First published in February 1920 by Harcourt, Brace & Howe, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil was Du Bois’s sixth book. The book consisted of essays and short fiction about race, class, and gender issues. Throughout the essays Du Bois set forth and defended themes challenging, for example, a dominant (less inclusive, less egalitarian) definition of democracy, the subordination of African American women, and the European exploitation of Africa.
Darkwater opens with Du Bois’s Credo, a short piece of writing that became famous in its own right.
Du Bois’s focus on the oppression of women was considered extraordinary for the time, in particular his essay “The Damnation of Women” in which he wrote:
“I shall forgive the white south much in its final judgement day: I shall forgive its slavery, for slavery is a world-old habit; I shall forgive its fighting for a well-lost cause, and for remembering that struggle with tender tears; I shall forgive its so-called ‘pride of race,’ the passion of its hot blood, and even its dear, old, laughable strutting and posing; but one thing I shall never forgive, neither in this world nor the world to come: its wanton and continued and persistent insulting of the black womanhood which it sought and seeks to prostitute to its lust.”
The fictional pieces of Darkwater included poems, short stories, and parables. They reinforced his view, expounded later in his “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), that “all Art is propaganda.” The literary works highlighted racial discrimination on a global scale and its negative, sometimes horrifying, consequences. They also conveyed explicit messages about the hypocrisy of some white Christians and the unwarranted assumption of whiteness as superior. Crucially, some of the pieces portrayed African Americans striving to create a new society – and indeed, a new world – through the power of their own strength, vision, and determination.
Darkwater’s reception by contemporaries diverged widely. Many praised its sharp criticisms of racism and racial exploitation. One reviewer held that Du Bois’s critiques allowed him to demonstrate the “white man’s error” on race issues (Foerster). Another contemporary, Elizabeth Holman, expressed her contrition for ignoring the plight of fellow humans:
For all the wrong I did not heed,
Chance-born in happier paths to live,
I cry unto my brother’s need
One word of love and shame . . . forgive!
Other reviewers, however, considered that Darkwater expressed extreme and possibly dangerous views. Among those commentators, some believed that Du Bois's work reflected his personal bitterness and resentment (e.g., Bailey). As an anonymous reviewer for the periodical The Outlook wrote, the book was “a creation of passion rather than of intelligence.” Still others argued that Darkwater could potentially incite racial hatred against Whites (e.g., Cohn).
As with more well known works by Du Bois, Darkwater helps us to better understand how his words, in conjunction with his activism, elicited both deep respect and deep suspicion.