Today, I finished “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois. 2016 is a year in which I am trying to broaden my horizons a bit and read books by authors who are very different than me. February was Black History Month and in honor of that I started with Du Bois.
This book, written at the beginning of the 20th Century, still rings important today. There are lives and institutions discussed during the reconstruction era that could have been written today about race relations in the United States. In a sense, the country is still reconstructing from the Civil War. Much of what was discussed was very new to me, in part because my education on this subject was woefully inadequate. It was barely discussed at my high school in the Pacific Northwest, and even my American history course in college in South Carolina it was passed over quickly.
There were times while listening to this audiobook that I felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation that wasn’t meant for me. As a white man a century removed from Du Bois I felt like the personal stories and criticisms he directed at the black community were not mine to hear. But I kept listening, and because of that I am able to understand the black community just a little better. It is a small step, but one in the correct direction.
As is often the case with primary sources from other eras I had a hard time following a lot of the book. My mind began to wander as Du Bois detailed houses and families in regions unfamiliar to me, and I will likely need to revisit this work from time to time so that I can gain more wisdom from it. The real benefit to me was the way it started to chip away at the barrier (or “veil” as Du Bois called it) between myself and people different than me. I hope this will broaden my mind and make me more empathetic to others. It is so easy in this day and age to trap ourselves in a bubble, to feel loyalty to a tribe and view everyone else as an outsider.
The struggle I will face (as many people do) is to continue my education on this subject beyond one book, and really beyond books in general. Taking classes and reading books can certainly create a greater understanding, but moving beyond the books is what I need to do to transform my life. It is fitting that as I write this I am on the Texas/Louisiana border and am only days away from entering the deep south. Over the next two months I will be biking through the rural counties and cities of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. As I enter this world that is very different from the one I grew up in I hope Du Bois words stay with me and I can appreciate the culture and history that took place here. I’m not sure what to explore next in this area, maybe something during the Civil Rights era.