors of the cabinet glow in the sunlight. A little blue fly is trying to cross the yawning keyhole. He marches briskly up to it, peers into the chasm in a surprised sort of a way, and rubs his feelers reflectively; then he essays its depths, and, finding it bottomless, draws back again. The dark-faced priest finds himself wondering if the fly too has faced its Valley of Humiliation, and if he will plunge into it—when lo! it spreads its tiny wings and buzzes merrily across, leaving the watcher wingless and alone.
The imagery that DuBois employed in The Souls of Black Folk was the kind familiar to most intelligent readers at that time. DuBois used such imagery not only because he was imbued with traditional nineteenth-century notions of literary culture, but because the imagery created an esthetic commonality between himself and his white reader. At the same time, his display of well-earned erudition and easy familiarity with the cultural signs of the white world helped to elevate the image of the black mind in many reader's eyes.
It is the chapter "Of the Coming of John," however, that best reveals the peak of DuBois' art in The Souls of Black Folk. Here is a section that can easily stand as a self-contained short story and which contains all the lineaments of that genre. Description of locale, characterization, plot, and imagery all combine to make it a paradigm of DuBois' tragic vision which remained darkly at the back of his thrust be transcendence. The bare outline of the story suggests a racial tragedy more reminiscent of Richard Wright's early tales in Uncle Tom's Children than what we would expect from DuBois' profound sociological genius. Young "John Jones" is a "long, straggling fellow" forever late for his classes at a preparatory school in Georgia, but a constant source of high merriment to this schoolmates. A good-natured but lazy student, he gets suspended, only to work his way back to school and college. Now filled with the seriousness of life, John returns to his hometown, Altamaha by the sea, in Southeastern Georgia. His family and the black community await his coming in joy and trepidation. At the same time, the son of the town's white judge arrives from Princeton. The two boys had met at a performance of Lohengrin, and the black John had to give up his seat to the white John, who could not acknowledge the black youth he had known as a playmate. The black John, now a chastened young man of profound depths, returns home to teach according to the Judge's rule of preventing "fool ideas of rising and equality" coming into his people's minds. But John begins to teach "dangerous" notions—in particular, the ideas of the French Revolution. His school is, of course, closed. After the judge's decision, the white John, himself now aimless, drifts off into the woods where he meets and attempts to seduce a Negro kitchen maid. The black John, having decided to leave Altamaha and to follow the "North Star," also wanders into these same woods, brooding on his defeat. Seeing "his dark sister struggling in the arms of a tall and fair-haired man," he silently picks up a fallen limb and kills him. Then, as in a daze, he remembers his early prankish school days and the discovery of his identity while the melodies of Lohengrin pass through his mind. He sits and waits for the lynch mob to get him, but can only feel pity for the "haggard white-haired man" with the rope. His eyes closed, John turns toward the sea, "and the world whistled in his ears."
The character and destiny of John Jones are clearly a merging of two symbolic types; he is in the first instance the embodiment of the tragic fate implicit in the black man's striving to get beyond the debased heritage of slavery. When John comes to talk at his Church, he reflects only on "what part the Negroes of this land would take in the striving of the new century." His sister can only ask him, "does it make every one—unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?" His answer can only be that it does. As a sign of her own awakening depth and response to John, she too now wishes to be unhappy. The irony is that racism will not even allow the Negro the luxury of his unhappiness, an unhappiness born out of his newfound but stifled awareness of identity and world culture. Such frustration, DuBois makes clear, can and does create an inner resentment and despair so deep that violence becomes the last meaningful action. In the end, John—and the Negro—nevertheless achieve a moral dimension denied to the white and a pure, though isolated, relation to "The great brown sea" of nature. Second, John is a black John the Baptist preparing a way in the wilderness for salvation through knowledge. At the Church, John can only scold the bickering Baptists and Methodists:
"Today," he said, with a smile, "the world little cares whether a man be a Baptist or Methodist … so long as he is good and true. What difference does it make whether a man be baptized in river or washbowl, or not at all? Let's leave all that littleness, and look higher." Then thinking of nothing else, he slowly sat down. A painful hush seized that crowded mass. Little had they understood of what he said, for he spoke an unknown tongue, save the last word about baptism; that they knew, and they sat very still while the clock ticked.
He is another voice crying in the wilderness. But this black John, emancipated from the fundamentalist traditions of his fathers, has no Savior to turn to, unless it is the freedom of the mind itself. And though he kills in the end, that inner freedom is not lost, though it is rendered impotent to change the world. John is lynched—America's version of crucifixion—but there seems little hope that its meaning will be recognized. There is only vengeance and countervengeance. Throughout the story there runs the poetic motif of the sea which gives a rich and universal quality to its mood. John Jones "came to us from Altamaha … where the sea croons to the sands and the sands listen till they sink half drowned beneath the waters, rising only here and there in long, low islands." And when he goes to New York after his graduation, the hurried masses remind him "of the sea … so changelessly changing, so bright and dark, so grave and gay." Most significantly, John drifts into a vision of his home, his mother, and his sister as he listens to the music of Lohengrin: "And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea-sand sinks by the shores of Altamaha, only to be lifted aloft again with that last ethereal wail of the swan that quivered and faded away into the sky." This is the sea toward which he turns his closed eyes at the end of the story, the sea whose movement from ebb to flow symbolically drowns and then regenerates his heart's needs. For John belongs to Altamaha and its rice fields, the natural beauty of the earth he is heir to, the tragedy of the black man in the midst of it all; yet he is also heir to that mystic world of the knights of the Holy Grail whose quest in his own way he emulates. Indeed, DuBois may well have meant to suggest symbolic parallels between John and Lohengrin. Both characters are charged with mystically conceived missions; Lohengrin must keep his identity a secret in order to do good; John must find his identity; both meet treachery. But Lohengrin can return to the Knights of the Holy Grail having freed Gottfried from being a swan; John frees a sister and faces a lynch mob with only a dream of the sea beyond in his mind. The reality of the black man in the American South and the high mystic romanticism of Wagner symbolize two contradictory states of being, but for DuBois the contradiction can be resolved by the capacity of the mind to synthesize and transcend experience. John begins as stereotype and ends as a doomed but self-conscious and cultured hero. He is at once an individual and "collective" hero. In him reside the souls of black folk. Sociology and poetry are harmoniously merged.
DuBois chose to end The Souls of Black Folk with an impassioned analysis and appreciation of Negro spirituals, or "sorrow songs." Beginning with "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See," in the first essay, he prefaces a bar of music from various spirituals to each succeeding essay, thereby giving the reader a chance, musically, to feel the particular pathos so fundamentally part of the black's "soul beauty." Many of the great spirituals are represented: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Roll, Jordan, Roll," "My Way's Cloudy," "Steal Away to Jesus," and others. Each spiritual, as DuBois carefully points out was chosen to make a musical comment on the chapter it prefaced. But what DuBois centers on, despite his clear pride and exultation in the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their contribution to American music, is the way the sorrow songs reflect a primal and vital African past. He sees clear differences among the songs, differences which again demonstrate cultural variety and growth: "The first is African music, the second Afro-American, while the third is a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land. The result is … distinctively Negro … but the elements are both Negro and Caucasian." DuBois feels that the sorrow songs in themselves are cultural proof as to how deep the black man's spirit has penetrated white America's. This is yet another synthesis that, if rightly appreciated, describes the "soul" of black folk. Here is yet another key to transcendence:
Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung. If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free.
In terms of DuBois' overall strategy in The Souls of Black Folk, the sorrow songs fulfill a vital stylistic function. Their profound and direct emotionalism conveyed through the images of a folk spirit, help to balance and soften DuBois' own literarily sophisticated stance. Images like "There's a little wheel a-turnin' in a-my heart," and "I know moonrise, I know star-rise / I walk in the moonlight, I walk in the starlight / I'll die in the grave and stretch out my arms," stand in striking contrast to DuBois' own intense rhetoric often saturated with alliteration: "Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung." DuBois frequently uses inversions and lapses, occasionally, into language like "Lo," "anon," and "hark!" He employs archaic biblical forms such as "Hast thou." His prose is often "purple" and even quaint: "I have seen a land right merry with the sun, where children sing, and rolling hills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest." But the final poetic effect with which DuBois wishes to leave us is captured in the concluding spiritual, "Let us cheer the weary traveller / Along the heavenly way."
With all of DuBois' mighty efforts to affirm life and transcend the Veil, critics were still struck by a "note of pessimism" running throughout The Souls of Black Folk. And necessarily so. For DuBois saw the spiritual havoc the Veil played upon his race. The "double life … must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism." In 1903, DuBois saw "two groups of Negroes, the one in the North, the other in the South, represent these divergent ethical tendencies, the first tending toward radicalism, the other toward hypocritical compromise." DuBois' hope then was that the "deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart" would save blacks from such choices. And while radicalism and compromise have taken on new connotations in the contemporary scene, the rise of Martin Luther King and other black religious leaders perhaps gives credence to DuBois' view—despite the assassinations—and the still turbulent racial strife in America. Yet The Souls of Black Folk must be studied and read not only as political prophecy but as spiritual scripture. As Alvin F. Poussaint points out, "the whole concept of … black consciousness found its beginnings in the mind of DuBois." The real task of DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk was to render that consciousness palpable, as it were, and to invoke it so powerfully that it would have inspirational effect on black and white alike. His strategy was to translate social and historical "facts" into the perceptual framework of an ideal. Specific analyses or predictions might come in time to be revised, or even rejected, but the ideal—the "good, the beautiful, and the true"—had to be established in the hearts and minds of his readers. This DuBois achieved through an art form and style which made it possible to glimpse his own soul constantly striving to transcend the Veil.
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