Thursday, May 12, 2016
(3) W.E.B. DU BOIS, THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK
I spent my early childhood in the suburbs of Stockholm, e.g. in Rinkeby, where over 90% of the inhabitants were immigrants or had an immigrant background. I knew I was "white" when I got punched in the face by the Africans in the Kindergarten and I knew that my destiny was to be Finnish as the Swedes kicked me in the balls when I went to school.
Most "white" people do not really experience their ethnic or racialized classification, but I have it tattoed in my soul. I am a "powder face" and a "finnjävel" (Finnish devil).
These experiences and the fact that my family is quite mixed (Swedes, Finns, Greeks, South American indigenous people) have made me react on a personal level to racist talk in today's Finland and Europe. I also remember the glass ceilings, the lady who quit talking to me when she noticed I am Finnish and the girl who quit smiling when she realized where I am from.
Three times have I updated my "whiteness".
As a teenager my family lived a couple of years close to a gypsy orphanage. I learned to play the guitar (without notation), I learned some gypsy language (kalo) - and I saw from close distance how hard it was to be brown in Finland in the 1980s and 1990s. I became a part of the community and I still use the same kind of trousers and suspenders that the local roma people did. And I got to hear, nearly every day, how stupid, ignorant, dirty and evil we white people were. I did not have a problem with that, though. I had seen the problematic situation and I realized the talk was not against me.
1999 I was a trainee in the Finnish Institute of London. I moved to the appartment of my ex girlfriend in Brixton, which at that time was not such a trendy suburb as it is today. It was a 70% West Indian slum. A racist terrorist had taken a bomb to the center of Brixton just a couple of days before I arrived and many locals had been hurt. On the streets people walked on me and while jogging I had to watch out for African European males, who tried to clash with me. I noticed that most "white" people living in Brixton performed the 'I am not a normal white guy' thing. I bought a FuBu sweater and I quit using my comb. I tried to look like Coolio. I knew that I had succeeded when the local dealer, who rode a mountain bike, stopped and said: "wicked, man". The rest of the summer I was left in peace.
The third update was quite philosophical. I was writing my PhD at Temple University, 2002 in Philadelphia. My teacher there, Richard Shusterman, was a jewish intellectual who had lived for a long time in in Israel. He was writing philosophical essays for the Journal of Rap Music, which had been established by some ex black panthers. At the university half of the students were of African American origin. My room mates never walked to the university even if you had to walk just a half an hour to get there. You had to cross a ghetto. Shusterman was an ex intelligence officer and very confident about himself so he sometimes walked to the university even if he was white. I decided that I'll do the same, to understand what America really was about.
One morning I left my credit card home and I walked to Temple. I could feel the pressure in my guts and bones. It was only a one mile walk, but I felt like walking through Gaza. You could see excretion on the street. Houses looked rotten. I felt so bad. I had never realized that the US was in a way a third world country. A tall man leaned on a trash can and looked at me. He said: "What's happening, big guy," and I really realized how I looked wrong in that context.
At that time it also happened that some academic philosophers (re)found the African American philosopher Alain Locke, and on the side of that W.E.B. Du Bois. Especially Locke had written a load in the early 1900s and touched upon aesthetic issues. In this context it wasn't hard to become interested in the texts of these two cultural philosophers. Du Bois was into arts and culture and he used a lot of literary quotes in a nice way. I liked his work immediately.
When I held a performance about whiteness with Khaled Ramadan, a Lebanese-Danish friend of mine, in 2013 - we were boxing and we showed clips from Muhammed Ali matches - I had to get back to read The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois was now again back in my life and we discussed him in this performance.
Last winter I started to think about his way of writing. I think what Du Bois was doing was quite what Marx did. Both wrote in a very poetical fashion. They did not build complex argumentation. They helped people to see how things are. This is one of the perennial responsibilities of philosophy.
The Souls of Black Folk is a literary work, but only to the extent that one can take seriously its societal and philosophical DNA. Du Bois writes against the idea that African people would not have a soul. (Locke, by the way, was against this way of writing about people as a group, he ran his cultural philosophy towards individualism.) Du Bois discusses the way the liberated slaves came to the Northern Parts of the US like Africans and Syrians come today.
W.E.B. Du Bois saw, wittily, that race and racialization (a concept he did not yet have) were going to be key questions for the 20th Century:
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy, as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as know, that the question of Negro slavey was the real cause of the conflict."
Beautiful book. I cannot but recommend it.