"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, one of the most prophetic and influential works in American literature. First published in 1903, this eloquent collection of essays exposed the magnitude of racism in our society. The book endures today as a classic document of American social and political history: a manifesto that has influenced generations with its transcendent vision of change.
John Edgar Wideman observed: "Like Freud's excavations of the unconscious, Einstein's revelations of the physical universe, Marx's exploration of the economic foundations of social organization, Du Bois's insights have profoundly altered the way we look at ourselves."
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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) is the greatest of African American intellectuals--a sociologist, historian, novelist, and activist whose astounding career spanned the nation's history from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin, Du Bois penned his epochal masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk
, in 1903. It remains his most studied and popular work; its insights into Negro life at the turn of the 20th century still ring true.
With a dash of the Victorian and Enlightenment influences that peppered his impassioned yet formal prose, the book's largely autobiographical chapters take the reader through the momentous and moody maze of Afro-American life after the Emancipation Proclamation: from poverty, the neoslavery of the sharecropper, illiteracy, miseducation, and lynching, to the heights of humanity reached by the spiritual "sorrow songs" that birthed gospel and the blues. The most memorable passages are contained in "On Booker T. Washington and Others," where Du Bois criticizes his famous contemporary's rejection of higher education and accommodationist stance toward white racism: "Mr. Washington's programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races," he writes, further complaining that Washington's thinking "withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens." The capstone of The Souls of Black Folk, though, is Du Bois' haunting, eloquent description of the concept of the black psyche's "double consciousness," which he described as "a peculiar sensation.... One ever feels this 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." Thanks to W.E.B. Du Bois' commitment and foresight--and the intellectual excellence expressed in this timeless literary gem--black Americans can today look in the mirror and rejoice in their beautiful black, brown, and beige reflections. --Eugene Holley Jr.