Tuesday, January 12, 2016

African American Poetry Workshop: Souls Who Speak and Listen

W. E. B. Du Bois' 1903 The Souls of Black Folk is a foundational text in the African American literary and cultural tradition. The opening to the book is a chapter called "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." You can find the entire chapter at this link; below is an excerpt of the text for reading and analysis. Notice that this is a first-person account of Du Bois' personal experiences. In it, he reflects on his interior life and his identity as a Black person in a society that privileges whiteness. 
BETWEEN 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 Taghkanic 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 worlds I longed for, and all their 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 true 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 would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has 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 having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

One issue I have not yet addressed in blog series is my own whiteness and the issue of race at RSU, where, according to the 2014 Fact Book, around 60% of students identify as white, 5% as Hispanic, 13% as "American Indian or Alaska Native," 1% as Asian, 17% as multiracial, and 2.4% as Black (page 22). How can a white writer (or a non-Black reader) best share a literary tradition that they are not a part of? How can I build awareness in myself about the privileges that come with my race? Furthermore, as a teacher playing a role of authority in the institution of education, how can I best model and instruct others about why race and allyship matter and how to be an ally in a useful, genuine manner? 

These questions have followed me throughout the course of this series. My answers and strategies evolve every day, but my main strategy is LISTENING to voices that have traditionally been giving less attention or afforded less authority and AMPLIFYING those voices by sharing some of them here. Even the act of selecting whose voice is shared is a political act! Blogger/Vlogger Chescaleigh helps people think about and do allyship (and all sorts of other topics on race) in her video series Decoded. Below is her video "5 Tips for Being an Ally" that I highly recommend you check out:

So, please, return to the top of the page and re-read Du Bois' words. Re-read Angelou and Chisholm; re-read Adichie and Walker; re-read Baldwin and Cullen; re-read hooks, Beyonce, and Lorde.

Questions for Du Bois' excerpt:

1. In what ways do these paragraphs function as a lead-in to a larger book? How do they set up a certain tone using word choice, and how to they attempt to "hook" or draw readers into a larger conversation?

2. Again, why does this author use the rhetorical strategy of relating personal details? What is the effect of sharing his subjective experience?

3. What kind of figurative language does Du Bois use to describe his experiences? Identify and explain metaphors, similes, descriptive language, alliteration (repeated consonant and/or vowel sounds), repeated wording or phrases, and allusions (or references to other works of literature or texts) in the text.

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