Wednesday, June 27, 2018
June 27, 2018: Summer Class Readings: “Of the Passing of the First-Born”
[This week my two Summer session courses—an FSU grad class on Ethnic American Lit and a MAVA class on the Literature of Work—conclude. So for this week’s series I’ll highlight and analyze some of the texts we read in both courses! Hope your summers are going well!]
On the most painful, difficult, and powerful chapter of an American classic.
In this post from more than five years ago, I made the case that W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is high on the list of books all Americans should read. I stand by that claim, and in my grad class this summer had the chance to teach all of Souls for the second time (after doing so in the Du Bois Major Author course about which I wrote in that prior post and the week-long series it inaugurated). Every chapter of this unique, ground-breaking, and magisterial book features not only distinct content and themes, but also and even more stunningly distinct literary genres, from a piece of short fiction to highly researched historical writing, educational philosophy to sociology, music history to mythological allegory, and more. But it’s the book’s briefest and most autobiographical chapter, “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” that presents audiences with both the text’s most painful and challenging reading experience and some of Du Bois’s most thoughtful and vital questions.
“Passing” narrates the birth, brief but vibrant life, and tragically early death of Du Bois’s son Burghardt, who died of an illness at the age of 18 months. For any parent, and perhaps any empathetic reader, passages like this one are almost too painful to read: “I shirk not. I long for work. I pant for a life full of striving. I am no coward, to shrink before the rugged rush of the storm, nor even quail before the awful shadow of the Veil. But hearken, O Death! Is not this my life hard enough,—is not that dull land that stretches its sneering web about me cold enough,—is not all the world beyond these four little walls pitiless enough, but that thou must needs enter here,—thou, O Death? About my head the thundering storm beat like a heartless voice, and the crazy forest pulsed with the curses of the weak; but what cared I, within my home beside my wife and baby boy? Wast thou so jealous of one little coign of happiness that thou must needs enter there,—thou, O Death?” Yet at the same time, Du Bois also admits that part of him felt “an awful gladness in my heart” at the thought that his dark-skinned son was “not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free” of the “sea of sorrow” that awaited him as an African American in turn of the 20th century America.
Not content simply to raise those distinct and equally dark and painful emotions and ideas, Du Bois delves into them further in the chapter’s remaining paragraphs, really considering both the horrific loss and yet the potential gain for his son and family in this tragic event. As is so often the case with his book and voice, he demands that we follow him into those questions and threads, examining unflinchingly these different layers to personal, familial, and communal traumas. But also as he so often does, he ends on a distinct note, a turn to the hopeful that is partial and hesitant but all the more powerful for it: “Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to be wise. Sleep, then, child,—sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet—above the Veil.” Fortunately for all Americans, Du Bois had another 60 years of life and writing and activism ahead of him, but it’s nonetheless impossible to read this chapter and conclusion and not hope that Du Bois and Burghardt found each other once more when this exemplary American life finally ended.
Next reading tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this text? Other ethnic American readings you’d highlight?