A century later, this is still the most important page ever written about the black experience. And, the most important question facing black folks remains: “how does it feel to be a problem?”
No people in America are as quintessentially American as black folks are. Genuine American culture is a gift black folks gave us all, and the problems we face are the very reflection of the American spirit: we are too violent, we are too religious, we are too fixated with a mythic past and the appertaining belief in an eventual certain redemption. The Negro is the American ideal through a glass darkly- but also in its presentation of the actual face of a nation, the Negro is the crispest and most accurate reflection.
We are a problem, but we are also the answer to a question: what is it to be an American? Nothing -and nobody- is more American than the American Negro. And yet, the cruel irony is that nobody is as comprehensively excluded from the American narrative and the American dream as are black folks. The fight between what we are, what we want to be, what white folks see us as, and what we have been is at the heart of everything. If you want to understand Ferguson, pick up “The Souls of Black Folk.” If you want to understand black people, pick up “The Souls of Black Folk.” If you want to understand America, pick up “The Souls of Black Folk.” Though some of the references may be a bit dated, but the core ideas are still accessible and cut to the cognitive dissonance at the heart of blackness better than anything I have ever read.
I’ve long ago accepted that I am a problem- and may ever be. But, let me be the right sort of problem.
“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,–peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting- cards–ten cents a package–and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, –refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, –some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
-W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk