The Souls of Baltimore Folk: W.E.B. Du Bois and The Wire’s “Bodie”
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David Simon’s critically acclaimed show The Wire is celebrated for the even-handedness with which it treats its characters. It sees no difference in significance between a new mayor struggling to hold on to his principles against political interests and a thirteen-year-old black boy whose determination to avoid a life of crime is eroding as he faces the reality of his situation and opportunities. That way, when the various fates of these characters unspool before us, we’re affected not because we’re particularly surprised with where they end up and why, but because we’re surprised that we’ve grown to care so much about them.
Among the ensemble show’s many characters, one stands out as especially representative of the show’s modus operandi: Preston “Bodie” Broadus, a lieutenant in the Barksdale drug operation who continually loses his superiors to incarceration or death only to be absorbed into new drug rings as the lowest man on the chain, unable to advance himself into management and remove himself from the dangers of street-level drug dealing.
His story is one of quiet desperation, never focused on too heavily, never demanding the viewer sympathize with it. Until, after four seasons of going in circles and aspiring to better things, we inevitably find that we do.
By trusting the audience’s ability to follow Bodie’s development, even as he is denied the sort of progress he desires, show creator David Simon gives us a character who feels true to life while still being dramatically compelling, engaging in a tradition of narrative sociology best exemplified by W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.
Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk claims that the singular problem at the heart of America’s struggles is the problem of the “color line,” the division between the races that shapes the world of everyone on either side.
Though Du Bois could see the white world, he quickly came to realize that he was excluded from the opportunities therein – “shut out by a vast veil” and kept separate.
Unfortunately, it takes Bodie much longer to learn this lesson. As his questions during D’Angelo’s chess lesson make clear, he does not understand the limits placed on his potential by being black and poor; he thinks he can advance past the role of pawn.
Tragically, his entire character arc is rooted in this lack of understanding.
Only in his last appearance, a candid conversation with McNulty during the fourth season finale, is Bodie able to comprehend the pitiable narrative of his life, his opportunities, and his wasted potential.
He realizes that every risk he has undertaken, every beating he has endured from the police, has been for someone else’s benefit; it might have been for Avon Barksdale’s, or Stringer Bell’s, or Proposition Joe’s, or Marlo Stanfield’s, but it was never for Bodie’s. He trusted these people, put his faith in them for his protection and his means of living, but they never saw him as anything but expendable.
Bodie’s experience of his life is, of course, terribly real for him; and yet it’s so insignificant to those operating in a position of power above him, those who dictate his circumstances and thus his life.
This dichotomy, Du Bois claims, is the essential characteristic of the African-American experience:
”It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
The “twoness” Du Bois describes is present almost immediately in the lives of Bodie and his peers. By the age of thirteen, every one of these children will have had to face the choice between staying in school in the hopes of bettering themselves eventually or beginning to work in the drug trade, to follow what Du Bois calls a “Gospel of Work and Money” that blinds black folk to anything beyond the immediate present.
In a chapter called “Of the Meaning of Progress,” Du Bois tells a story about his search for a teaching position after graduating college. Finding one, he meets a woman named Josie. Du Bois admires her, describing her as “the center of the family” and as having “about her a certain fineness, the shadow of an unconscious moral heroism that would willingly give all of her life to make life broader, deeper, and fuller for her and hers.”
Du Bois eventually leaves and is away for ten years. When he returns he finds nothing but sorrow. Josie had been eager to learn, but life had demanded she put aside schooling to farm. One by one her family members departed, some to prison, some to the city, but Josie remained to work and provide for her aging parents:
“Josie shivered and worked on, with the vision of schooldays all fled, with a face wan and tired, – worked until, on a summer’s day, some one married another; then Josie crept to her mother like a hurt child, and slept – and sleeps.”
Josie dies within the veil, having seen that the only possibility for crossing the color line lay in education, tragically diverted from it by a lifetime of labor.
Bodie, on the other hand, lives deep within the veil, unaware of its limiting effects until he dies as well; not in a farmhouse but on a street corner, having spent too much time outside selling drugs himself – a victim of exposure.
Crucially, the emotional impact of these characters’ fates is far greater in tragedy than it would be in a manufactured happy ending. By ending Bodie’s story as tragically as he does, Simon ensures that the incident remains in his viewers’ consciousness, rattling around and begging to have sense made of it, inviting us to find the connections that make these events comprehensible, if not tolerable.
This is television operating at its highest level; where plot, character, and theme are working hand in hand to engage us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Showrunners are rarely able to tell their stories like Du Bois – directly but poetically, forcefully but compassionately.
For just like Bodie’s death, the end of Josie’s chapter is a haunting send-off to an unforgettable experience:
“My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. How shall man measure Progress there where dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure, – is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?”
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