The Souls of White Folks
By Bob Simpson at May 14, 2008
I attended my first Black History class in 1968 at the University of Maryland. The class came about because Black students demanded it in that tumultuous year. They were supported by a small but significant number of white students.
On the first day of class it was a shock to all of us to find out that a southern white professor was the teacher. Because of UM's Jim Crow history, it has almost no Black faculty at the time. But Professor Dan Carter turned out to be very knowledgeable and an relentless foe of Dixie apartheid. All of us learned a lot from that man.
But even though UM's first Black Studies class was taught by a white man, the racists on campus still howled in protest. They argued loud and long that if "the Blacks" (and they used another term that I won't repeat here) had Black Studies, why not have White Studies?
Of course, much of the class was taken up with the history of whiteness in America. Black people sure didn't invent The Strange Career of Jim Crow described by historian C. Vann Woodward (one of the texts that Dr.Carter assigned to us).
Some of the Black students on campus forcefully made the point that what passed for "history" at the University of Maryland was white history anyway, so white folks already had their "white studies".
But that wasn't right either. The history being taught at UM largely ignored how the whole concept of whiteness was created and nurtured and what part that played in American society. Sure the Great Men of History we studied there (..and yes, they were mostly men in 1968), generally suffered from a severe melanin deficiency. But what role their actual whiteness played (if any) was generally ignored.
Dr. Carter's class focused on the history of blackness, whiteness and their perplexing painful relationship. We learned that race was a social construct with a fairly recent history. I mean seriously, how many 10th century European or African peasants had a strong personal indentification based on the melanin content of their epidermis? They would find our obssession with color more surreal than Alice in Wonderland.
So the irony was that it took a Black History class to introduce the study of whiteness to the UM campus. Go figure. It's a crazy world.
But of course the racists on campus wouldn't have been caught dead going into a Black History class to learn about whiteness even if it was taught by a white man.Well, as the old cliche goes, be careful what you wish for, you might get it. Now we do have White Studies.
Books like How the Irish Became White, The Wages of Whiteness, When Affirmative Action Was White, Sundown Towns and many others go into great detail about how that disparate and quarrelsome crowd of European immigrants, many of whom had endured terrible class and ethnic oppression, became White People.
Today's White Studies proponents build on a tradition of research that came mostly from scholars of color: W.E.B. DuBois, Oliver Cox, Carter Woodson, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon and many others. In order to survive, Black people and other People of Color were forced to become shrewd observers of whiteness. A modern example is an essay Alice Walker recently wrote about the ugly racial politics of the 2008 Democratic primary.
At the core of the White Studies movement is the recognition that America has a racial history so tragic that it would strain the abilities of a Shakespeare or a Sophocles to tell it. America invented the whole concept of People of Color and White People and now whether we like it or not, that is our reality.
Of course the problem with White Studies is that it tells us a story that many people don't want to hear, even though White people who close their ears to it are the very ones who need to hear it the most.
In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois talks about the "double-consciousness" that racism created among Black people. On the one hand there is a racialized image of inferiority. On the other is the fact that Black people are Americans, who are supposed to be a free people.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face-- Chapter One of The Souls of Black Folks
Double-consciousness is a subtle concept that takes some real thought to grasp its implications. That's why The Souls of Back Folk is is still taught in high schools and universities today. Double-consciousness affects both the individual Person of Color and People of Color a whole. DuBois wrote the Souls of Black Folk in 1899, but it's message has been taken up by other People of Color as well. Times change and how double-conciousness plays out today today is still a subject of discussion and study.
The idea of double-consciousness applies to White People too, but in a different way. White People are subject to oppression, but they are also beneficiaries of racial privilege. An oft-used example of this is the story of Irish immigration to the USA. After centuries of brutal exploitation, mass murder and the horrors of the Great Famine, thousands of Irish boarded the "coffin ships" and headed to America in the 19th century. The Irish had suffered grieviously from both class and national oppression.
Upon arrival, they became a despised minority as symbolized by the sign "No Irish Need Apply". In America, the Irish met another despised minority, Black people, many of them in slavery. The Irish brought with them a culture of resistance that was born out of their struggle with English imperialism. The Irish had a choice. Would they resist becoming White People and join in solidarity with another despised minority that also had a culture of resistance? Or would they fight to become White People as they became bitter enemies of their potential Black allies?
Most European ethnic groups faced this choice upon arrival here. I call it The Deal. Here's The Deal. If you accept America's Caste System of Color, America let you keep your flag, your music, your dances, your literature, your own parade every year and you'll eventually gain some economic and political power. But you'll have to do your part in keeping America's Caste System of Color intact, whatever the cost. You can join the Club of White People and with membership come its privileges.
My Scottish ancestors came here with a culture of ethnic resistance and some with a strong class consciousness. Scotland after all had resisted English imperialism for centuries and when finally absorbed into the growing British Empire, became a focal point for the savage class warfare that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Scotland's national hero is the poet Bobbie Burns, who decried the poverty and oppression that stalked that beautiful land in the late 18th century. There is a statue of Burns in my dad's hometown in Vermont. He once gave me a battered copy of the Completet Works of Robert Burns.
But for the most part, the Scots of America, like other ethnic groups, took The Deal and ran with it. They traded an important part of their national heritage for the privilege of becoming White People.
Today one can attend annual dinners toasting Robert Burns or go to a Scottish Highland Games Festival to see Scottish dances and Scottish athletic contests, but the racial history that accompanied the Scots in America is nowhere to be found.
One of my favorite comics is the long running strip about newspaperwoman Brenda Starr. When Ms. Starr is confronted with a moral dilemma, a little devilish Brenda sits on one of her shoulders while a little angelic Brenda sits on the other. They then proceed to argue with each another until Ms. Starr finally makes a decision.
Being a White Person in America with our own peculiar double consciousness is a bit like that. We have two contending souls within us, one of collaboration with oppression and the other one of resistance to it.
For many years, I have been puzzled by the exceptions, the White People who rejected The Deal. Why did some White People become abolitionists, fight for Reconstruction, form multi-racial alliances in the labor and populist movements, risk their lives for Civil Rights or stand in solidarity with the Black Panther Party? Why did some vote for Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama for President?
But more importantly, when do the breakers of The Deal become the rule rather than the exception?
One of the goals of White Studies is to understand the complexity of The Deal and to try an answer that question. The answer is critical to the future of our nation. One of the main barriers to transforming our dysfunctional social and political system is what W.E.B. DuBois recognized so long ago, the Color Line.
Taking The Deal has left White People largely at the mercy of the wealthy elite. When times are flush, The Deal doesn't look so bad if all you care about is your own short run "success". But remember what everyone who lives year-round in Vegas knows, The Dealer always wins in the end. When the economy goes sour, White People are are subjected to the kind of brutal class oppression that taking The Deal was supposed to prevent.
Then White People have a choice. They can say Fuck the The Deal and try to resist alongside of People of Color. Or they can become the 21st century equivalent of the slave catchers and lynch mobs of an earlier time and hope their White "Betters" toss them a few crumbs off of their table.
It isn't easy to break The Deal . Even the most well meaning White People carry within them the debris of our twisted racial history, that unconscious arrogance that comes with privilege. You may be a dead-broke abused White Person, but you still have that whiteness and that racial superiority to call your own. Nobody can take that away from you. Like the American dollar, it ain't worth as much as in the old days, but it's still worth something.
It should surprise no one that People of Color carry within them a long history of mistrust about the motives of White People, especially White People bringing gifts of friendship. That gift of friendship can turn out to be the modern day equivalent of the Trojan Horse. To survive as a Person of Color in America, it's wise to be very cautious around White People until they have proven themselves.
Our present political impasse over the grave issues of war and peace, health care, education, crumbling infrastructure, crime, the environment and so on and so forth will remain an impasse until The Deal is broken once and for all.
Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama, that is really The Hope that he is talking about. But as attractive and charismatic as he can be, he is still only one man. It's going to take many millions of Americans to say Fuck the Deal and mean it, before that hope becomes any kind of reality.
Given America's foul racial heritage it's easy for America's internal enemies to tell White People that the cause of their growing problems is their neighbors who are People of Color. And given America's foul racial heritage, there will be many who will try to believe that. Resistance looks too hard, too fraught with danger and even impossible to imagine. Better to be obedient servants and hope for better days ahead.
Therein lies madness. Just read the Diary of Ann Frank to refresh your memory. Nazi Germany was a place where virtually an entire people stuck to The Deal when economic times got tough. The result was a devastated continent. How does that look to you?
Oh, you think it can't happen here?
Not far from where I took my first Black Studies class is a little stream called Antietam Creek. On a September day in 1862, 23,000 Americans were killed or wounded in the single most bloody day in our history. Those 12 terrible hours in the rolling Maryland countryside were only a small moment in the most terrible and destructive war ever fought in the USA...and all because of The Deal.
It not only can happen here. It has happened here. Fuck the Deal.