One of the most influential books ever published in America, W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk is an eloquent collection of fourteen essays that describe the life, the ambitions, the struggles, and the passions of African Americans at the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.
The first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, novelist, and activist whose astounding career spanned the nation’s history from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement. In The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, Du Bois argued against the conciliatory position taken by Booker T. Washington, at the time the most influential black leader in America, and called for a more radical form of aggressive protesta strategy that would anticipate and inspire much of the activism of the 1960s.
Du Bois’s essays were the first to articulate many of Black America’s thoughts and feelings, including the dilemma posed by the black psyche’s double consciousness,” which Du Bois described as this twonessan American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings . . . in one dark body.” Every essay in The Souls of Black Folk is a jewel of intellectual prowess, eloquent language, and groundbreaking insight. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the struggle for Civil Rights in America.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York City.
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.