The Souls of Black Folk

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 04, 2011

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Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeJoseph Winthrop Holley, the founder of Albany State University and the son of a former slave, was born in Albany, Georgia, which explains why he wanted to build a school in his native town. He attended Revere Lay College in Revere, Massachusetts which changed its name to the Boston Evangelical Institute before it merged with another school to form Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary that my former wife attended. During the latter part of the 1980s I visited that seminary often.

Rev. Holley also attended Phillips Academy in Andover, a leading preparatory school in Massachusetts, through the generosity of the Hazzards, a wealthy Rhode Island family who became his benefactors. After Phillips Andover, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the same school that William Robeson, Paul Robeson’s father, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe attended, all of whom left their mark on the politics and culture of the Africana world.

Rev. Holley returned to Albany after studying at Lincoln University to found Albany State University where a month ago I lectured on the circulation of ideas that informed the African American, the Caribbean and the African struggles for liberation. Rev. Holly was inspired to build his university after he read about (and experienced) the poverty of African Americans living in southern USA that Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folk and Booker T. Washington’s strove to overcome by building Tuskegee Institute and which he wrote about in Up From Slavery. Rev. Holley considered Washington his mentor and quoted him extensively in his speeches.

Washington and Du Bois’s works had their effects in many countries. Washington inspired Garvey and Garvey inspired many persons in the black world through his newspaper, The Negro World in which he promoted his philosophy of black consciousness, self-help and economic independence. It was distributed in North and Central America, the Caribbean and Africa although the colonial authorities banned it in many parts of the Africana world.

At its peak, the Negro World had a circulation of over 200,000 copies a week and was the most popular black newspaper in the world. Jomo Kenyatta, former president of Kenya, affirms the impact it had on him and his fellow nationalists. Nkrumah wrote in his autobiography: “Of all the literature I studied, the book that did more than any to fire my enthusiasm was Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.” Garvey impact was so powerful that the Black Star, the name of Garvey’s shipping line, adorns the green, red and white of the Ghana’s national flag.

Paul Robeson did not attend Lincoln University (he attended Rutgers University) but was inspired by his father’s commitment to the black liberation cause. He was one of the most respected African Americans in the 1930s and became close friends of George Padmore and C. L.R. James, two Trinidadians in London. In 1936, Robeson played the leading role in James’s play, “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” that opened in London. He also performed in Trinidad and Jamaica in 1948.

The nineteen thirties also saw the production of three seminal works on slavery, the slave trade and black liberation. In 1935 Du Bois published Black Reconstruction, subtitled An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. It was a continuation of a work he started when he submitted his doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, to Harvard University in 1895.

In 1938, James completed The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, one of the best works on the struggle of African people to liberate themselves. Aime Cesaire writes that Haiti “was the first place that the black man stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, his determination to create a new world, a free world.” The Haitian Revolution stands alongside the American and French revolutions as the three most important world-historical events that repudiated the doctrine of the divine right of kings and ushered in the rule of the common man.

In 1938, Williams finished his doctoral dissertation, “The Economic Aspect of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” at Oxford University. After additional research he published this work as Capitalism and Slavery (1944) in which he challenged the accepted justification (economic) that were offered for the abolition of slavery. Together with Black Reconstruction and Black Jacobins, Capitalism and Slavery is part of the masterworks that every educated person must read if she wishes to understand the emergence of black people in the contemporary world.

Nkrumah worked closely with Padmore and Kenyatta to organize the Fifth Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1945 over which Du Bois presided and which set the agenda of the liberation movements within British colonial territories. In the late forties Nkrumah, Azikiwe and Kenyatta returned to their countries to fight for their countries’ liberation where they later became the first prime ministers of Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya respectively.

When Williams returned to Trinidad in 1955 he used Washington’s words to emphasize his commitment to his people. After chronicling the affronts to which he was subjected at the Caribbean Commission, he signified his intention to remain with his people “who have made me what I am…I am going to let my bucket where I am now, right here with you in the British West Indies.”

Washington used similar words in Up From Slavery when he urged: “‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down among the eight million Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides.” His speech turned out to be nothing more than an appeasement to the wealthy men of the South.

Although William’s intentions were different, it is significant that he drew on Washington’s words, delivered in 1896, to declare his determination to serve his people in Trinidad and Tobago.

As we celebrate the International Year for People of African Descent, it is well to remember that Trinidad and Tobago has always been embedded within the circulation of ideas that shaped the liberation struggle of colonial people throughout the Africana world as they freed themselves from colonialism. In the process, we gave birth to what has been called “a quintessence of intellectual wealth.”

May we never forget the hardships our forebears suffered so that we might be free.

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12 Responses to “The Souls of Black Folk”


  • “Together with Black Reconstruction and Black Jacobins, Capitalism and Slavery is part of the masterworks that every educated person must read if she wishes to understand the emergence of black people in the contemporary world.”

    I would emphasize, “every BLACK person.”

    • I would emphasise, “every STUPID person who desires wisdom.”

      • Dr. Cudjoe, there are two other individuals whose impact, not only on Black Liberation struggles, but also on world literature are deserving of mention in your pantheon.

        One of these is Alexandr Pushkin, son of a slave mother, and a poet and writer who defined Russian Literature in the same way that Shakespeare defined English literature. Pushkin’s influence, literary affected and informed later Russian writers like Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov and Polish writers like Kafka.

        Pushkin’s political influence was so immense that Peter the Great, writing to him while recuperating in France, called him “dear son”.

        The other person whose early impact was significant on Black liberation was the Jamaican poet, Claude McKay. He is reputed to have coined the phrase later used by Churchill, “Blood Sweat and Tears”, though this is also attributed to Garibaldi.

        Claude McKay, while he was never a member of any Communist Party, nor leader of a Liberation Movement, was so revered in Russia, where a poet could fill a football stadium, that he had an office in the Kremlin.
        Among the first Caribbean descendants of slaves to write in the local patois, Claude McKay, moving to New York was also a founding member of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a prolific writer of short stories, volumes of poetry, autobiographies (two), and several novels, one of which, Home To Harlem, was a best seller insomuch that its popularity influenced the new film kid on the block: Hollywood to produce its seminal anti-Black film, Birth Of A Nation. This film, because of the massive profits then made from anti-Black racist productions, later spawned such musicals in Black-face like Show Boat.

        Its influence was felt even in the 1972 production, Buck and the Preacher, produced and starred in by Sidney Poitier. A film in which Black men out-gunned and killed white cowboys, and the first in which a Black man kissed a Black woman, Poitier was denied production funding for more than a decade.

        McKay was also a father-figure to many of the Africans also influenced by George Padmore; people like Nkrumah and Kenyatta, and a colleague of Paul Robeson.

        Claude McKay’s poem, If We Must Die later is credited with influencing Bantu Steve Biko’s views on Black Liberation in then Apartheid South Africa in the same way Garvey influenced the older Mandela and Mbeki.

        If we must die, let it not be like hogs; Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot
        While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
        If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed
        In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
        O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
        And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! Though before us lies the open grave?
        Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

        Claude McKay, Friday, January 03, 2003

      • “…emphasize” correction

        • Incidentally, the word, “holocaust” is now solely, and in some countries legally attributable to the experience in pogroms and genocides committed against European Jews.

          The word was first used, however, by WEB DuBois in the opening pages of his tretise “Souls Of Black Folk”.

  • “In 1938, James completed The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, one of the best works on the struggle of African people to liberate themselves. Aime Cesaire writes that Haiti “was the first place that the black man stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, his determination to create a new world, a free world.” The Haitian Revolution stands alongside the American and French revolutions as the three most important world-historical events that repudiated the doctrine of the divine right of kings and ushered in the rule of the common man.”

    The Haitian revolution was indeed a watershed moment in Western History. A people fighting to determine their future. It was embarassing and humiliating to France to lose this battle. It was a decisive victory. One must give credit where credit is due. I am sure it was a very proud moment for those who end colonialism in this West nation and set a pathway for others to follow.

    Yet the paradox of such a revolution did not realise the full potential of nationhood. Instead Haiti became one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. Voodhoo and spiritism were the main culprits because superstition rule the day. Right across from Haiti is the Dominician Republic a nation that abides on the same island but share a completely different fate.

    Papa doc was the voodhoo high priest a man who followed a succession of such spiritist leaders. Today voodhoo has spread to other nations. As one American lady said an old Haitian lady came to her look at her and ask her for money. She gave the lady over $30,000 without realising what she was doing. Another man was in an accident with a Haitian and his father emptied his bank account and was constantly giving away money up to over $27,000. They were too embarassed to report this to police.

    Nevertheless, one have to admire the Haitian people many of them got on rafts and boats to come to America in the 80’s. Escaping the independence of their nation for the might of the US dollar.

    • “Voodhoo and spiritism were the main culprits because superstition rule the day. Right across from Haiti is the Dominician Republic a nation that abides on the same island but share a completely different fate.”

      Mamoo, I am assuming from your response, or at least some of them that you are interested in facts and the truth, but like many of us born into societies colonized and neo-colonized that free-floating hearsay, conspiracy, and mistrust, like fogs against reality, blind us despite our best efforts to see.

      Did you know that Haiti has been invaded more than twenty-two times by foreign countries, including the Dominican Republic?

      That Papa Doc, like Noreiga of Panama, Suharto of Indonesia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam of Iraq and a host of other undesirables and unmentionables were thugs bought by and in the service of the US and NATO?

      What Haiti represents today is an image created by its historic enemies. One of desperate poverty and despair, yet it was in Haiti that Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of South America fled when he was wounded, and without troops to recuperate and be armed? And that the Haitian leadership asked of him, only one thing? That wherever he liberated that he also free the slaves? A promise he never kept?

      Did you know that the US, Britain, France and others, including countries freed by Bolivar maintained an embargo against Haiti until the then Creole Haitian leadership agreed to pay France for the slaves freed> Payments that amointed to billions of dollars then to the point that even today Haitians recall as children using their small savings to assist the country to pay off France?

      It is like India, after getting its freedom brom Britain being embargoed until it had paid Britain tribute to cover the cost of all the Indians who had been freed from British colonialism.
      Had this occurred and India was today in conditions similar to Haiti, would it be fair and accurate to blame the country’s then poverty on Hinduism, a religious practice similar to that of Voodoo and Spiritism, as your man (my assumption, possibly incorrect), Sat indicated recently in an article to the Guaardian?

      Did you know that among Black people worldwide today, there are more Haitian doctors, professors, linguists, and business people? That Haitians run businesses in Hong Kong and Israel (Bajans also). For example, wherever in New York you go and see a Black person who owns a set of apartments, grocery or a fleet of taxcicabs, ten to one it is a Haitian? In Orlando Florida, they own more businesses than any other immigrant group, and it is their monies sent back home that is the mainstay of the Haitian economy?

      I will say no more but suggest that you view the site listed below. It is part of a series presented on the American PBS network.

      If you have similar info that would enlighten others on the reality of India in a positive light, why not also post these, since the type of thinking that has gotten T&T race relations into the current untenable situation is not also the type of thinking that will get the society out of it.

      http://www.pbs.org/wnet/black-in-latin-america/

      • Neverdirty wrote “Did you know that the US, Britain, France and others, including countries freed by Bolivar maintained an embargo against Haiti until the then Creole Haitian leadership agreed to pay France for the slaves freed> Payments that amointed to billions of dollars then to the point that even today Haitians recall as children using their small savings to assist the country to pay off France?”

        That my friend is the sad legacy of colonialism. The explotier and the exploited. Yes I was aware of how the French did a number on the Haitians, taking as much as they could. It is no different as to what they did in the Congo. However, India for instance was exploited by the British, diamonds, gold and other expensive items went to the British Raj, no other nation suffered such exploitation. The Indians used to blame the British but today after over 60 years of independence, you don’t hear them blaming anyone.

        Neverdirty wrote”For example, wherever in New York you go and see a Black person who owns a set of apartments, grocery or a fleet of taxcicabs, ten to one it is a Haitian? In Orlando Florida, they own more businesses than any other immigrant group, and it is their monies sent back home that is the mainstay of the Haitian economy?”

        You are in agreement with me when I said many Haitians left Haiti in the 80’s for greener pastures. There is something about living in poverty and coming to a land of opportunity. I see it with Indians from India who come to America and in a short time they are millionares, I suppose it is no diffrent for the Haitians who like everyone one else who want a better life. In fact immigrants to rich nations demonstrates a better work ethic than those born in those nations.

        I was travelling with a Haitian gentleman we were attending a conference together and we had a long discussion about Haiti. He shared his hope and dreams for his people. He was of the firm belief that Haiti would one day become a great nation. I think after the earthquake that process has begun. In time his dream will be fulfulled.

        • “The Indians used to blame the British but today after over 60 years of independence, you don’t hear them blaming anyone.”

          And more oower to India if its role both at home and abroad is the advancement of Human rights for every human being.

          On the issue of “blame”, unlike India, Europe and the US are unable to leave Africa alone. Even after “Independence”.

          Why is a matter for another discussion and platform. In the meantime, what Europe, Britain, the US and NATO have done and continue to do they no longer do in India.

          For exaample, when last has there been European involvement and interference in the internal affairs of India apart from a recent United Nations demand that India allow the Dalits complete freedom to elect their own representatives.

          In Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa tghere is now a US Military Command, ostensibly to fight “Islamic Terror” as is Islam is the source of world terror and I speak as a Hebrew.

          In Africa following and leading up to independence for African countries, Europe divided up whole regions, arbitrarily forcing peoples of different cultures, languages and beliefs into pick-up side polities and countries, a primary factor today in the genocidal wars, for example, between the more anglophone-looking Tutsis and the more African-looking Hutus.

          In addition, all of Africa’s patriots, people like Nkrumah were exiled; like Mandela were impridoned, and like Biko were murdered.

          In addition, Europe then proceeded to hoist to power thugs like Arap Moi in Kenya, Mobutu in the Congo, Amin in Uganda and the like. The consequences of these deliberate actions occurred in Africa and mot on the Indian sub-continent because Africa’s curse is its immense mineral wealth.

          For example, minerals like Molybdnum, a group 6 chemical element, symbol MO and Atomic number 42 and used to strengthen steel is found in commercial amounts onlky in Africa, and only in the former Belgian Congo, the richest and most coveted piece of real estate on earth.

          It is for such minerals like these and diamonds aplenty recovered almost at ground level why Africa is today a war-torn continent and its peoples among the poorest on earth. As one of the sites indicate Africa’s curse is its unmatched resource-rich base in a militarist, imperialist and hegemonic G8 arrangement.

          http://www.modernghana.com/news/198961/50/africa-the-curse-of-being-resource-rich.html

          http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=43808

          • “Zambia is the world’s seventh biggest producer of the metal. In 2007 the country generated 521,984 tonnes of copper; this year the government expects production to increase to 600,000 tonnes.

            However, Mofya said, the Zambian government and people are not seeing much from the wealth generated as most of the copper mines are in hands of the private sector – including many foreign companies.

            “The Zambian government receives only 0.06 percent of the annual profit. Meanwhile the mining companies are getting richer, and ecological problems keep accumulating. These things have a profound impact on people’s lives,” she said.”

            Mineral resources are in high demand globally, gold climbing to over $1000 U.S. per ounce. Copper and other mineral resources are being hunted for by many nations to drive their industry. The story of Zambia is no different than in all of Africa.

            It is repeated time and time again, big conglomorates, rich nations come in bribe the government with all kinds of niceities (the Chinese are now famous for this) and then take their resources. I can’t imagine why governments do not seek the best deal for their people.

            Oil was discovered in one of the poorest provinces in Canada New Foundland, the rich oil companies came in and wanted to pay next to nothing in royalties. The Premier decided that he was not going to have any of it. Told them to pack up and go. The oil company did a serious “rethink” (lol) and came back giving the Premier what he wanted.
            Sometimes you need leaders like this to preserve your patrimony.

            My understanding is in the west coast of Africa the Chinese came in and found “yellow gold” aka uranium. They made a deal with the government to build hospitals, schools etc in exchange for this resource….all nations will be looking to Africa to build up their economic wealth.

    • Excellent documentary Neverdirty. Being a student of Caribbean history I enjoyed. Some commented about his lack of mention of the brown skin Tainos people, the people who Columbus met and the Spaniards wipe out…prior to slavery.

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