The Souls of White Folk
“On the pale, white faces which the great billows whirl upward to my tower I see again and again, often and still more often, a writing of human hatred, a deep and passionate hatred, vast by the very vagueness of its expressions”
— W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918
“The colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people will ever know and understand themselves.” — James Weldon Johnson, 1912
This is part 1 of a series on white supremacy and patriarchy. After you read this check out the sequel, Abolition of Whiteness.
In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, a sociological analysis of the conditions of black people in the 20th century. He discussed the problematization of blackness and the psychological angst and dissonance that black people experience trying to be both American and Black — a concept he termed double consciousness. Over 100 years later Du Bois’ ideas and theories continue to provide a poignant, relevant framework through which to interpret the black experience in America. Black academics, activists, and artists from Farah Jasmine Griffin to Molefi Kete Asante, to Talib Kweli continue to draw from his work.
But what of the white psyche? Is it too in a state of unrest? How has centuries of seeing one’s self as savior but operating as oppressor shaped white identity? These are questions that are neither a major part of public discourse nor on syllabi under the course description in sociology departments. The award winning author and poet Claudia Rankine said in an interview recently that part of the reason for this is how much white people have been centered throughout American history. She argues, though, that we need to study white identity and draws a distinction between making it subject versus object:
“I think that it’s been centralized in order to continue its dominance, and…