For over 400 years, Black slavery and oppression have been an egregious hypocrisy in America, “the land of freedom.”
In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that the injustice of unattainable American ideals — liberty and equality — for African Americans “has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten-thousand-thousand people.”
Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and the first Black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, called for direct action to end political, economic, and social oppression of Black Americans, which was progressive among the leading early-20th century activists’ voices.
In his book, Du Bois outlined his plan for voices without violence, criticism without contempt.
In his strategy for racial justice that remains as effective and necessary today as when he wrote it in 1903, Du Bois called for Black and White solidarity against oppression of African Americans by a racist White society.
Through heartfelt accounts of personal and historical struggle, he provided overwhelming evidence of centuries of abuse of Black people by a White-nationalist society.
Du Bois, noting the plight of those who experienced the villainies of slavery, wrote, “few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.”
But emancipation did not end rampant racist oppression. “Yet the swarthy specter sits… our vastest social problem…” continued the author. “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.”
Nor did gaining the vote prevent White-supremist political abuse. “And the Nation echoed… ‘Away with the Black man’s ballot, by force or by fraud — and behold the suicide of a race!’” wrote Du Bois.
Du Bois detailed the destructive social effects of continuing racial discrimination: “The very soul of the toiling, sweating Black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice.”
The fight against widespread oppression through the turn of the 20th century was weary, burdensome work.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois argued that Black Americans should battle against their oppression by rising above the racial hatred and by remaining true models of American and Black ideals. He called for more political action toward racial justice than other Black civil rights leaders of his time but agreed that self-improvement was crucial.
“We need…above all, the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds and pure hearts,” Du Bois wrote.
Education is the path to the pinnacle of African American self-consciousness and self-respect, ideals he said must be achieved to obtain equality.
Although some social activists promote anger, hatred, and violent protest against White tyranny, Du Bois argued that such contemptuous acts perpetuate the divisive cycle of prejudice and repression.
Instead, he recommended, “striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and 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 The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote that “the spiritual striving of the freedmen’s sons is the travail of souls whose burden is almost beyond the measure of their strength.”
Du Bois argued that Black Americans, through their uniquely innate strength, can achieve “double consciousness” — remaining simultaneously true to both the Black ideal and the American ideal. Despite all their accomplishments, however, Black people in America remain—even today, more than a century later — a minority in a deeply racially divided nation.
Du Bois argued that defeating White oppression of Black Americans benefits Black and White Americans by strengthening the nation and he invited all Americans to play a role. He recognized that the nation is only as strong as its achievement of and adherence to its founding principles. Emphasizing America’s foremost ideals of liberty and equality, in Souls Du Bois wrote, “Merely a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic is the Negro Problem.”
America’s constitutional democracy’s highest goals are written in its founding documents. To that, Du Bois declared, “there are today no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes.”
His point is clear: racist oppression weakens America because it is antithetical to the ideals we hold most dear.
The author then asks, “Will America be poorer if she replaces…her coarse and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor?”
The answer, empathetically, is “No.”
Light-hearted compassion is certainly better aligned with American ideals than hateful racial strife.
Du Bois called for Black and White solidarity in the fight for racial justice, writing, “in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.”
He ended the first chapter of his book with an invitation to all Americans to take an important step in that fight “in the name of human opportunity…listen to the striving in the souls of Black folk.”
The reader of Souls learns that listening to the yearning voices of the oppressed struggling for equality leads to deeper understanding, empathy, and healing.
Rising above the racial hatred unifies a larger coalition to fight for civil rights in America. Individuals can stay true to their personal values while advancing liberty and justice for a stronger America.
Du Bois’ strategy of Black and White solidarity in political action built momentum toward equality for Black Americans in the last century, but the struggle continues today.
Du Bois’ invitation to all Americans is still the solution.
We must listen. Simply listen. We must listen to the Black voices whose family members are dying disproportionately from the coronavirus.
Americans must listen to the Black students and workers who are losing their schools and jobs at a higher rate.
We the people must listen to the stories of Black families suffering from disproportionate policing, persecution, and imprisonment.
When we hear their voices, we will naturally join to end the injustice.
Americans will support civil rights protections when we vote, through our representatives, with our pocketbooks, pens, voices, political campaigns, and social movements.
We must rise now in solidarity to achieve the 21st-century racial justice that a truer, freer America demands.