The Souls of White
The Souls of White Folk,
as it appeared in Du Bois's Darkwater (1920)
was based on an essay in the Independent, August 18, 1910,
together with part of a another essay, "Of the Culture of White
Folk, Journal of Race Development, April 1917. The
final version in Darkwater was reworked numerous times up
to its final publication in 1920.
By the end of that year 66 Black men and women, mostly in the rural South,
were lynched, while some 250 more died in urban riots in the North and
in the Arkansas Delta. These events came to be known as the "Red
Summer of 1919.
High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human
sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are
that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk.
The discovery of personal whiteness among the world's peoples is a very modern thing--a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. The Middle Age regarded skin color with mild curiosity, and even up into the eighteenth century we were hammering our national manikins into one, great, Universal Man, with fine frenzy which ignored color and race even more than birth. Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful!
This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts; even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone, saying.
My poor, un-white thing! Weep not nor rage. I know, too well, that the curse of God lies heavy on you. Why? That is not for me to say, but be brave! Do your work in your lowly sphere, praying the good Lord that into heaven above, where all is love, you may, one day, be born--white!
I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly:
"But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?" Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!
Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this? That nations are coming to believe it is manifest daffy. Wave on wave, each with increasing virulence, is dashing this new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time. Its first effects are funny: the strut of the Southerner, the arrogance of the Englishman amuck, the whoop of the hoodlum who vicariously leads your mob. Next it appears dampening generous enthusiasm in what we once counted glorious; to free the slave is discovered to be tolerable only in so far as it freed his master! Do we sense somnolent writhings in black Africa or angry groans in India or triumphant banzais in Japan? "To your tents, 0 Israel!" These nations are not white!