Du Bois, W. E. B.

Assigned: Du Bois, W. E. B. From The Souls of Black Folk, from Chapter I. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” (845-46); “Criteria of Negro Art” (847-53). Also read the editors’ introduction (841-44).

From The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

From Chapter I. Of Our Spiritual Strivings

1. On 845 (“O water, voice of my heart…”), Du Bois begins his chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, as usual, with an epigram and a musical bar. Read the chapter itself, and then respond to the following question: how do the epigram and the music for this chapter set up readers for the topic to be explored?

2. On 845 (“Between me and the other world…”), how does Du Bois characterize the awkward efforts of certain white Americans to ingratiate themselves with him? What is the “real question” they are asking, no matter what particular emphasis or cast they give their remarks? By implication, what forces or circumstances impel them to ask this question?

3. On 845-46 (“And yet, being a problem is a strange…”), what anecdote from his boyhood does Du Bois relate to bring home to us his sense of being “a problem”? What happened to him that made him realize how white people would always view him differently, and treat him differently, than they would members of their own race? In turn, how did this event change his (and his fellow black kids’) understanding and treatment of the white children with whom he went to school?

4. On 846 (“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek…”), how does Du Bois describe black people in a way that brings out the “doubleness” he attributes to his and their long experience in America and that underscores the complexity of the history they have lived in America? In what sense does he describe the aspirations of many black Americans as they move forward in time, in a country that perpetually fails to honor their strong efforts and souls?

5. General question: Describe Du Bois’s prose style in this chapter excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk—most readers find that he comes across as an erudite writer, but what other qualities combine with that eloquence in a compelling way? Overall, how would you describe the intellectual and emotional impact of Du Bois’ style?

6. General question: To what extent, in your view, does Du Bois’s characterization in The Souls of Black Folk of the “doubleness” involved in being a black American apply in twenty-first-century America? What has changed since then, and what has not changed? For example, while there has been much progress in terms of the legal system, how do you assess the current situation and prospects of African Americans in areas of life that do not relate explicitly to law or legislation? Explain.

“Criteria of Negro Art” (1926)

1. On 847-48 (“I do not doubt but that there…”), how does Du Bois set forth what he implies are the divergent experiences and views of white and black Americans, respectively? He writes, “We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans can not” (847). How does Du Bois’ anecdote of badly behaved white tourists at the Scottish site where Sir Walter Scott’s ballad The Lady of the Lake is set allow him to contrast the materialism of many white Americans with the soulful vision of many black Americans? How does Du Bois characterize this latter vision, and link it with his remarks about the need for “Beauty” in ordinary people’s lives?

2. On 849-50 (“What has this Beauty to do with…”), Du Bois begins to address the proper material of African-American art. What is that material—what approach does it involve with respect to the history of black people in America? In what sense does the aesthetic project he describes involve the recovery of a certain history that has been long repressed by white people, a set of events that might well serve as the stuff of “romance” in the realm of art?

3. On 850-51 (“The question comes next as to…”), Du Bois criticizes what we might today call the assimilationist tendency that he finds in certain black artists of his time, and in the wider black community as well—a willingness to accept white people’s partial acceptance and white patrons’ money in exchange for producing art that pleases mainly white people; a willingness to give up agitating about “the Negro question” (850). What corrosive effects does Du Bois attribute to this approach, and how does it avoid recognition of what DuBois, in The Souls of Black Folk (published in 1903), had called the key issue of the twentieth century, and here phrases as, “the eternal struggle along the color line” (850)?

4. On 851-52 (“And so I might go on…”), Du Bois parses what white people (including white publishers) in the 1920s apparently want from any engagement with art created by black people. What kinds of representations does he believe white people want, and what kinds will they either discourage or censor? What thoughts does Du Bois offer about the small number of “recognized and successful Negro artists” (851) of his time? How does the black tenor singer Roland Hayes’ story exemplify the difficulty that black artists can have gaining recognition in the United States?

5. On 852-53 (“Thus it is the bounden duty of…”), Du Bois offers a peroration (i.e., a concluding exhortation) that focuses on the deep value of art and literature to the spiritual aspirations and material development of African-Americans. How does he characterize that value—in what sense is it fair to say that “all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists” (852)? What complaint does Du Bois lodge against white America’s refusal to grant black people their own positive, independent artistic vision and practice? In sum, why does Du Bois also reject the formalist notion that art is simply a narrow, isolated sort of aesthetic appreciation that cannot be expected really to change hearts and minds, or express the full value of an entire people? How much faith does he ultimately invest in the power of an authentically black artistic movement to accomplish these things, and to align itself with his own conception of Beauty as inextricable from the pursuit of truth and justice?

6. General question: In his 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” W. E. B. Du Bois emphasizes the need for black artists not to aim to create works that please majority white audiences but instead to stay true to the urgent cause of black advancement. He also insists that art and literature can play a powerful role in such advancement. To what extent do you agree with this latter sentiment—how much influence do you think certain contemporary authors, musicians, entertainers, athletes, etc. (the context here makes it logical to limit the field to people of color and other often-marginalized groups) have on America’s civic and political life? To what degree, that is, does culture (in the sense of imaginative creation and expression more generally) change anything for the better in the material, political landscape we all inhabit? Give an example or two of such impact, or (if your view is that art does not have much of an effect) of the lack thereof.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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