9/9/08

Of The Sorrow Songs

Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.


W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

These words are taken from the final essay in Souls on the Sorrow Songs, or the Slave Spirituals.  He regards the spirit of African American culture as most epitomized by these anonymous songs composed improvisationally by the slaves, themselves, as they became Christians in a New World of deprivation and torment.   While he isn't yet ready to include all of African American music and culture in his highest claims for the "Sorrow Songs," nonetheless he poses the question and the problem of racial differences one last time in this essay.


The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of "swift" and "slow" in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should AEschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Also taken from "Of the Sorrow Songs" in Souls of Black Folk.

African American music has a tendency toward spiritual inflection and in such cases listening is like being in a time machine.  In some cases it seems almost as though the chords or the tone transports the listener back into the history, in particular of slavery and Jim Crow persecution.

11 comments:

Ian Krengel said...

Throughout my reading of Souls of Black Folk I found “Of the Sorrow Songs” as maybe the most capturing part for me. Generally if there is music in anything it will catch my interest, but not like this. At the moment I am taking two courses that involve African American studies, each use photos, literature, music, paintings etc. All elements have opened my eyes to this time period and struggle, but there is a certain ring in the ear, a feeling that consumes your body when hearing voices. For humans our main pathway for expression is generally by our voice. Whether it is a cry out to god, or for some water, it is usually our first resort. Hearing spirituals that were sung by many others in a life indescribable to me can become much clearer when hearing them. I was not aware of the illustrated version of Souls of Black Folk and can’t wait to get a hold of it. Reading very slow, after a while I was able to understand and grow in my curiosity and attention of W.E.B. Dubois’s work. I think the illustrations will make the work new to me in that the reading may come alive in a new way.

Acstraughn said...

In "Souls of Black Folk", Dubois discusses the struggles of African Americans in America. The struggles of segregation. The songs open minds and allow us to feel the emotion of the person singing the lyrics. Although we are only reading the lyrics, we can try to understand the deep meaning behind each line.

ilvin said...

Ilvin Montesino
Word Humanities 102


W.E.B Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk” post:

As I was reading “The Souls of Black Folk” by Du Bois, what caught my attention was how the slaves were free, and how they were treated after being emancipated. Even though I had studied history, I never knew that there was an organization that was helping them, but was also taking advantage of them. After reading “The Souls of Black Folk” of Du Bois, I finally understood what the Bureau organization was all about. I think Du Bois did a great job writing about the history of blacks, especially depicted the spirituals of salves during slavery. I think that the spirituals sound really cool but they also carry a lot of meaning, offering some valuable insight to what it was like being a slave.

lata4eva said...

In Soul of Black Folk shows the rise of the black educators. It is also compiled of anecdotes. It describes people like Booker T. Washington who enforced education and made it possible for the future generation of black children to learn and succeed. Although Dubois did not agree with many views of Washington , he did agree with the emphasis on education. Through education, blacks will get good jobs and have a better future for their families. The future generation will make the dreams of the older generation come true. The University of Tuskegee motivated blacks to go to school. Du bois illustrates how far African Americans have come from being slaves to successful men and women. He also shows that in the end they have succeeded in the battle that seemed never-ending despite the many boundaries that were set.

proudfatboyxxl said...

W.E.B Du Bois has always sent powerful messages through his writing. In "Sorrow Songs", Du Bois lets his readers know that the true and only spiritual form of artistic expression was within the music of the freed slaves. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes much about the struggle of black people and the constant ignoring set on them by the whites. Their rights took much effort to be gained and enforced, and their voice took very long to be heard. African American culture has brought many things to modern American culture, such as Jazz, Hip-Hop, Blues, and many other unique arts.

hamilton1 said...

Within Dubois’s “Souls of Black Folk” is the essay, “Of the Sorrow Songs” which discusses the songs sung by African American slaves during the historically horrific period of slavery in the United States of America. I found the songs themselves and the writings about them to be eye opening and really did do justice to the beauty and importance hidden within these songs that have seemed to be forgotten. The reasoning behind my admiration is because in my personal experience, although in grade school this time period is taught in history classes throughout many schools in this country, I feel as though it is often overlooked by many. Not only is it overlooked, but I think it is certainly not studied enough to give justice to such a time period so rich in history as dark and ugly as a history may be. Quite the opposite, these songs not only focus on but infuse emotion into the education of this history. Additionally the beauty in terms of the progress this country has made since then, especially with the outcome of the most recent Presidential elections, is extraordinary in so many different ways. In this section Dubois does do the topic justice in my opinion as he describes to the reader how these songs have affected him personally as well as the hardships that African Americans were forced to endure. Throughout his book “The Souls of Black Folk”, he goes through the trials and tribulations that African Americans experienced as they lived through the various social and political struggles of their time. I believe that this last part of the book was intended to leave the reader emotionally and psychologically affected, as Dubois may have done purposely in hopes of leaving his audience to capture what continues to make these improvised songs as beautiful and as inspiring in the present as they were in the past.

Kimberly Hamilton
WHUM 102

Michele Wallace said...

This is quite lovely Ian.

Michele Wallace said...

Thanks for these comments and thanks both Ian and Kimberly for including your name in your post. It is much less confusing to me.

gmossad00 said...

In "The Souls of Black Folk", By:WEB Du Bois he talks about the feeling of being African-American. Its hard to be Black he describes except when your a baby. Racism started when Blacks were kids even. He says, it when they actually realized they're different. He asks God why he made him different. He then describes being Black as making him feel like he's in a prison. He then describes something very interesting. He describes the Black person and consisting of two parts. First is the American, and second is the Negro. He then says there are 2 souls, 2 thoughts, 2 unreconciled strivings, and 2 warring ideals all in one dark body. The way he describes this double parted person is as "double-consciousness" or a "second-sight". I really enjoyed reading this and analyzing/understanding what WEB Du Bois was feeling at the time.

gmossad00 said...

In "The Souls of Black Folk", By:WEB Du Bois he talks about the feeling of being African-American. Its hard to be Black he describes except when your a baby. Racism started when Blacks were kids even. He says, it when they actually realized they're different. He asks God why he made him different. He then describes being Black as making him feel like he's in a prison. He then describes something very interesting. He describes the Black person and consisting of two parts. First is the American, and second is the Negro. He then says there are 2 souls, 2 thoughts, 2 unreconciled strivings, and 2 warring ideals all in one dark body. The way he describes this double parted person is as "double-consciousness" or a "second-sight". I really enjoyed reading this and analyzing/understanding what WEB Du Bois was feeling at the time.

Israel Salcedo said...

W.E.B. Du Bois’ argument that Negro folk songs and spirituals are the most compelling forms of human expression from the New World is very accurate. I agree with him because the songs arose from the struggles of the enslaved. They were songs sung by people who suffered a great deal. The songs also preserve the stories, experiences and events that sowed the seeds of the origins of African American culture. The songs can also be used by modern scholars to study the oral traditions that stood the test of time and to appreciate the vernacular employed by the first African Americans. I find it lamentable that the black spirituals had confronted great adversity over the years as Du Bois points out. Indeed it is quite ignorant to depreciate the value of the folksongs. These oral traditions are rich in history and culture not only about the black experience but also of American history in general. To deny their importance is to deny the extent of slavery in the New World and to silence the millions who toiled in misery. The acceptance and preservation of all historical accounts is vital to tell the whole story of our nation.