By W.E.B. Dubois
An old book, over a hundred years old already. Some of the essays have passed from contemporary relevance into historical record, but it is history rarely discussed, from an intimate perspective and the prose hasn’t lost any of its power. Nobody writes like that anymore! The Greeks, the Bible, Shakespeare. The Veil, the valley of the shadow of death, truth with a capital T: his symbols and allusions seem so much more direct and persuasive than the currently popular terms – privilege, identity and so on – of modern academic writing on race.
Perhaps the most illuminating chapter for me was the opening essay on the Reconstruction. I was certainly aware that slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule during the war and this promise was immediately broken. And yet in the haze of what little I was taught about that period, the Reconstruction was a generally positive time when there was significant improvement and upliftment of the formerly enslaved. So what exactly was done for the newly emancipated? It was shocking how familiar it sounded. Level-headed and decent experts close to the issues assessed the problems, forecast the consequences and identified the programs needed. The problems were minimized, what little was accepted was half-funded, what was half-funded was discontinued before it ran its course, and Black people were told to get over it and move forward on their own. And that has been the unchanging script for 150 years. Germany had the Nuremberg trials, South Africa has the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but America never did – never has! – called itself to account for the legacy of slavery. It sounds blindingly obvious to put it that way and yet 107 years ago when Dubois was writing white America was blind to the obvious and here we still are talking about let’s just move on.
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