by Doni Crawford
Written forty years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, The Souls of Black Folk examines the journey and conditions of Black America through the eyes of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois is exhaustive, taking an interdisciplinary approach to study these conditions over time in a series of essays that detail how black progress was miniscule at best. Along the way, concepts that Du Bois became known for – double consciousness, the Veil and The Talented Tenth – are introduced and Booker T. Washington’s ideology on the civil rights and industrial education of Black America is critiqued. Du Bois strongly advocates for higher education as one of the most essential components to achieve black advancement, believing that it builds the foundation needed to address and improve quality of life for blacks and overall relations between blacks and whites.
Having recently read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I was particularly interested in Du Bois’ thoughts on Christianity and religion, and how they compare to the views of those authors. Du Bois commences each chapter of his book with a few musical bars of a Negro spiritual. Though rarely happy, these Sorrow Songs nevertheless have an air of hopefulness because slaves still had “a faith in the ultimate justice of things.” These songs were the ways in which the slave spoke to men, transitioning from despair to a calm confidence that one day, things will be different. The tenth essay, Of the Faith of the Fathers, further explains this deep connection between slaves and spirituality, highlighting how slaves had a church before ever having a home. However, Du Bois acknowledges that as revolt died out after generations in bondage and the transplanted African slave converted from a belief in the supernatural to Christianity, passive submissiveness and religious fatalism reigned supreme. The slave found comfort in the dream that he would be free once God came to lead his people home.
Nearly sixty years later and similarly facing miniscule black progress, Baldwin grappled with this very same issue, believing that the teachings of Christianity espoused its followers to “reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life.” Additionally, he found that Christianity was often used to justify violence, hypocrisies and white supremacy. Coates also advanced religious skepticism, questioning the utility of Christianity. He is more pessimistic than Baldwin and Du Bois, placing less emphasis on love, unity and humanity and seeing no end in sight for structural racism and white supremacy. While I found Between the World and Me underwhelming, especially directly after reading Baldwin, I admired Coates for remaining pessimistic at the end of his book. Progress is slow and while we have made some gains, structural disadvantage persists. This less overt form of racism is arguably more difficult to combat because as Coates and Baldwin detail, it requires an intentional and wholesale acknowledgement and disinvestment of privilege by white America. Will we ever get there?