W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, a fundamental American work of both sociology and literature, remains relevant, influential, and uncomfortably alive 114 years after its first publication in 1903. My first exposure to the book, however, has been this new edition from Restless Books. As a well-read, liberal-arts-educated white Jewish American, I finished its final chapter feeling my own soul had been expanded, my perspective widened, my mind enlightened and even amazed.
When I was in school in the 1970s and ’80s, the avatar of African-American literature was Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, the only book about the black American experience I remember ever being assigned to read aside from the much older Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
On the nonfiction side, the only African-American book I recall commonly being read by the general population of students – including the black students, if memory serves – was The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
As for Du Bois, although his long life lasted until 1963, the year I was born, he was presented to us as a historical figure in the cause of Civil Rights, rather than a writer whose work might actually be profitably read.
All these years later I’ve discovered that The Souls of Black Folk is a remarkable book of multiple dimensions, a literary masterpiece of commentary and sociology. In style it reflects its author’s classical education, but in other ways it is sui generis, and its importance can scarcely be overestimated. Vann R. Newkirk II writes in his new introduction that it is “the work that has most influenced” his own career:
Through his combination of reporting, commentary, cultural analysis, and history, I realized that my own intellectual development needed not be limited by genre or discipline.
Newkirk traces the book’s echoes in the writings of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reflecting on my own reading of Coates over the past few years, I now see a literary kinship between the old socialist and the modern-day advocate for reparations. Newkirk writes that Coates’s Between the World and Me “replays some of the fire and anguish of [Du Bois’s] musings about his own child and the veil.”
The veil. That’s Du Bois’s metaphor for the divide between black and white America, a reality that persists in today’s not-so-United States, as the metaphor persists through the 13 essays and one short story that comprise the book.
So much in The Souls of Black Folk resonates today. In the chapter “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece” Du Bois traces a breakdown in black family life to the time when slaveowners could and did separate black families at will: “The plague-spot in sexual relations is easy marriage and easy separation. This is no sudden development, nor the fruit of Emancipation. It is the plain heritage from slavery.”
African-Americans have endured political disenfranchisement since the collapse of Reconstruction. It continues to flower today, particularly under Republican state governments, much as it did at the turn of the 20th century, when Du Bois wrote of Southern blacks, in the chapter “Of the Sons of Master and Man,” that
the object of the disfranchising laws is the elimination of the black man from politics…Can we establish a mass of black laborers and artisans and landholders in the South who, by law and public opinion, have absolutely no voice in shaping the laws under which they live and work?…Daily the Negro is coming to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression.
As for law and justice, the police-state conditions under which many black citizens live in today’s cities and suburbs descend from “the police system of the South [which] was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals.” On crime, Du Bois writes in the same essay, “What in the name of reason does this nation expect of a people, poorly trained and hard pressed in severe economic competition, without political rights, and with ludicrously inadequate common-school facilities…but crime and listlessness[?]”
Du Bois also describes a Southern economic system that trapped postwar blacks, tenant farmers and landowners alike, in a cycle of debt that we recognize echoing through the 20th century and beyond in urban redlining policies and the extreme imbalance between white and black families’ wealth. He discusses education efforts during Reconstruction and the establishment of historically black colleges and universities, including what was then Atlanta University, where Du Bois taught for many years.
One issue Du Bois wrestled with that does seem at first blush outdated is his conflict with Booker T. Washington’s willingness to accept “the old attitude of adjustment and submission” as reflected in Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech: “In all things purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Washington was willing to abjure “the agitation of questions of social equality,” advocating “severe and constant struggle rather than…artificial forcing.”
Few today, at least among those with open eyes, would suggest that merely buckling down and putting one’s nose to the grindstone will eventually lead to equality and justice in any stratum of life, let along the racial. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement proves that social-justice tactics and approaches remain matters for debate.
I’ll quote just one further passage, to illustrate the beauty of Du Bois’s prose. It comes from the essay “Of Alexander Crummell,” about a 19th-century Civil Rights pioneer who defied racism to become an Episcopalian minister and advocate for education for blacks and emigration to Liberia. Du Bois focuses on Crummell as a boy, placed in an otherwise all-white school:
So in that little Oneida school there came to those schoolboys a revelation of thought and longing beneath one black skin, of which they had not dreamed before. And to the lonely boy came a new dawn of sympathy and inspiration. The shadowy, formless thing – the temptation of Hate, that hovered between him and the world – grew fainter and less sinister. It did not wholly fade away, but diffused itself and lingered thick at the edges. Through it the child now first saw the blue and gold of life, – the sun-swept road that ran ‘twixt heaven and earth until in one far-off wan wavering line they met and kissed. A vision of life came to the growing boy, – mystic, wonderful. He raised his head, stretched himself, breathed deep of the fresh new air. Yonder, behind the forests, he heard strange sounds; then glinting through the trees he saw, far, far away, the bronzed hosts of a nation calling, – calling faintly, calling loudly. He heard the hateful clank of their chains; he felt them cringe and grovel, and there rose within him a protest and a prophecy. And he girded himself to walk down the world.
Dead for over half a century now, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois still walks down the world through his thought and his prose. The new, well-produced, relatively inexpensive trade paperback edition from Restless Books offers an excellent opportunity to broaden our perspective on questions of race in America by increasing our understanding of racism’s history and sociology, enlightened by one of the country’s most creative minds.
There’s creativity beyond Du Bois here too, with illustrations that are alone almost worth the price of the book. A series of linoleum block prints by Steve Prince illustrates the book’s history and themes with swirling scenes of struggle and defiance, portraits, and iconography.
The book also includes a chronology of important events in Civil Rights history, from the Underground Railroad of the 1850s to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.