Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway argued that racial issues described in W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay collection, “The Souls of Black Folk,” still persist today in a Wednesday talk at the New Haven Free Public Library.
Holloway read aloud essay extracts by Du Bois — a renowned African-American sociologist and civil rights activist — before an audience of roughly 40 New Haven residents and Yale students. Holloway wrote an introduction and chronology for a new edition of “The Souls of Black Folk” published by the Yale University Press in June. Holloway titled his introduction “How to Read The Souls of Black Folk in a Post-Racial Age,” but noted that the name is “ironic” because Americans do not live in a post-racial age.
Throughout the talk, Holloway emphasized that many of the problems Du Bois identified in his 1903 essay collection are still present today, although they are less obvious.
“You find yourself reading passages that make too much sense,” he said. “When you’re going from zero, one is a lot better.”
Holloway explained that though there has been improvement in the country’s race relations, there has not been enough. Just as Du Bois — who was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard — was held back by racism, Holloway said successful African Americans today also face racism, albeit in subtler forms.
Holloway referred to an instance when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden described President Barack Obama as “clean and articulate,” as though it were a compliment. Holloway said such descriptions are offensive because they imply that it is unusual for an African American to have these qualities.
“The observation ‘Aren’t you great?’ means you think all black people aren’t,” Holloway said. “The phrase can be condemnation.”
Much of Du Bois’ work involved sociological studies of the organizations of black communities, including black churches and businesses. During his talk, Holloway said the three most famous elements of Du Bois’ work have a modern-day relevance.
Du Bois wrote that African Americans are viewed in society as “problems,” and added that those who are successful are often made to explain themselves for excelling despite facing societal obstacles. Secondly, Holloway said that, according to Du Bois, African Americans are forced to live with a “double-consciousness” — an internal conflict between being American, which implies whiteness, and understanding themselves as African Americans. Du Bois began each chapter in “The Souls of Black Folk” with a short quotation from an African-American poem or spiritual. But to demonstrate this internal conflict, he placed a line of classical sheet music above the quote as if they were part of the same musical score. Holloway said this was done to demonstrate how African Americans are expected to know both to be accepted into white society.
Holloway said Du Bois also argued that racial division was the leading problem of the 20th Century, adding that it is still a problem today.
Attendees of Holloway’s talk agreed that Du Bois’ ideas have not lost their resonance.
“There’s been no other scholar that has been as influential as Dr. Du Bois, and we have yet to achieve his ideals,” New Haven resident Dawn Bliesener said. “Here we are in the year 2015 and [African Americans] are still a ‘problem.’”
Graham Ambrose ’18 said Du Bois is a revolutionary scholar and an American hero too few students know about.
Du Bois, alongside civil rights activists Moorfield Storey and Mary White Ovington, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.