If more people, and specifically more American white people, had read W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk when it was first published in 1903, would Isabel Wilkerson have still felt compelled to write The Warmth of Other Suns a century later? If more white Americans like me were to read either or both of these books now, or any of dozens of books on racism in America, will there be the need for someone to write a similar book about the mistreatment of Blacks at the turn of the twenty-second century?
The Souls of Black Folk is the first and only publication by W.E.B. DuBois that I’ve read, I’m embarrassed to say. It is regarded as a seminal work in American sociology and comprises a series of fourteen essays on many aspects of life that Black people experienced in America in the nineteenth century. It covers such topics as
- Labor practices, including sharecropping
- Segregated societies
- Segregated schooling and the greatly inferior education offered to Blacks, if any education was offered at all
- Poor health care
- Racism in organized religion
- Enslavement through unjust imprisonment
- Promises made to Blacks following the Civil War but never kept
- Denial of voting rights
- Limiting Blacks to manual trades and denying or limiting opportunities to professional training
- People in power tricking Blacks into making poor choices or cheating them out of land ownership through predatory business practices
One of the early essays discusses the work of Booker T. Washington, whom I was taught to regard as a hero. DuBois takes issue with the compromises that Washington apparently had to make in the founding of the Tuskegee Institute.
The Black folk that DuBois describes are hard working, honest, cheerful in even the most difficult circumstances, and determined. They never stop thinking of or working for the benefits of the freedoms that are theirs by God-given right, but that are so often denied them. They are people of faith, even if the faith is one that they were obliged by their masters to follow.
God willing, some of my great-grandchildren will live to see the turn of the twenty-second century. Will they still be reading books then about the mistreatment and oppression of Blacks in America? I pray not.
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