The Souls of White Folk
African American Writers Theorize Whiteness
The first book to examine whiteness as an intellectual tradition within African American literature
The Souls of White Folk: African American Writers Theorize Whiteness is the first study to consider the substantial body of African American writing that critiques whiteness as social construction and racial identity. Arguing against the prevailing approach to these texts that says African American writers retreated from issues of “race” when they wrote about whiteness, Veronica T. Watson instead identifies this body of literature as an African American intellectual and literary tradition that she names “the literature of white estrangement. ”
In chapters that theorize white double consciousness (W. E. B. Du Bois and Charles W. Chesnutt), white womanhood and class identity (Zora Neale Hurston and Frank Yerby), and the socio-spatial subjectivity of southern whites during the civil rights era (Melba Patillo Beals), Watson explores the historically situated theories and analyses of whiteness provided by the literature of white estrangement from the late-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. She argues that these texts are best understood as part of a multipronged approach by African American writers to challenge and dismantle white supremacy in the United States and demonstrates that these texts have an important place in the growing field of critical whiteness studies.
This remarkable book not only offers an apt reminder of the extensive African American tradition of writing and theorizing about whiteness but also constitutes an arresting addition to that tradition. Ranging across a century of time and a variety of genres, Watson writes with texture, precision, and theoretical sophistication. She shows how African American thinkers made themselves experts on the ways whites apprehended and occupied the troubled realms in which they ruled.- David Roediger, coauthor of The Production of Difference
Veronica Watson offers a brilliant analysis of African American engagement with whiteness in U. S. literature. In this historical journey examining the works of Chesnutt, Du Bois, Yerby, Hurston, and Beals, Watson reveals whiteness to be a labyrinth of insecurity, twisted intimacies, and terror. Resisting the tendency to narrow race studies to the focus on the 'black problem,' Watson provides a searing examination of whiteness as a traumatized identity, a reality that makes even more remarkable a black willingness to understand, and in some instances, try to save white people from their own suffocation. The Souls of White Folk is a crucial contribution to critical whiteness studies and a beacon for understanding white estrangement from its own humanity.- Becky Thompson, author of A Promise and A Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism