RE(ADS): "The Souls of Black Folk"

RE(ADS): "The Souls of Black Folk"

Introducing RE(ADS): a new segment of the ADS podcast in which we take a single passage from a work that has influenced our journey over the last 25 years, and discuss it.

In this first installment, John chooses a passage from W.E.B. Du Bois' classic work, "The Souls of Black Folk." Published in 1903, much of it was written during Du Bois' first stint in Atlanta as a professor at Atlanta University. The passage for today, taken from Chapter Five, "On the Wings of Atalanta," arises out of Du Bois' experience of Atlanta as the model city of the New South, and offers a prophetic and still-timely critique of the dangers of "Mammonism."

JOHN: So I kind of vaguely remember reading The Souls of Black Folk in sophomore year of college, in an Introduction to American Literature class. A lot of it didn’t really register with me, but that would’ve been, I guess, fall of ‘92. And then later, after our tours were underway, I went back in grad school and reread it.

And it’s one of my favorite books now. But a lot of the meaning was lost on me as a 20 year-old in 1992. But it’s interesting to go back and look at it. So it’s published in 1903. When we went on our trip in 97, we’re on the other side of the same century in which the book was published. Chapter Four is called “Of the Wings of Atalanta.”

He goes back to the Greek story of at Atlanta, and he’s thinking about Atlanta. He’s living in and writing in Atlanta in 1903, he’s got a position at Atlanta University. Even when I read him in grad school, that didn’t really quite register with me. He lived in the same place where I grew up for two stretches in his academic career.

But in his observations on Atlanta, he writes:

South of the North, yet north of the South lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.

And some of that’s not the Atlanta that we knew, this place where commerce was centered downtown. That’s not really the Atlanta that we knew, but he talks about other things that very much resonated with our instinctual feeling about it when we first set out in 97.

So Du Bois writes,

how swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who out-raced her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in the way.

And ultimately she stops and can’t resist these apples of gold. He’s able to catch up with her, and has to marry him because he has outraced her. So Du Bois reflects that Atlanta is not the first or the last maiden whom greed of gold has led to defile the temple of love.

 And then he goes on and connects it with Atlanta: 

 a danger lies before a new land and a new city, lest Atalanta, stooping for mere gold, shall find that gold accursed!

And then he goes on, on the next page: “Work and wealth are the mighty levers to lift this old new land.”

 He’s thinking about the New South of which Atlanta is the emblematic example.

thrift and toil and saving are the highways to new hopes and new possibilities; and yet the warning is needed lest the wily Hippomenes tempt Atalanta to thinking that golden apples are the goal of racing, and not mere incidents by the way.

Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation.

And later he asks, “What if to the Mammonism of America be added the rising Mammon of the re-born South?”

I think we sensed that and didn’t really have language for it. (Maybe a little bit had language for it in ‘97.)  But it’s interesting how his observations of Atlanta as it’s emerging as the emblematic New South city still resonate so much with our lived experience growing up there, even on visits back to the city. There’s a lot of truth still in that.

PETE: What’s weird about so much of this is how non-existent Du Bois’s vision and his influence was on at least my formation as a young person in Atlanta. This idea wasn’t even in the drinking water—well, maybe it was in the drinking water, but not attributed to Du Bois. Atlanta’s idea of itself as the capital of the New South—post-racial, coalition-building, committed to commerce—that was all there, but the voice of Du Bois I don’t ever remember until much later, in fact, fairly recently. Maybe even tour number six, when we were in Atlanta and saw Du Bois’s bust on the campus of this university that’s regarded as the epicenter in many ways of Black higher education in the country, the Atlanta University complex. So even at Atlanta University, they were reluctant to embrace Du Bois because of his later politics.

But one of the things that’s striking about the passage you just read is how forgotten this idea had become by the time we were in college, and how much work you may have to do to really un-remember this sort of thing.  

The fact that King was from Atlanta—that was never made much of in school. It was not a point of local pride. Same with Du Bois: his most influential work was written in Atlanta. And there’s got to be something to that. And yet we don’t, or did not used to, think of Du Bois as one of these formative figures for Atlanta as a city and as an idea.

It’s stunning to think about how much of a missed opportunity Du Bois was for school kids like you and me in the eighties We had so much to learn from Du Bois about American history, about our own city. Maybe Du Bois is more a part of the vocabulary in Black Atlanta, but he certainly was not at all for me.

JOHN: Yeah. And it was interesting reading him at Wake Forest. The professor of that class was a Jewish Yankee. So their reading list was probably a little more expansive and unconventional than perhaps some of the other professors would’ve assigned. Just thinking about Du Bois and connections: we went to the site of the Sam Hose lynching. It’s the news of the Sam Hose lynching, as Du Bois literally is walking on an Atlanta street to take a letter to the editor, that makes him an activist. So not just a scholar, which is the career he envisioned, but actually makes him an activist.

So he literally walks back on that same Atlanta street, fundamentally changed. I think it’s on Mitchell Street as he was coming from Atlanta university to the downtown office of either the Atlanta Journal or Constitution. I don’t remember which one.

Then the other interesting connection is the more recent monument on the grounds of the capitol to the Black legislators who were expelled once elected Democrats raised the Constitutional quibble that the Constitution granted Black suffrage, but not Black office-holding. So they weren’t “legally” holding office, this kind of thing. They got some Republicans to vote with them and had enough votes to carry it, and they were expelled. And so there’s that monument on the capitol grounds, but it’s a second stint back at Atlanta University that I think runs for a decade during which [Du Bois] writes Black Reconstruction in America. So many works from an older era of historians today don’t read other than just to know what past historians thought, but that is a book that historians still actually read to learn things from. So it’s interesting that he’s also writing and thinking about that right there in his office in Atlanta.

PETE: I think it was the Constitution. Talk about missed opportunities. [Du Bois] was going to see Joel Chandler Harris. He had written this social-scientific report on the Hose lynching. And then he saw what were allegedly or purported to be a jar containing Sam Hose’s knuckles for sale inside a shop window.

That was when he had this Damascus road moment. And it literally changed his course of his career, totally. He was going to visit Joel Chandler Harris. And you can only imagine like what that meeting would’ve been like; it never happened. And later on, Ralph McGill, who’s the legendary editor of the Constitution, was interviewing Du Bois. I think he was even in Ghana at this point and [McGill] asked him if he ever met Joel Chandler Harris. And Du Bois talked about that meeting that never happened, that he really regretted never getting to meet Harris. And that in itself is such a curious thing. This guy’s famous for the happy slave stories of Uncle Remus, these folk tales that were basically taken from African folklore and repurposed for white audiences, and Du Bois, who’s this radical, who, by the end of his career, certainly self-identifies as a radical. Can you imagine what that meeting might have produced? What an extraordinary juxtaposition of figures who loom so large—well, one of them looms very large—on the Atlanta landscape. We went to the Wren’s Nest on field trips as kids. We went and saw Joel Chandler Harris’s home, but we didn’t go two blocks away to see Atlanta University.

I wonder how Atlanta’s sense of itself might have changed if that meeting had ever happened and became a part of the local lore. Like people would talk about, “remember that time when Du Bois went and met Joel Chandler Harris?”

But that juxtaposition—such an Atlanta kind of juxtaposition. That meeting would’ve been so characteristic, so quintessentially Atlanta in a good way. And it could have been it could have been really transformative. It could have not, too. So who knows, but talk about the connections and missed connections.

JOHN: Yeah. And even on tour three, we went to the Wren’s Nest. I don’t think we did the in inside tour. I think we were there after business hours. I have a couple photographs from the Wren’s Nest, but I don’t think it was until tour six that we even set foot on the campus of Atlanta University or any of the associated colleges. I think it was first in 2018.

PETE: The only other time—and this is pretty telling too—the only other time I was ever on that campus was in the eighties, when my mom was involved with Spelman. Johnetta Cole was President,  and somehow the Cosby show came to Atlanta to film at Spelman, at the chapel at Spelman.

They sent out this thing—they need to fill the chapel to make it look full. So we got to go and sit in the chapel when they were filming an episode of The Cosby Show. So I appeared on The Cosby Show at one point! Actually, I didn’t; I was never on screen, but I was somewhere in the building when that scene was shot. Talk about a weird confluence of Black and white culture, mass media entertainment, Atlanta—all that on the campus of Spelman.

But that was in the eighties, that was the only time I ever set foot over there. And then back when we were there in ‘18 seeing Morehouse. I’d never been to Morehouse. How crazy is that? But we went and saw the Wren’s Nest. Right. To be fair, the Wren’s Nest is cool, but you don’t hear that story at the Wren’s Nest, which would be really cool if you did.

A friend of mine from high school was a parishioner—still is—at West Hunter Street Baptist Church, which was Abernathy’s church, over there on hunter street, but moved to its present location in the seventies, literally next door to the Wren’s Nest. Standing on the sidewalk looking at the Wren’s Nest on your right, West Hunter Street is right there. It’s like Ralph David Abernathy, the civil rights movement, Joel Chandler Harris, this legacy connects to Henry Grady and all that.

Talk about stuff you cannot make up. This is right next to each other. And my friend Kelsey, even in high school was hearing Abernathy preach every Sunday. So, missed connections. For me what this passage, just the idea of Du Bois in Atlanta, brings up is how many missed opportunities. If I had known any better, I would’ve loved to talk to Kelsey in high school about what it is like going to Ralph Abernathy’s church. But I didn’t know enough then to think to ask that kind of thing. And same with the Du Bois-Harris meeting that never happened.

JOHN: Yeah, would it’ve been on the expansive front porch of the Wren’s Nest?

PETE: Who knows? Maybe to bring it back to Du Bois: so his warning is about the dangers of mammonism and basically what he says is, “do not think that financial prosperity equals success.” That’s not what makes a great city.

The future history of Atlanta from Du Bois onward: is it proof of Du Bois’s thesis, or counter evidence? Atlanta’s image—which is not totally manufactured—its image as a racially progressive city, there’s a lot of propaganda to it. Some of that was affected by wealth. It was precisely Atlanta’s material success that enabled that self-image. For instance, the dinner for King: Atlanta would never have been able to celebrate this event as a victory for everybody, a dinner for King coming home having won the Nobel prize, if it weren’t for Coca-Cola getting involved.

And so that tells you everything you need to know about Atlanta. And maybe this is true of every city. What drives the “better angels of our nature,” so to speak, is not goodwill, but a fear of bad press. And that is Atlanta’s story.

And the weird thing is, sometimes that’s been good. Because sometimes you just can’t count on goodwill. Maybe sometimes the best that you can do is to get people to agree that we don’t want to look bad.

JOHN: Yeah. And, that’s a metaphor for the civil rights gains in the mid-sixties. Certainly, it gets projected, that forces the political powers to make real, real concessions.

PETE: Do you think that this is still a thing? It just seems that if you look at news today, no one seems to be afraid of bad press or of looking bad. If you just look at what seems to be the PR strategy of the GOP lately, is basically, “bad press is our message. That’s our thing.”

We’re generating it day after day. In the previous administration, it didn’t matter whether it was good or bad press, as long as it was press. That [reminds me of] “mystery and manners,” O’Connor’s argument that manners kind of save us because they have this sort of protective quality, because they prevent us from killing each other.  Maybe fear of bad press was doing something similar. This idea that we’re all in it for the money, we’re all in it to make Atlanta prosperous. Morally that’s highly questionable. I think we can agree on that.

But on the other hand, on a pragmatic level, maybe that’s partly what prevented some of the violence after King’s assassination. Yeah, it’s not exactly noble, but maybe it did play some role as a kind of prophylactic almost where other cities were experiencing violence in ’68, Atlanta less so. Not entirely free of it, but it may be less so because there was this [idea that], “well, we don’t want to look like Memphis. We don’t want to look like Birmingham.” You know what I mean? It’s not a noble motive at all, but maybe it saved lives. I don’t know.

This is a highly prophetic sort of passage right here.

JOHN: Oh yeah.

PETE: Because he has Atlanta nailed. This is probably why we never talked about him, because he has probed and revealed something about the psyche of the city that is uncomfortable to read and is holding a mirror up to you. Joel Chandler Harris doesn’t do that for you. Joel Chandler Harris doesn’t make you go. “Oh, I don’t like how that feels.”

JOHN: Yeah, just a quick comment on bad press today. It just seems like even since the early tours, the news cycle has gotten so episodic that, by next week, people have already moved on, they’ve forgotten.

So it’s just so ephemeral and episodic. And I think the other thing is the increase, the spread culturally and politically, of nihilism, where we don’t really care and we’re even going to cast suspicion on the truthfulness of the press. So then bad press is less of an issue because “we’ll just generate some other stuff.” Anyway, that’s kind of aside from Du Bois, but yeah, I think with Du Bois, the lines that stand out to me the most are where he links at Atalanta and Atlanta:

the warning is needed lest the wily Hippomenes tempt Atalanta to thinking that golden apples are the goal of racing, and not mere incidents by the way.

And then immediately after that,

Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread.

So, yeah, a certain level of material success is part of just enjoying the good things of life, but when that’s a goal in and of itself and the lone goal, simple dollar-chasing for its own sake, good things are lost and it can become even kind of imprisoning. If you go back to the myth, I think that’s what we kind of sensed, but didn’t have words for, when we set out in ’97.  

But Atlanta in the nineties (and I think things have changed in some good and bad ways more recently, in maybe the last 15 years or so last 10 years), it did just seem like it was all about the dollar-chasing. And geographically, Atlanta was this ever-expanding, relentless, new development with very little interest in preservation of older places within Atlanta, or places out in neighboring counties that Atlanta was expanding to and gobbling up. It seemed that progress was defined as material success, period. That’s not part of the means of living that make for a pleasant life, but as the end in and of itself. So just the shininess, the glitz, defining the good simply by material prosperity— I mean, I think about the U2/Johnny Cash line:

I went out walking
through streets paved with gold
lifted some stones saw the skin and bones
of a city without a soul.

And next time we can get into the genie soul, and the sense in which Atlanta does have a genie soul. But I think at the time, for me, largely being out of touch with Atlanta’s racial history, I just saw the other side, which was the, the mammonism, and it seemed like a city without a soul. Just glitzy newness was valued. And at least for me, looking for something other than that, but not too far away, was the driving interest on the first tour,

PETE: Yeah, I think we were looking for little cities with souls.

JOHN: Yeah. I think that’s one of the things we were after for sure. Early nineties: Chattanooga developed an aquarium. Chattanooga is a place on the map because of the Tennessee River. That’s why it is where it is. There’s a logic to that. I’ve only been there once. I thought it was very, very well done.

It traces the Tennessee River from its source all the way to entering the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico, and it follows the different fish that you would find in different places on the river. There’s a logic to it. So then, no sooner had Chattanooga done that than there was buzz about it around Atlanta like, “oh wait, hey, hang on. We need an aquarium. Come on now, we can’t let some second-rate city by-pass us. We need an aquarium. And you know what, we’re gonna build it bigger and better.” Yes, there is a river in Atlanta, but that’s not why Atlanta’s on the map.

We know this, obviously we would hang out [at the Chattahoochee River] some growing up, but, but the river’s kind of a retreat away from what feels like the city even nowadays. There’s not a lot built up on the river, this kind of thing. And then, you know, with the Olympics, you know, the stadium, we grew up going to Braves games in what I thought was an impressive, massive stadium. And it’s like, “no, we’re gonna tear that down. We’re gonna build a new one.” And then give it a few decades and like, “nah, no, it’s obsolete. Nah, it’s, it’s no good anymore. And we need a new stadium. We gotta move out to Cobb county.” Just the ephemerality of investment.

Time will tell on that. But I think that’s some of it. The ephemerality of investment is part of just the dollar-chasing as a goal in and of itself. We’ve seen many places that needed investment that have suffered from disinvestment. And then we’ve seen some places that have seen investment just since our first visit. That in of itself is a good thing. But if the investment is just for the sake of more dollar-chasing and not building up something that’s civicly good, then you’re going to have this kind of ephemeral stuff where twenty years later, it’s like, “nah, let’s go onto the next thing, onto the new thing.” 

PETE: There’s probably no more representative monument in Atlanta than the section of the wall  from the old Fulton County stadium where Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. Broke Babe Ruth’s record. Just a section of wall sitting in the middle of a parking lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It doesn’t get more Atlanta than that. Speaking of orphans of history, literally orphaned structures, there was another one in Atlanta that originated around the time of the Olympics. They put up this like triumphal arch looking thing as you come in Peachtree into downtown and it looks so weird. It’s like, what is this doing there? I thought at the time, “this is just too much. This is trying to make Atlanta like Paris or something.” Giving some sort of marble columns with arches and stuff. Well, I later learned, like they actually took the friezes from the old Carnegie Library and mounted those on there. So they do have some connection to the history, but if you don’t know that, you’re looking at this thing as grotesque, overdone, that doesn’t look like it belongs there at all.

JOHN: That makes so much sense. I never knew that, but it has writer’s names on there. And you’re just like, “why is this here? They have no connection to Atlanta. What is this?” But yeah, Carnegie. I mean, that makes sense.

PETE: It’s in the wrong place, because the Carnegie Library was basically next door to where the current library is, and was right next to the Dinkler Hotel. That was demolished in the seventies, but they somehow kept these pieces, thankfully, you know, and at least we have some remnant of it. But it’s detached and out of context, looks a little strange, in the wrong site, several blocks from where it should be. Again, another kind of orphan of history in the monumental sense. If you don’t know that, you just think this is a weird, random marble arch thing with some old white dudes’ names on it. What is this doing here?

Strange place, but let’s talk next time about the genie-soul in general and maybe about whatever the genie soul of Atlanta looks like or how it behaves…