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The dark modernism of W.E.B. Du Bois

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers offers a lyrical introduction to Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Verso Books22 September 2022

The dark modernism of W.E.B. Du Bois

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers argues for W.E.B. Du Bois to be understood as a modernist, alongside contemporary white thinkers and writers, and attempts to capture the ‘alchemical ingredients’ that constitute his unique genius.

In Darkwater, W. E. B. Du Bois begins with prayer and song. This famously unreligious man beseeches. He calls out to a higher power, One whose actions he cannot understand. He displays tenderness and spirit: “I believe in God, who made of one blood all nations that on earth do dwell. I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity ...” Du Bois makes slavery a lyrical song so that he never truly focuses on the pain, but we know the pain throbs within. We know that because of the cries that have come from murky water that sometimes closes over his head.

And so, he considers the African woman who came across the water, the woman whom the Revolutionary veteran Tom Burghardt married. She is from a tribe that has been lost to memory, this woman Du Bois calls “a little, Black Bantu”—not a term we would use in the twenty- first century, but that in Du Bois’s hands isn’t offensive. For we know (now) what Du Bois wouldn’t yet know when he wrote this book. That he would dedicate his entire life to the children of Africa, both here in the United States and over so many different bodies of water.We know when Du Bois died, he would pass away in the bosom of the continent that so many other Black folks hanker for.

This is our foreshadowing, when Du Bois remembers the “Bantu” woman’s African song, one that no scholar has been able to trace definitively:

Do bana coba—gene me, gene me!
Ben d’nuli, ben d’le—

Then he continues to his own mother, a disappointed, long-suffering woman, and his father, a handsome man who deserted her. There is so much unsaid, yet pulsing, in those few sentences of description of his parents. Other brief passages describe his childhood poverty in Great Barrington, Massachusetts: “I never remember being cold or hungry, but I do remember that shoes and coal, and sometimes flour, caused mother moments of anxious thought in winter, and a new suit was an event!” Yet then, he skips along again, for he’s trying to write an autobiography of a time, not of a man. But the man always emerges.

And throughout Darkwater, I see the shadow of the first child of W. E. B. and Nina Gomer Du Bois. The little boy, Burghardt, who passed away two decades previously. I can hear his high-pitched laughter as his parents look on, proud and delighted. Yet I know there will be anguish as the mother and father uselessly wring their hands. As the beloved child slips off with his parents kneeling at his bedside.

Who would this little boy have become? I know his father wondered that, with all his work to make the world a better place. Du Bois cannot stop working, for he and his wife had another child. And so, surely there were whispers. Words that told him, “Keep your hand on the plow.” Was it a Gospel plow? Was it the plow of outrage? Maybe both. Yet his hand kept pushing, and for that, we are grateful.

And so, we could call this book, this Darkwater, a blues of a time. We could call it a ballad of a people. We could call this an elegy of hope for the collective, human race. Hope was nearly gone in 1920, but at the age of forty-eight, Du Bois’s defiance burned. It hissed and it popped.

We cannot forget that, though W. E. B. Du Bois was an activist, a political scientist, and a historian, he was a creative writer. And more: he was a master of modernism. That term “modernism” has been taken over by White writers, who point to Ezra Pound, and then, T. S. Eliot as modernism’s literary originators in the United States. Rarely, but sometimes, a Black writer like Melvin Tolson is allowed to sit in the corner of the room, while the Whites—mostly cisgender men—lean over the canonical table. Yet W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks—an obviously modernist work—was published in 1903, and thus, predates Ezra Pound’s Des Imagistes (1914) by eleven years. (Des Imagistes is the poetry anthology widely assumed to have begun the American modernist literary movement.) In addition, Du Bois’s Souls predates T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by twelve years.

 “Well, then, what about innovation?” ask the dogged, White critics. “Shouldn’t the first requirement of modernism be innovation?” And here is my answer: “In the body of work by Du Bois, there is all the innovation one could ever desire or need. For Black modernism—Du Bois’s modernism—not only refers to innovation within the literature—on the page—but also, literature which reflects the improvisational strategies of the African American subjects of that literature. 

There has been a criticism about African American literature, that it is limited in scope, addressing as it does only Black subjects and topics, that it is heavy-handed, that it cannot break free of political chains. (The unflinching focus of White writers on White subjects and topics somehow is never an issue that arises.) 

I listen to Du Bois’s pain, his rage, his bitterness, all of which are the alchemical ingredients that fuel his genius and his modernism. No, he has not changed this country much, and he understands that. Yet as a reader, I listen to his frustrations—and I know that underneath all that is his hope. Darkwater is a howl of hope. A prophecy born of sight. He’s trying to warn us out of an ultimate love. His is an urgent prescience.

--an excerpt from Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W.E.B Du Bois. Introduction by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.

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“I have been in the world, but not of it,” W.E.B. Du Bois begins this book, a continuation of the project he began in his celebrated work The Souls of Black Folk, describing the devastation of segr...