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STRIVINGS OF THE NEGRO PEOPLE







by: W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Berween me and the other world there is ever an unasked question:
unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through
the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter
round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me
curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying
directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an
excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville;
or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these
I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as
the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel
to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,--peculiar even
for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood
and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that
the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I
remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little
thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark
Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghanic to the sea. In a wee
wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls'
heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards--ten cents a package--and
exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer,
refused my card,--refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it
dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from
the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but
shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no
desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond
it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky
and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could
beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or
even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine
contempt began to fade; for the world I longed for, and all its
dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should
not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them.
Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by
healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my
head,--some way. With other black boys the strife was not so
fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or
into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking
distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry.
Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?
The "shades of the prison-house" closed round about us all: walls
strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall,
and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in
resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or
steadily, half hopelessly watch the streak of blue above.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and
Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil,
and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world
which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see
himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a
peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of
always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of
measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in
amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,--an
American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled
strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged
strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. 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. In this merging he wishes neither of the
older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America,
for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does
not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white
Americanism, for he believes--foolishly, perhaps, but fervently--
that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply
wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an
American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows,
without losing the opportunity of self-development.

This is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom
of culture, to escape both death and isolation, and to husband and
use his best powers. These powers, of body and of mind, have in
the past been so wasted and dispersed as to lose all
effectiveness, and to seem like absence of all power, like
weakness. The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan, on the
one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of
wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and
nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde, could only result in
making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either
cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people the Negro
lawyer or doctor was pushed toward quackery and demagogism, and by
the criticism of the other world toward an elaborate preparation
that overfitted him for his lowly tasks. The would-be black
savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people
needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the
knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own
flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set
the ruder souls of his people a-dancing, a-singing, and a-laughing
raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist;
for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which
his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the
message of another people.

This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two
unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and
faith and deeds of eight thousand thousand people, has sent them
often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and
has even at times seemed destined to make them ashamed of
themselves. In the days of bondage they thought to see in one
divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment; eighteenth-
century Rousseauism never worshiped freedom with half the
unquestioning faith that the American Negro did for two centuries.
To him slavery was, indeed, the sum of all villainies, the cause
of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; emancipation was the key
to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before
the eyes of wearied Israelites. In his songs and exhortations
swelled one refrain, liberty; in his tears and curses the god he
implored had freedom in his right hand. At last it came,--
suddenly, fearfully, like a dream. With one wild carnival of
blood and passion came the message in his own plaintive cadences:--



"Shout, O children!
Shout, you're free!
The Lord has bought your liberty!"


Years have passed away, ten, twenty, thirty. Thirty years of
national life, thirty years of renewal and development, and yet
the swarthy ghost of Banquo sits in its old place at the national
feast. In vain does the nation cry to its vastest problem,--

"Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves Shall never
tremble!"

The freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.
Whatever of lesser good may have come in these years of change,
the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,--
a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal
was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly folk.

The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for
freedom, the boom that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp,--
like a tantalizing will-o'-the-wisp, maddening and misleading the
headless host. The holocaust of war, the terrors of the Kuklux
Klan, the lies of carpet-baggers, the disorganization of industry,
and the contradictory advice of friends and foes left the
bewildered serf with no new watchword beyond the old cry for
freedom. As the decade closed, however, he began to grasp a new
idea. The ideal of liberty demanded for its attainment powerful
means, and these the Fifteenth Amendment gave him. The ballot,
which before he had looked upon as a visible sign of freedom, he
now regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the
liberty with which war had partially endowed him. And why not?
Had not votes made war and emancipated millions? Had not votes
enfranchised the freedmen? Was anything impossible to a power
that had done all this? A million black men started with renewed
zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom. The decade fled away,--
a decade containing, to the freedman's mind, nothing but
suppressed votes, stuffed ballot-boxes, and election outrages that
nullified his vaunted right of suffrage. And yet that decade from
1875 to 1885 held another powerful movement, the rise of another
ideal to guide the unguided, another pillar of fire by night after
a clouded day. It was the ideal of "book-learning;" the
curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the
power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the longing to
know. Mission and night schools began in the smoke of battle, ran
the gauntlet of reconstruction, and at last developed into
permanent foundations. Here at last seemed to have been
discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of
emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to
heights high enough to overlook life.

Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily,
doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering
feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings of the dark pupils
of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people
strove to learn. It was weary work. The cold statistician wrote
down the inches of progress here and there, noted also where here
and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To the tired
climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold,
the Canaan was always dim and far away. If, however, the vistas
disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place, little but flattery
and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection
and self-examination; it changed the child of emancipation to the
youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-
respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul
rose before him, and he saw himself,--darkly as through a veil;
and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of
his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his
place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the
first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back,
that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a
half-named Negro problem. He felt his poverty; without a cent,
without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered
into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a
poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is
the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his
ignorance,--not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of
the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness
of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his
burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy,
which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women
had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient
African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of
filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost
the obliteration of the Negro home.

A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the
world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its
own social problems. But alas! while sociologists gleefully count
his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling,
sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.
Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the
natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against
ignorance, purity against crime, the "higher" against the "lower"
races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much
of this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to
civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress he humbly bows
and meekly does obeisance. But before that nameless prejudice
that leaps beyond all this he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-
nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the
ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and
wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and
boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to
inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the
devil,--before this there rises a sickening despair that would
disarm and discourage any nation save that black host to whom
"discouragement" is an unwritten word.

They still press on, they still nurse the dogged hope,--not a hope
of nauseating patronage, not a hope of reception into charmed
social circles of stock-jobbers, pork-packers, and earl-hunters,
but the hope of a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a
true progress, with which the chorus


"Peace, good will to men,"
"May make one music as before,
But vaster."


Thus the second decade of the American Negro's freedom was a
period of conflict, of inspiration and doubt, of faith and vain
questionings, of Sturm and Drang. The ideals of physical freedom,
of political power, of school training, as separate all-
sufficient panaceas for social ills, became in the third decade
dim and overcast. They were the vain dreams of credulous race
childhood; not wrong, but incomplete and over-simple. The
training of the schools we need to-day more than ever,--the
training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears, and the broader,
deeper, higher culture of gifted minds. The power of the ballot
we need in sheer self-defense, and as a guarantee of good faith.
We may misuse it, but we can scarce do worse in this respect than
our whilom masters. Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still
seek,--the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and
think. Work, culture, and liberty,--all these we need, not
singly, but together; for to-day these ideals among the Negro
people are gradually coalescing, and finding a higher meaning in
the unifying ideal of race,--the ideal of fostering the traits and
talents of the Negro, not in opposition to, but in conformity
with, the greater ideals of the American republic, in order that
some day, on American soil, two world races may give each to each
those characteristics which both so sadly lack. Already we come
not altogether empty-handed: there is to-day no true American
music but the sweet wild melodies of the Negro slave; the American
fairy tales are Indian and African; we are the sole oasis of

simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and
smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal,
dyspeptic blundering with the light-hearted but determined Negro
humility; or her coarse, cruel wit with loving, jovial good humor;
or her Annie Rooney with Steal Away?

Merely a stern concrete test of the underlying principles of the
great republic is the Negro problem, and the spiritual striving of
the freedmen's sons is the travail of souls whose burden is almost
beyond the measure of their strength, but who bear it in the name
of an historic race, in the name of this land of their fathers'
fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.





Next: THE WIFE OF HIS YOUTH

Previous: THE STORY OF UNCLE TOM'S CABIN



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