One of the most powerful, insightful, and moving books that I have ever read that wove a tapestry of America in my mind remains W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk." Written in 1903 and drawn from a series of remarkable travels as a teacher and sociologist through the post-Reconstruction Tennessee (1884-1888) and Georgia (1897-1910).
Du Bois was a master of prose, and had gifts of observation and conversation which complete the humaneness of his sociological studies with textures and details of Southern life, black poverty and the drivers of both. For comparison purposes, Du Bois provides insights from prospering black farmers as well, with anecdotes about the nature of land tenure, labor and debt the ways these – compounded by the fickle disposition of white neighbors and merchants – destined generations to a fate too often back breaking and hopeless.
My copy is well dog-eared and marked, as on just about every page lucid historical and social insights contribute to an incredible portrait of a region in crisis. The fact that Du Bois is able to retrace footsteps he made over a decade later gives "The Souls of Black Folk" a context and urgency that resonates today.
For example, "Every year found [Luke Black] deeper in debt. How strange that Georgia, the world-heralded refuge for poor debtors, should bind her own to sloth and misfortune as ruthlessly as ever England did! The poor land groans with its birth-pains...Of his meagre yield the tenant pays from a quarter to a third in rent, and most of the rest in interest on food and supplies bought on credit."
Who doesn't recognize the soul-sucking feeling of living in a world that is beyond our means, of democratic "goods" like a college education, good health, a home, and the means to pursue a livelihood far from proportionate reach to our motivation and our skills?
Consider even deeper resonant themes, when Du Bois writes, "Here too, is the high whitewashed fence of the stockade, as the county prison is called; the white folks say it is ever full of black criminals, – the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor."
There are good and there are happy folks encountered on Du Bois' journeys. But they are too rare and too alone – like an uncommon pine that sticks above a forest of so many scrubbier, struggling trees...
I share this book, both because I hope that everyone who hasn't read it will, and also for the inspiration that it gives for carrying out a journey and holding honest and engaging conversation.