Check out historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s recent piece at The Paris Review on the cultural context in which W.E.B. Du Bois’s wrote his famous work The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Kendi situates the work in the context of the Sam Hose lynching of 1899.
No lie circulated as far and wide over space and time as the original racist one that prefigured the Negro a beast. “No other news goes out to the world save that which stamps us as a race of cut-throats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 antilynching manifesto, “Southern Horrors.”
Beasts, most agreed, did not have souls.
A beast could be traded and enslaved. A beast should be segregated and lynched. A beast cannot stop raping and killing. A beast could be subdued by only a mob or a jail cell. A beast so brutal even trained police officers fear for their lives. The Negro a beast.
“They lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings,” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara in his 1453 cradle of racist ideas, defending Portugal’s pioneering slave trading of Africans. A century later, pioneering British slave trader John Lok described Africans as “people of beastly living.” In 1899, the Wilmington Messenger reprinted an 1898 speech of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton, who in 1922 would become the nation’s first female U.S. senator. If “it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week.” In 1900, the best seller of segregationist demagogues was the Mississippi professor Charles Carroll’s Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. Thomas Dixon brought this thesis to life in his best-selling 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, the first step in the march toward D. W. Griffith’s fanciful film The Birth of a Nation.
It is difficult to comprehend how daring it was for W. E. B. Du Bois to publish the most acclaimed book of his career in the face of this avalanche of beastly labels rushing down onto the Negro. Du Bois stared into the grisly faces of the racist past and present and decreed that blacks were not soulless beasts. “Ain’t I a human?” he seemed to be asking, just as fifty years earlier the legendary black feminist Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”
In publishing The Souls of Black Folk, on April 18, 1903, Du Bois argued, implicitly, that the world needs to know the humanity of black folk by listening carefully to the “strivings” in their souls….
Read the entire piece here.