September 13, 2020 | Brian Chappell


We are experiencing a period of necessary upheaval, where we are scrutinizing the details of our public discourse, the structures that appear in public spaces, the names that we give to institutions, the history that we continue to memorialize, the injustices from which we continue to benefit. The images of Black men and women murdered by police and vigilantes should cause us to lose sleep, should cause us to pause everything until the reckoning is worthy of the outrage. 

In that regard we can find some new heroes. W.E.B. Du Bois is one of them. Though we can perhaps join Ibram Kendi and others in challenging Du Bois for certain of his assimilationist views, we can still find formidable fire and truth in his writings from over a century ago. He was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, but rather than retreat quietly into a successful career as an educator and scholar, he asserted himself at the vanguard of a burgeoning movement for civil and human rights. Toward that end his writing is at times scholarly, at others lyrical, at others haunting in the stories it tells. Frederick Douglass famously announced, “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Du Bois takes this dictum to heart, and his stylistic virtuosity in the service of scorching irony should rouse us. 

Questions for Discussion:

1. Many white people are turning to books such as Peggy Irving’s Waking Up White and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to help them understand whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, etc. What do you make of Du Bois’ characterization of whiteness and white people in “The Souls of White Folk”? If you identify as white, how does the essay speak to your life? If you are a member of a BIPOC community, how does Du Bois’ assessment resonate with you?

2. The second excerpt from Darkwater is called “Of Beauty and Death,” in which Du Bois wishes to account for the conflict at the heart of life, between beauty, truth, goodness, etc., and all the violence we encounter day by day. Where do you see this conflict playing out in your experience? What is a sentence or passage from this section that particularly resonates?

3. The text makes occasional use of the n-word. We invite conversation about the history and harm of this word. As you read, notice the contexts in which the word is used, and imagine Du Bois’ intention in doing so. While we don’t use that word in civil and public discourse today, what are some words and concepts that “legitimately” serve as substitutes, serving a similar purpose?