We call the folks in World War II the “Greatest Generation,” two simple words that summon a thousand mental images. These are the people who fought the good fight, who led heroic charges and met noble ends, who sacrificed themselves for democracy. These are people who just knew what had to be done, in a less complex time before globalization stole dad’s job, before the country was torn between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. These are the people who came home, put down their guns and boots, and invented highways and milkshakes instead of doing meth. These are the people who were too pure to conceive of neo-Nazis or school shootings, and secretly we’re happy that most died before they could find out. Thus an entire nation of hard-working, God-fearing freedom fighters who drove back the stupid nastiness of fascism is presented through the rosiest of lenses.
But when viewed more carefully, the tint darkens, and the moral parallels between World War II and Vietnam, or Iraq, or any reviled modern conflict coalesce like the sweat on an apologist’s brow. Because in this war as in all others, the U.S. bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians across the world, failed to punish acts of rape by its personnel, and allowed generals to throw soldiers into useless death-traps.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the man, the myth, the mustache.
A few hours ago, I finished The Souls of Black Folk. I read it because I understood it to be an important book, one of the works that defined what it means to be black in America and being black in America is a thing that, all things considered, I could stand to learn a bit more about.
From what I had heard mentioned of The Souls of Black Folk, I expected it to be a series of powerful, crushing depictions of black people suffering horribly at the hands of white people. I expected there to be a lot of crying, a lot of outrage, a lot of feeling ashamed. And that certainly did happen, but somehow in all the cultural significance heaped upon W. E. B. Du Bois’ book through all my high school and college history classes, I missed out on how serious Du Bois was as a sociologist. There is a lot of woe in The Souls of Black Folk, certainly, but it isn’t a tale of woe. It’s a serious scholarly attempt to not just articulate how fucked up it is to be black in America, but how exactly it got to be so fucked up—to lay out clearly and precisely the machinations that kept African-Americans from achieving the equality they were promised at the end of the Civil War.
This made The Souls of Black Folk, at moment when our society is so focused on questions of black inequality, surprisingly relevant for a book that’s over a 100 years old. Again and again, I found ideas posited by du Bois illuminating my understanding of racial economics and the psychology of oppression.
And so I’m going to share a few of the ideas that stuck out to me because, as my grandmother used to say, there isn’t any point in letting a man waste money on learning to read if he isn’t going to share in the profits:
Everywhere there are cherished lies. Japan refuses to meaningfully apologize for its war crimes. Turkey won’t admit to its genocide of the Armenians. Some Ukrainians insist the Holodomor was not political. We’d like to think that Americans are above such things, that we’ve admitted our crimes – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, My Lai and Abu Ghraib – but, in history, one can always dig deeper. There are parts of our past, things closer to home, that still maintain an insidious grip on our collective unconscious.
There are, for instance, great errors in how we conceive of the Civil War today: as a war between white people. In this war, black people played a minor role: there were a few plantation runaways, a few Union regiments, a few token battles. There was Harriet Tubman. There was the movie Glory. But black people, to our minds, were never more than a sideshow to the real battles, to Gettysburg and Manassas, to every triumph or tragedy that makes the Civil War a titan in our national memory. The impression we keep is of powerful, dynamic white actors risking their lives, fighting over slavery, vying to grant or deny black people the few rights they would experience in the nineteenth century. (more…)