Souls’ Meeting Explores DuBois

Miki Johnson and Miki Johnson

A century after the first printing of W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” echoes of the prominent black writer’s 1903 masterpiece reverberated during a conference Friday and Saturday at Northwestern.

“All of African-American literature of a creative nature has proceeded from W.E.B. DuBois’ ‘Souls,'” said Cheryl A. Wall, keynote speaker for “100 Years Of ‘The Souls Of Black Folk’: A Conference Celebration.” The conference, which brought 20 scholars versed in the book to Evanston and was sponsored by the Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities and the Department of African-American Studies.

But Wall, an English professor at Rutgers University, said DuBois’ impact was not limited to literature. Also taught in history, sociology and philosophy classes, “Souls” documents the Freedmen’s Bureau and provides statistics and observations about black life in the antebellum South.

“Northwestern stresses the importance of interdisciplinary activity,” said Derrick Darby, an NU philosophy professor who joined more than 80 others attending Wall’s speech on Friday. “And DuBois is a very fitting figure to spur conversation across disciplines.”

DuBois also had the ability to “leaven facts with poetry,” Wall said, reading from a passage in “Souls” that describes the dilapidated southern landscape in fairy-tale terms.

Instead of romanticizing a system in which “freemen were no more free than their enslaved ancestors,” DuBois redefined it, Wall said.

The book’s narrator is a traveler whose path from the North, where he was educated, to the South constituted one of the first reversals of the slave narrative, which traditionally told the story of blacks moving from southern enslavement to northern freedom.

Wall pointed out that as the narrator moves farther south, he encounters black communities, “each more foreign to him than the last.” But despite the “ineffectualness of his hard-won intellectual training,” Wall said there is one thing that “narrows the experiential gap of the southern country and his northern home” — music.

At one point the narrator recognizes southern music “as of me and of mine,” Wall said.

“Song is the realm in which African Americans could have a voice at the time they didn’t have a voice anywhere else,” said Tiffany Ruby Patterson, a professor of history and Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton, who participated in a panel discussion Friday. “(DuBois) uses that because he must, because it is the richest source of our history.”

It was through the music motif that Wall connected “Souls” to Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon.”

“(It) is a singing book,” she said of Morrison’s 1977 work. “‘Song of Solomon’ and ‘Souls of Black Folk’ express a shared belief that the unwritten history of African Americans lies in their music.”

Wall said Morrison’s book does not just borrow narrative strands such as music from “Souls,” but redefines and reweaves them into her own portrait of black-white relations. She added that innumerable scholars of the past century have similarly drawn from DuBois’ work.

“Echoes of his masterpiece continue,” she concluded, coming out from behind the podium to answer questions form the audience.

As apparent proof of the assertion by both Wall and the conference’s organizers that DuBois is still applicable, an energetic discussion ensued, with one audience member shouting out the quotation from the Bible that philosophy Prof. Robert Gooding-Williams was searching for.

Gooding-Williams, the new director of the Kaplan Center, said he hoped the conference benefited everyone who attended.

“If they already know something (about ‘Souls’), I hope their understanding is deepened,” Gooding-Williams said. “And if they are not familiar, I hope they are inspired to read the book.”