How Does It Feel to be a Problem?

“How does it feel to be a problem?” African American intellectual, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, hereafter W.E.B. Du Bois, posited this query in his seminal text, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903. There subsists a struggle for African Americans to construct and sustain an affirmative identity in a society where their mere existence is perceived as an obstruction. Du Bois expounded, “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois’s intention was to address this challenge by the “development of Negro genius, of Negro literature and art, of Negro spirit, only Negroes bound and welded together, Negroes inspired by one vast ideal, can work out in its fullness the great message we have for humanity.”

 Du Bois ardently maintained that the role of art was to explicitly serve to initiate social change. Published in the October 1926 edition of The Crisis, Du Bois fervently declared:

Thus all Art [sic] is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.

In writing Souls of Black Folk, then, Du Bois’s unequivocal aim was to edify the white population of the pain and anguish inflicted upon the African American community; the envisioned outcome would be an expressed humanity and aspiration from the white populace to buttress their black counterparts. Not all African American philosophers acceded with Du Bois’s deduction—not the least of which was Alain Locke.


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