The Souls of Black Folk – W.E.B. Du Bois

dubois“One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays by W.E.B. Du Bois, is a cornerstone of African-American literary history that explores the concept of double consciousness. Within these essays, Du Bois attempts to show what the Emancipation meant to African-Americans, and what it has been like to live in the aftermath.

I am particularly fascinated by Du Bois’ use of the Veil, which is a manifestation of the Color Line.  It gives the reader a glimpse of the African-American world in which economic, political, and social opportunities are so vastly different from those of the white community.

Each chapter begins with  text from a poem, usually by a European poet, and the musical bars of Sorrow Songs, which Du Bois describes as, “some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past.” I found this to be a particularly poignant element.  It elicits an emotional response that Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, which I read simultaneously, simply does not reproduce.

Du Bois actually addresses Washington’s rhetoric in chapter 3, as he vehemently disagrees with Washington, who urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity. Du Bois begins the chapter about Washington with an epitaph, just as he does all of the other chapters.  This one begins with a quote from Byron:

“From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”

Du Bois, who helped found the NAACP, argued for establishing the education of black men beyond industrial skills and manual labor as Washington’s theory would only serve to perpetuate white oppression.  He closes the chapter by saying, “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce is a relatively short story, divided into three sections, that centers on Peyton Farquhar.  Farquhar is a southern slave owner from a highly regarded Alabama family. Though he was previously unable to join the military, he still dreams of the honor and glory that he associates with the Confederacy. When he receives word from a Confederate soldier (who turns out to be a Northern agent in disguise) that Northern forces had repaired the railroads in anticipation of launching another advance, Farquhar jumps at the chance to serve by sabotaging Owl Creek Bridge.

Farquhar’s wife is the quintessential embodiment of domestic comfort – kind, loving, innocent, and subservient to her husband. And, as Farquhar nears the end of his life, he uses her and their children as devices for comfort. I can’t help but be slightly annoyed by Farquhar, if I’m being honest.  His actions seem purely selfish.  As Bierce himself describes him, “he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.” He is not motivated by the thought that he is doing the right thing, he is in it for the glory and the excitement and gives little thought to how his actions will affect his family and their future, until he is going to die.

I really enjoyed how time felt fluid in this short work.  It begins with Northern forces as they prepare to hang Peyton Farquar for attempting to sabotage their advances. The reader then follows Farquar’s thoughts back to how he came to meet his impending demise.

I won’t ruin the ending for those who have not read it, though I highly suggest you do so – it would make for a badass episode of The Twilight Zone.

Oh, wait…

owl-creek-bridge-tv-guide-ad

 

I Owe Michael Flynn Five Dollars

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While I was at the book store last week, I picked up a sci-fi book called The January Dancer by Michael Flynn for $2.95. I had never heard of Flynn (who happens to be a Hugo Award finalist as well as Robert A. Heinlein Award–winning author) but for three bucks at the time how could I not give it a shot?

In bar on a world named Jehovah, a scarred man recounts a story for a minstrel who hopes to compose music from it. The tale begins with Amos January and his crew of The New Angeles as they unearth ancient “prehuman” artifacts while searching for materials to repair their ship.  They eventually manage to escape the planet with a single relic; some call it “The Slipstone” while others dub it “The Dancer” due to the fact that it seems to move and change shape while no one is watching.

The book is classic space opera at its core, yet also manages to be so much more than that. Deft and poetic prose made me feel like I was reading a fantasy novel, while the extra dimension of the conversations between the scarred man and the minstrel enriches the ambiance of the story and adds great texture.

Even more interesting than the narration itself is the comprehensive exposition of the worlds and cultures that exist along The Rift.  Flynn provides extensive paragraphs describing these cultures, yet not once does it feel like an info-dump or tedious essay.

What once felt like a bargain suddenly feels like theft upon completion of the novel; I sincerely believe the author deserves every penny of the full retail price for this book.  So thank you, Michael Flynn, for such an entertaining read-and if I ever run into you on the street, I owe you five dollars.

“Everything in the universe is older than it seems. Blame Einstein for that. We see what a thing was when the light left it, and that was long ago. Nothing in the night sky is contemporary, not to us, not to one another. Ancient stars explode into ruin before their sparkle ever caught our eyes; those glimpsed in glowing “nurseries” were crones before we witnessed their birth. Everything we marvel at is already gone.” The January Dancer