First published in 1903, this extraordinary work not only recorded and explained history—it helped alter its course. Written after Du Bois had earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and studied in Berlin, these fourteen essays contain both the academic language of sociology and the rich lyricism of African spirituals, which Du Bois called “sorrow songs.”
Often revealingly autobiographical, Du Bois explores topics as diverse as the death of his infant son and the politics of Booker T. Washington. In every essay, he shows the consequences of both a political color line and an internal one, as he grapples with the contradictions of being black and being American. What emerges is a manifesto calling for a new class of African-American intellectuals and a transcendent program for change. One of our country’s most influential books, The Souls of Black Folk reflects the mind of a visionary who inspired generations of readers to remember the past, question the status quo, and fight for a just tomorrow.
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.