Georgia is in the news these days. As the national news media collectively strives to right the wrong of coastal myopia that was laid bare by the 2016 election, we have seen within the past couple of years just about every high-powered magazine don a cover article focused on Georgia. I remember one time realizing, while reading the New York Times in 2003 or 2004, as a resident of the City, that an article on the Midwest was shrouded in much more mystery and exoticism than the travel article on Monaco, a stance that has often been present in reporting about the South. I could not have guessed that within fifteen or so years a cover story for the New York Times Magazine titled “When the Virus Came for the American Dream” would focus on the Buford Highway community in the Atlanta metropolitan area, which is known regionally for its cultural diversity and vibrant immigrant communities. It was astounding to me that, according to that publication, the exemplary community for the American Dream is located in a suburban stretch of Georgia. I brought this up during the Q&A for our 2020 Georgia Writers Hall of Fame plenary, which happened the week of the story, asking W. Ralph Eubanks, “What’s going on?”
More than a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois knew what has been going on, I’ve recently learned. From 1897 to 1910, Du Bois was a professor of sociology at Atlanta University. These years were a crucible in which he not only published some of his most famous works, but also struggled into the nascent stage of an intellectual development that would characterize his indelible contributions to American politics, sociology, and even literature. Reading Du Bois this time around, my first deep dive, I found him not only, again, one of the twentieth century’s best intellectuals, but also, for the first time, a writer of immense skill and daring. How could I have missed it? I ask myself, when seeing a passage like this one from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which leads us into Georgia:
Out of the North the train thundered, and we woke to see the crimson soil of Georgia stretching away bare and monotonous right and left . . . Here sits Atlanta, the city of a hundred hills, with something Western, something Southern, and something quite its own, in its busy life. And a little past Atlanta, to the southwest, is the land of the Cherokees, and there, not far from where Sam Hose was crucified, you may stand on a spot which is to-day the centre of the Negro problem,—the centre of those nine million men who are America’s dark heritage from slavery and the slave-trade.
Thus starts one of my favorite chapters, now, of this remarkable book, “Of the Black Belt,” which argues that “both now and yesterday, the Negro problems have seemed to be centered in this State [of Georgia],” not only because Georgia has the largest population of American descendants of slavery, but also because “no other State fought so long and strenuously to gather this host of Africans,” starting first with a collective refusal to heed James Oglethorpe’s outright ban on slavery at the state’s founding. In this context, the New York Times Magazine cover story, and all other such work, leads us to see that—as Du Bois is assiduously historical—we are still in the age in which the central problem is, as he famously put it, that “of the color line.”
Implied in the above is Du Bois’s outsider status. Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington, a town in Massachusetts among the Berkshires. He excelled in school and set his eyes on Harvard. Upon graduation from high school, with no immediate access to Harvard, he accepted a scholarship to attend Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, Tennessee. Although many around him saw this move back South as a disappointment, the years there were life-changing, for this was where he first witnessed “the whole gorgeous color gamut of the American Negro world.” After obtaining his degree at Fisk, he went to Harvard, where he became the institution’s first Black student to earn a PhD. Although Atlanta was a site for much of his most important work, including the publication of The Souls of Black Folk and the exhibitions for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which are excerpted in this issue’s art portfolio, he knew he operated as a product of his New England upbringing and thematized it in his work in a way that led him to his grand theoretical and literary achievements.
We see this difference dramatized, thematized, and theorized in the gripping scene that depicts Du Bois encountering a Southern Black revival for the first time. Thus starts the chapter on the Black church, “Of the Faith of the Fathers”:
It was out in the country, far from home, far from my foster home, on a dark Sunday night. The road wandered from our rambling log-house up the stony bed of a creek, past wheat and corn, until we could hear dimly across the fields a rhythmic cadence of song,—soft, thrilling, powerful, that swelled and died sorrowfully in our ears. I was a country school-teacher then, fresh from the East, and had never seen a Southern Negro revival. To be sure, we in Berkshire were not perhaps as stiff and formal as they in Suffolk of olden time; yet we were very quiet and subdued, and I know not what would have happened those clear Sabbath mornings had some one punctuated the sermon with a wild scream, or interrupted the long prayer with a loud Amen! And so most striking to me, as I approached the village and the little plain church perched aloft, was the air of intense excitement that possessed that mass of black folk. A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize us,—a pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word.
Cornel West describes this scene, somewhat accurately, as “one of an anthropologist visiting some strange and exotic people,” citing this episode as endemic of the sociologist’s “difficult[y] not to view common black folk as some degraded ‘other’ or ‘alien.’ ” Yes, Du Bois time and again makes uneasy statements out of a Victorian prudery, a patrician moralism, and an intellectual elitism. But even in this scene, the righteous dominance of what West calls Du Bois’s “Puritan New England origin and Enlightenment values” is not as consistent and ironclad as West insists, if existent at all. First, the chapter’s main purpose is to demonstrate that “the Negro church of to-day is the social centre of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of African character,” which means all the more in the American South. Second, something about the revival gets to Du Bois. The way to the congregation is dedicated entirely to pronouncing Du Bois’s status as an outsider, doubly removed, far not only from his home, but moreover from his provisional home. Furthermore the “stiff and formal” upbringing makes the revival a novelty anathema to the general disposition bred into him. The siren song brought Du Bois to what he saw as “that black mass of black folk.” But the workings of the Black church eventually draw Du Bois into the group, despite his cultural alienation: “a sort of suppressed terror . . . seized us” (emphases added). Du Bois follows the scene with a description of the “three things [that] characterized this religion of the slave,—the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy.” And what we realize, after the fact, is that the revival scene demonstrates that the Music and the Frenzy work in tandem.
As he repeatedly does throughout his career, Du Bois here asserts the superior status of music for Black culture and livelihood:
The Music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmic melody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil. Sprung from the African forests, where its counterpart can still be heard, it was adapted, changed, and intensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress of law and whip, it became the one true expression of a people’s sorrow, despair, and hope.
This final sentence makes Black religious music synonymous with the Sorrow Songs that introduce and organize The Souls of Black Folk. The book tells us in its “Forethought” that “before each chapter stands a bar of the Sorrow Songs,—some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls.” Pointing out that this is the first phrase in the text that resonates with the title, Alexander Weheliye argues that Du Bois “uses [music] as an extended metaphor for black subjects’ role in American culture at large.” According to Du Bois, Black music, in whatever form, is in its essence spiritual and sorrowful. More importantly, it is the primary moving source for consolation, reconciliation, and communion with Black folks here and gone.
Black music is the purest and most direct expression of the existential set-up for enslaved Americans and their descendants, because of the Middle Passage. There is a likeness with African music, “its counterpart,” but Du Bois stops short of insisting on continuity between the tunes indicative of these respective Black communities, because the transformation that occurred across the Middle Passage was fundamental. Du Bois emphasizes the discontinuity in the final chapter of Souls, “The Sorrow Songs,” when he provides the threshold example for Black music, a song passed down from his grandfather’s grandmother, who survived the Middle Passage:
Do bana coba, gene me, gene me!
Do bana coba, gene me, gene me!
Be d’ nuli, nuli, nuli, nuli be d’ le.
About this song, and his family, Du Bois says, “the child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.” The fugitive access to the song’s African roots is more than a personal case, because the fundamental violence that instilled and maintained the trans-Atlantic slave trade is the absolute severance of a whole population of people from historical memory. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau and legions after him have taught us, not only is the progressive trajectory of the Enlightenment project anchored by the matter of an origin, that origin, moreover, is always a matter of fictive making. That is, a legitimized origin story allows one to plot a scientific, cultural, or political endeavor on some grand narrative that runs from nature to culture in order to exalt it in the name of “progress.” Thus, the absolute brutality of the Middle Passage, the fundamental byproduct of which Orlando Patterson has called “natal alienation,” brackets off a population from this legitimizing narrative of Enlightenment by 1) severing its people—that is, that was, and that will be—from any count of history, and 2) barring them from any possibility of progress. The “meaning” of Black music, according to Du Bois, carries forward this alienating rupture. In Fred Moten’s words, “Du Bois’s song is strange, marking the irreducible, material presence of a stranger in Du Bois, one who leaves the mark or gift of a certain estrangement for Du Bois that will await his claim.”
The utter strangeness of this song is what we see working in the backwoods church, which we can see all the more clearly with the help of Radiclani Clytus’s “Phenomenal Listening” (published in our Fall 2020 issue). Clytus uses French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s distinction between “hearing,” defined as the conventional sense of taking in sounds for meaning, and “listening,” which in the French (écouter) emphasizes the sensory nature of the act above and against the rational, coining “listening” as an act that “is an intensification and a concern, a curiosity and an anxiety.” That is, when we “hear” a sound, we listen to it securely indexed to one entity and context, giving it its definitive meaning. For example, I hear a certain type of bell at work, and I know a fire is burning somewhere in the library. The brain does all the work. As Paul Valéry does for his famous analogy equating poetry with dancing and prose with walking, Nancy unmoors listening from the singular utilitarian drive for meaning in order to make it an aesthetic, embodied act. With “listening,” sounds are all resonance, modulation, variation, each sound not pegged to any given meaning, but part of a sonic tapestry that makes “sense not be content to make sense (or to be logos), but that it want also to resound.” Thus, according to the example of “Do bana coba,” the very essence of Black music lends itself to listening, and the meaning of its music is beyond understanding.
Although he doesn’t address Du Bois, Clytus starts from this very premise about Black music and provides us the means to describe how Du Boisian music and frenzy come from each other. Clytus elaborates Nancy’s “listening” into “phenomenal listening,” a term that emphasizes the potential listening has for collective work. Phenomenal listening works in two steps. First, some act or gesture “destabiliz[es] those preconceptions [of hearing] that cohere the expectations of the audience.” This element—like the African lyrics incomprehensible to Du Bois—disrupts the conventions that keep the cultured auditor a passive, disembodied receptacle for artistic meaning, enlivening the audience member’s body back to herself so that we may, in Clytus’s phrase, “promiscuously sense our way through resonance without rational comprehension” as music “continually saturat[es] our very being.” Hence the “phenomenal” of phenomenal listening. Secondly, this reinvigoration “ultimately asks that we embrace the ensuing dissonance as our entrée into a more collective communion.” Phenomenal listening is at heart participatory and collaborative. “The very premise of black music,” Clytus remarks, “only finds meaning through a communal practitioner’s authentic mode of self-expression.”
This is precisely what we see when Du Bois encounters the Black spiritual. By declaring himself “fresh from the East,” Du Bois locates the provenance for his “stiff and formal” upbringing past Berkshire into England, situating his position not within the North/South world of the Civil War, but rather of the larger world of Anglo-American Enlightenment and empire. It is the “quiet and subdued” nature bred into him that was destabilized, let’s say, by what he later defines as the Frenzy: “Finally the Frenzy or ‘Shouting,’ when the Spirit of the Lord passed by, and, seizing the devotee, made him mad with supernatural joy, was the last essential of Negro religion and the one more devoutly believed in than all the rest.” As we recall from the church scene, the revival, with its “loud Amen!” and “wild scream,” eventually “seized” Du Bois, a reluctant devotee. The palpable “terror hung in the air” (the plaintive rhythmic melody of the tragic soul-life of the slave) is that through which Du Bois enters “a more collective communion.”
Although the book’s title declares its focus on the transcendent, individualistic concept of the soul, here we see Du Bois attending to “that black mass.” In his indispensable 1983 book Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson argues that over the first few decades of the twentieth century, Du Bois transformed his elitist stance, as declared in “The Talented Tenth,” into a populist, communitarian spirit that culminated in his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), which Robinson describes as a “theory of history . . . [that] intended to—and did—trace the critical phenomenology of the American Civil War and its aftermath, the Reconstruction.” Here, in what Du Bois calls the “communistic institution” of the church, we see what would mature into a scene of reading for Du Bois’s mature thought and style. There is unfortunately not the space for me to discuss it in depth, but I encourage you to reread the church passage with the understanding that the music that begets phenomenal listening gets shared and reproduced through audience participation. The heightened, gothic language, I propose, resounds and, in Weheliye’s terms, “mixes” the cadences of the Black religious music that put Du Bois on his heels. I encourage you to read Souls to witness the irrepressible disorientation brought on by the bars of Sorrow Songs, which, I would argue, intend to bring phenomenal listening of the reader.
This is the story of a scientist and the artful means of surviving in an absurd system of violence. In a summative reflection on his argument with Booker T. Washington, in Dusk of Dawn (1940), Du Bois tells us how tempering scientific inquiry with imaginative daring equips one to seek as comprehensive a sense of historical truth as a world run by prejudice allows:
One may consider these personal equations and this clash of ideologies as biographical or sociological; as a matter of the actions and thoughts of certain men, or as a development of larger social forces beyond personal control. I suppose the latter aspect is the truer. My thoughts, the thoughts of Washington, Trotter, and others, were the expression of social forces more than of our own minds. These forces or ideologies embraced more than our reasoned acts. They included physical, biological and psychological forces; habits, conventions and enactments. Opposed to these came natural reaction: the physical recoil of the victims, the unconscious and irrational urges, as well as reasoned complaints and acts. The total result was the history of our day.
We can thank Du Bois for spending a lifetime considering how reasoned acts, as well as physical reactions, are equally responsible for the history that we must live through. My favorite experience from Du Bois this time around was reading about Dougherty County in Georgia, what Du Bois considers “the heart of the Black Belt,” and many once called “the Egypt of the Confederacy.” Before encountering this passage, my explanation for the swath of light blue down there on the 2020 election map was simply the COVID outbreak in April that shocked the nation. Certainly it is a major contemporary reason, but reading Du Bois’s history of Dougherty County’s day affirmed my explanation, but only in a way that complicated it, placing it within a historical context to which I have no direct access, but whose music to which I can listen, and from which I can find meaning in various forms. “How curious a land is this,—how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter, and the rich legacy of human life; shadowed with a tragic past, and big with future promise!” Du Bois intones. There’s more work to do, but I’ll say that that swath of light blue is as crucial to the outcome of our 2020 elections as any urban county in the state. This is a reading moment that I can only start to write about, for there’s so much more thinking for me to do. Fortunately there are more books to read and folks to talk to.
As editor of The Georgia Review, I want the journal to be a space where granular details about the region—campus, city, state—can enlarge our understanding of national discussions, and vice versa. There is a deliberate decision to collect in this issue a cluster of work about the region. We have built a feature around the data portraits Du Bois and a group of his graduate students made for the 1900 Paris Exposition. As I mention briefly in the feature introduction, I see much of the church scene’s concerns working in the data portraits. And per the mode of participatory, phenomenal work, we asked folks to riff off these data portraits. Luckily we have responses from both sociologist (Janeria Easley) and poets (Vanessa Angélica Villarreal and Keith S. Wilson). We also have a portion of Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s conversation with Calvin Trillin about her experience desegregating the University of Georgia, upon the sixtieth anniversary of that moment. Kevin McIlvoy shares a series of prose poems about the removal of a Confederate monument in a fictional North Carolina town. KaToya Ellis Fleming offers a strong review of W. Ralph Eubanks’s new literary history of Mississippi, A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape.
There are other works that consider history under the force of imaginative retelling. Eliot Weinberger’s muscular, yet ephemeral essays stitch together—ever so loosely—fits of vision from centuries past and countries far. There are also works that strive for a total history of a moment, accounting for the uneasy interaction between reasoned acts and natural reaction. Nishanth Injam and Kim Sehee offer stories to do so with the queer body in mind, and Jennifer Chang’s poems do so with the Socratic, essayistic, and discursive traditions employed as elements productively antagonistic to poetic work. We hope you enjoy the issue and feel seized by the work.
From around the office:
• Our SoPoCo (Southern Post-Colonial) Emerging Writer Contest is live. We invite applications from members of diasporic communities of the American Southeast, however one defines it. We will choose one winner in prose and one in poetry. Each earns $1,500, publication, a one-month residency at AIR Serenbe, and a reading in Athens, Georgia. The deadline is 15 August 2021. Check our website for details.
• “Public Health and Environmental Justice: A Conversation with Susanne Paola Antonetta and J. D. Ho,” our Earth Day 2021 video, is live on GR2. See the writers speak with assistant editors Soham Patel and Doug Carlson about neuro- and biodiversity, the essay form, and rats, among other things.
• Visit GR2 to read other reviews, including Daniel Picker on Nick Hornby’s Just Like You, John Carpi on Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Floyd Collins on Ama Codjoe’s Blood of the Air, and Josh English on Myung Mi Kim’s Civil Bound.
• Congratulations to Isaac Hughes Green! His story “The First Time I Said It,” published in our Fall 2020 issue, was selected for a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. It will be included in the annual anthology Best Debut Short Stories: The PEN America Dau Prize, published by Catapult.