"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Thus speaks W.E.B. Du Bois in "The Souls Of Black Folk," one of the most prophetic and influental works in American literature. In this eloquent collection of essays, first published in 1903, Du Bois dares as no one has before to describe the magnitude of American racism and demand an end to it. He draws on his own life for illustration, from his early experiences teaching in the hills of Tennessee to the death of his infant son and his historic break with the conciliatory position of Booker T. Washington. Far ahead of its time, "The Souls Of Black Folk" both anticipated and inspired much of the black conciousness and activism of the 1960's and is a classic in the literature of civil rights. The elegance of DuBois's prose and the passion of his message are as crucial today as they were upon the book's first publication.
Washington's approach was pragmatic. African-Americans should stop lobbying for political rights. (Perhaps he felt it would incite too much backlash?) They should not dream of going to college, but of attending technical schools and going into the trades. Black America will succeed by putting their heads down and working hard for economic prosperity, with healthy doses of thrift and sacrifice.
DuBois' response was that a culture needs more than bread to live on. African-Americans needed to gain the ability to think about the world they live in, to articulate their experience and what they have to offer to our country. This could only come about through liberal education, not trade school alone. DuBois points out that the teachers at Washington's trade schools were not trained at trade schools, but at black colleges. These colleges also produced needed moral, spiritual, and intellectual leaders of the black community: professors, preachers, doctors, and other professionals.
Besides, Du Bois points out, Washington's ethic of "buckle down, work hard" doesn't even work. Du Bois documents the very real economic plight of the supposedly freed men and women. Though they are legally free, they are trapped in a cycle of indebted tenant farming. The few who, through ingenuity and the luck of a few good harvests, save up the money to buy their own land, are often cheated by whites who take their money and run. This and other structural inequalities, such as poor education funding and unstable families due to the heritage of slavery, expose Washington's philosophy for the canard it is - so says Du Bois. This book has made me curious to read Washington and hear his side of the story.
Formerly, said Du Bois, the 'best' blacks (the house slaves) and the 'best' whites were intimate, living together and having bonds of quasi-family ties; now they are segregated. How then can we understand one another? What's so sad is that most of this book can still apply today. In some ways, not much has changed for African-Americans living with the legacy of slavery and subsequent political and economic disenfranchisement. As a historical work, Du Bois' book is important to read 113 years later; his bristling literary style, full of high-brow literary allusions, only adds pleasure.
The collection of essays opens with a prototypical call-to-arms for the black race, the kind of rhetoric that feels somewhat stilted and doesn't quite resonate all that clearly. Quickly, however, Du Bois switches gears, writing the second essay in a far more conversational style that feels far more like a fiction than a history. The same goes for his visual trip through the "Black Belt," a stunning prose piece that focuses so well on details that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it's sociology and not purely aesthetic literature.
In fact, what I felt was the most troubling part of this work was that the passages that felt most literary -- the short, stunning essay about the death of his firstborn child, for instance, which was touching and beautiful -- had far greater impact than the pieces that were more strictly argued. Which is not to say that his arguments are invalid or poorly constructed. They're just not as compelling as his more lyrical passages.
It is this skill and beauty that elevates this work beyond mere rhetoric, that turns it into something more than a call to arms or a mere collection of black "sorrow songs". For those with the patience and interest in this, you will be rewarded with a surprisingly beautiful work.
He is kinder than I would be to the idiotic white people of the south.
W. E. B. Du Bois first came under the spotlight by opposing Booker T. Washington, a prominent member of the African-American community who emphasized the importance of accommodating the policies of race separation prevalent in a Jim Crow society.
Du Bois believed that in order to attain suffrage, political representation, and civil rights, American society had to acknowledge the wrongs done to African-Americans and strive to integrate them fully into U.S. society. His book documented the conditions of post-slavery America while simultaneously arguing for improvements in the unequal black and white communities.
Du Bois was an impassioned advocate for higher education. While Washington focused on educating blacks for the trades and manual labor, Du Bois insisted that blacks should have access to intellectual education rivaling that available to whites. As Manning Marable states in Living Black History,
“Few books make history, and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century.” (96)
However, more than simply a revealing microcosm of post–Civil War and Jim Crow society, The Souls of Black Folk offer brilliant glimpses into mankind as a whole, regardless of color. Du Bois discusses religion, politics, history, education, money, morality, music, and mortality. His chapter on death of his young son, his first child, is some of the most impressive, tender, and passionate prose I have ever read.
It is easy—at least, it was for me—to pigeonhole Du Bois as a figure who did much for his race in the Jim Crow era, but whose work is outdated and useful only as a historical account. However, this view does Du Bois, and yourself for that matter, a disservice. I found his insight profound and his opinions valuable even after more than a century, and I learned a lot about the nature of people.
The salience of The Souls of Black Folk attests to Du Bois’s insistence on the importance of an intellectual tradition, both among black thinkers and, on a grander scale, in the then-emerging field of sociology.
Though at times the book seems to be a rather disparate collection of essays loosely centered on African-American (and cultural) identity, that connection serves, in fact,. to emphasize that topic’s importance by displaying the ways in which racism was affecting all areas of African-American life.
I have one piece of advice for enjoying this book: I listened to it on audiobook, and I’ve discovered that I tend to pay better attention to stories than intellectual discourse in audiobook format. If you’re anything like me, you may want to read a paperback or e-book. You’ll want to highlight dozens of passages anyway!
My professor at the University of Texas at Austin told me to read this after discussion of Booker T Washington's book, Up From Slavery. He said this gave a more accurate picture of the time. It was very eye-opening for me since I never studied this literature in my high school or college courses. As an education historian I used this book to make many connections about how African Americans were unfairly treated during the Reconstruction Era and beyond leading to current achievement gaps. It was a very dense book and took a lot of time to get through the content. My copy is full of highlighting, notes, and underlined pieces. I'm a better person for having read it!
What I can appreciate most is that the book is as much a guide on credit, debt, personal financial loss and charity, as it is on social and political science.
Shortly after the war the freedmen contributed $750,000 to their educational betterment, purchased land, started various business enterprises, and saved with Freedmen's Bureau Bank. This showed incredible thrift on their part, a kind of thrift that can be admired even today.
The Souls of Black Folk was required reading for me this year - although the class only dealt with five or so chapters, I was so intrigued by what I was reading that I had to finish the entire book.
Each essay provided plenty of food for thought - but most interesting to me was the essay on the education of former slaves - what was appropriate and what was not. This is a part of history that really hasn't been part of my education, and not only did I find it enlightening, historically speaking, I also found it to be relevant today - for all types.
With our focus on getting straight into college after high school (and my experience with some siblings that just doesn't work for), I think what Du Bois has to say is incredibly insightful. Not every person is cut out for a life of academia after high school, and specialized training is there for a reason. As I attend school, and each semester say goodbye to more and more friends who just, for whatever reason, are not coming back, I find myself thinking more about the ideas that Du Bois so eloquently writes down.
I recommend this reading. I think everyone should read it - and I challenge you to do so.
The Souls of Black Folk, of course, is didactic. It’s also a polemic, for DuBois’s stated aims are to both instruct and convince his audience. Many indications in his prose suggest that he conceived his audience to be “the best kind” of white people, and more Northern, I think, than Southern. I don’t think his arguments are directed toward “the best kind” of Negro. I use these terms because they are his, and because this sorting of people, both black and white, into categories of “best” and “worst,” is one of the things that most irritates me about DuBois’s thinking. He touts The Talented Tenth (although he may not have coined this phrase, it became intimately associated with his ideas) as worthy candidates for a classical liberal education and as the source of leadership for “their race.” He admits the need for a sort of benevolent guardianship (by the Talented Tenth and enlightened whites) over the masses of unschooled and largely impoverished black folks in the South. He says, “the paths of peace winding between honest toil and dignified manhood call for the guidance of skilled thinkers, the loving, reverent comradeship between the black lowly and the black men emancipated by training and culture.”
Besides the Talented Tenth, two other concepts are integral to Du Bois’s thinking, that of The Veil, which is both a physical and social demarcation of difference, and double-consciousness, defined as “a peculiar sensation, . . . this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others . . . . one ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro.”
Although he argues against Booker T. Washington’s preaching of abandonment of political and social goals in order to focus solely on material gains for blacks, Du Bois himself proposes that blacks not fit to benefit from the education he proposes for The Talented Tenth should indeed settle for training in a trade and much more limited aspirations.(Apparently, Du Bois modified these views somewhat later in his life.) On the other hand, Du Bois is often forceful in his defense of equal rights for all blacks, for example, when he states, “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”
Although many of the social conditions that Du Bois references have been ameliorated over time, some of his observations sound uncomfortably current today, such as the following: “the white folk say it [the county prison:] is ever full of black criminals,--the black folks say that only colored boys are ever sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor.”
Mirron Willis's narration may have played a role in my feelings for the book, as his deep slow voice was soporific. I had to speed up the narration to 2x to get what felt like normal speed to me.
in the United States of America. It will inspire action to change our professed Democracy! Even more after the horror of January 6, 2021.
The collection would have rated 5 stars if Du Bois had not revealed his own racial prejudice by repeatedly singling out "Russian Jews"
and their behavior from the rest of "Whites."
This book is nonfiction, was received as part of the summer free audio books for young people. The author made significant contribution to rights of blacks and Asians in both the US and in other colonies. This is an essay that spells out what he thinks is needed to advance African Americans. I rate it 4 (nonfiction)
DuBois is a masterful author. In this book he does everything from defending the Freedmen's Bureau to describing the plight of black people in a particular county in Georgia. He speaks of his own experiences as a college student, as a teacher, and of the loss of his own child to illness. He preserves the tunes of many a song and ends his book with a chapter on such songs.
Above all things DuBois proves prophetic, declaring that the 20th century would be overshadowed by the "Negro problem" and perceiving that Reconstruction would be looked upon poorly for many generations and could only be seen in a more positive light once black America was re-enfranchised. He provides an important perspective, writing just as a new and quite powerful wave of resentment overcame the South in the form of the Jim Crow laws and even greater restrictions than before, standing a generation removed from slavery and yet with the stories of slaves still ringing in their ears, looking forward to struggle which would take the better part of the century...and after more than a century has still not come to a complete end.
Over 100 years later the book remains compelling and a valuable read for any who would still wish to explore the "souls of black folk."
Du Bois wrote 10 essays the bring to light the reality of black society primarily in the deep South at the turn of the 20th century. His revelation of "double consciousness" still rings true today.
"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 History of the American Negro is the history of this strive-this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."