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A Timeless Legacy
Celebrating 100 years of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk

Here’s a little known fact worth savoring on the centennial of the publication of The Souls of Black Folk: Its author, the restlessly brilliant and relentlessly controversial Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, was at Tuskegee University when the book published, says Dr. Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science and history and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University.

Those who haven’t read The Souls in a while may not immediately appreciate the richness of the irony. But Du Bois’ slender book of essays and fiction also contained a withering — and nearly unprecedented — critique of Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington’s strategy of racial accommodation, a critique that had to have resounded on campus like a thunderclap. In short, Du Bois had made himself “a pariah,” Marable says.

For many years after his death, Du Bois seemed exiled to the wilderness, his place in the African American imagination by agitation over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, Black Power and much more, convulsed the nation in the ’60s and ’70s, seemed distinctly marginal. But it’s clear today, 40 years after the “old man’s” death, 100 years since The Souls of Black Folk forked like lightning across the nation’s dark racial skies, that W.E.B. Du Bois and his seminal volume of essays represent a timeless legacy.

Encountering ‘The Doctor’

Du Bois is the touchstone for African American scholars seeking a Ph.D. or struggling to establish themselves in their various fields. This is true almost regardless of generation, but for senior scholars there is what can only be described as a very special relationship.

Everyone has a story about the first time they encountered “the Doctor.”

Dr. David Levering Lewis, the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of history at Rutgers University, actually met Du Bois as a child. He had accompanied his father to the annual meeting of Sigma Pi Phi, also known as the Boulé, at Wilberforce University. His father introduced him to Du Bois, and Lewis says he has “the dimmest recollection” of Du Bois asking him what he would be when he grew up.

“Well, who knows what a 12-year-old would have said. Certainly, I had no idea that I’d spend so many years of my life writing about Du Bois,” says Lewis, author of the Pulitzer-winning biographies W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (1993) and W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (2000).

Dr. Joe Feagin, graduate research professor of sociology at the University of Florida, recalls hearing of Du Bois’ death during coverage of the March in Washington. ” ‘The old man is dead,’ they said,” Feagin recalls, adding that that year was “the year of my liberation from racist thought. I was a student at Harvard, and my views were changing from those of conventional Southerner”— a process which his later readings in Du Bois was to greatly facilitate, Feagin says.

But for Dr. Nellie McKay, the Evejue-Bascom professor of American and African American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her first encounter came through The Souls of Black Folk.

The year was 1969, McKay’s first year in graduate school at Harvard, and she and a fellow student were lamenting the dearth of African American authors on their reading lists. Learning she had never read Du Bois, the young man went out of his way to get her a copy of The Souls.

” ‘Now you read that,’ he told me,” McKay recalls. And over Thanksgiving break, she did just that: “I picked the book up, and I could not put it down.”

The Souls

Ask any scholar the significance of The Souls of Black Folk, and you’ll hear words such as “iconic” and “canonical.” It’s become a standard for African American and American literature, history and sociology classes.

“The book is central to the core of intellectual inquiry in the United States,” Marable says.

“Everything in the book is prophetic,” Feagin adds.

The Souls of Black Folk has lost none of its intellectual or emotional power since the day of its publication. But while the book’s significance grows perhaps easier to grasp as the years pass, what’s difficult for us to conceive, from the distance of so many years, is the courage it took Du Bois to write it.

Remember, the year was 1903. The 1890s had been a decade of devastation for African Americans, who saw all the promises of emancipation turn to dust before their eyes. The 1890s saw the institutionalization of Jim Crow, the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, assaults on hard-won voting rights for Blacks and a veritable orgy of lynchings. The problem wasn’t just racial profiling; someone appeared to have declared open season on Black America. Indeed, the diminutive Du Bois — who had seen the charred knucklebones of lynching victim Sam Hose displayed in an Atlanta shop window in 1899 — carried a derringer on his person and vowed he would use it to defend himself, Marable says.

In 1895, at the height of the killings, the great race leader of the time, Booker T. Washington, struck a Faustian bargain with White America: “In all things purely social, we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet as one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” he had proclaimed at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition.

In other words, the Negro would accept Jim Crow, even forgo the ballot box, if left alone and allowed to prosper economically. The promise, delivered in the year of Frederick Douglass’ death, cemented Washington’s stature as the nation’s pre-eminent “race leader.” Washington’s follow-up was Up From Slavery, in which he offered a sentimental — and to many, offensive — portrait of slavery and its great “civilizing” effect upon the African heathen.

And then came the voice of Du Bois — impassioned and uncompromising — and articulating the following three key concepts for understanding the African American experience in the United States.

Double Consciousness: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused pity and contempt. 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.”

In these rolling, magisterial phrases, drawing their cadences from Shakespeare and the Bible, Du Bois sets forth the central paradox of African American identity in the opening essay of the volume, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.”

It’s a powerful metaphor that has resonated powerfully among intellectuals — particularly for those in literary and cultural studies.

“His thinking opens the way for theorizing the cultural relevance of groups, and as such is a forerunner of feminism and all the other ethnic and national and gay and Black group studies,” says John Edgar Wideman, novelist, essayist and distinguished professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

The concept is even foundational, Feagin says, for what’s come to be called “Whiteness” studies — that sometimes problematic critique of the “intrinsically unitary” nature of White consciousness.

“Du Bois talks about the relevance of cultures, their correspondences and conflicts, whether ‘civilization’ can deal with difference. He teaches us in the ethical and moral realm how to think about these matters. And I think that’s just as important a contribution as relativity in physics or the idea of economics as something that organizes human behavior,” Wideman adds.

The Color Line: If “double consciousness” has come to be central for American and African American literature, the phrase that most resonates in the social sciences is from the second essay, “Of the Dawn of Freedom”: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”

“The fundamental conflict between Asia, Africa, Latin America and what he calls the ‘islands of the sea’ and the advanced industrial societies and their imposition of colonialism and racial apartheid,” is articulated here, Marable says. And what’s particularly prophetic about Du Bois’ analysis of the issues involved is that he sets them not in a Black-White-U.S. paradigm, but in a global one.

To frame matters in contemporary parlance, Marable explains, “The problem of the 21st century is global apartheid: the conflict between predatory global states and the underdeveloped world; the fact that the 100 wealthiest people on this planet have a greater net wealth than the bottom 2.5 billion people — half the world’s population.

“That’s a contradiction that Du Bois would today absolutely be interrogating with his international, pan-African vision,” Marable says.

The Talented Tenth: One doesn’t hear much about “the talented tenth” today. The notion smacks of a hopelessly dated emancipation day tea with the Links elitism that was thoroughly discredited by the “power to the people” rhetoric of the 1960s.

Following is what Du Bois wrote in “Of the Training of Black Men”: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in golden halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension…”

What Du Bois is, in fact, advocating is higher education and culture for African Americans — an elite of culture and education to lead the illiterate and barely literate millions of 1903.

“So many people have gotten hung up on the concept of the ‘talented tenth,’ Lewis says. “That concept is central, but it does not and did not mean rule by an elite. Du Bois was talking about the responsibilities of leadership, the duties that must be embraced by people who have advantages.”

That’s a concept that has great relevance today, Marable says. “There’s a real crisis today in terms of the need for a committed intellectual leadership.”

Adding that there’s a chapter in his newly released book, The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life, entitled “The Death of the Talented Tenth,” Marable adds, “The Black elite in this nation has disavowed its link to the Black working class. Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice do not emerge from a vacuum.”

Fearless Audacity

Du Bois’ was a voice that, for the times, was daring to the point of audacity. His challenge to Booker T. Washington was virtually without precedent: “In the history of nearly all other races and people the doctrine preached… has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing,” he wrote.

He called the South “an armed camp for intimidating Black men.” He charged that racism and lynchings were not regional issues but national ones, requiring national attention and solutions. And he said these things, and more, in a manner that had never been seen. Mingling historical, political and sociological essay with fiction, poetry and even song, he marshaled fact and emotion in so masterful a fashion as to create a message that could not be ignored.

Henry James, one of the most respected living novelists of the time, called it “the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction [seen] for many a year.” James Weldon Johnson held it to be the most important book written since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

And the book has withstood the test of time.

Wideman, who wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition of The Souls of Black Folk, says it is a book he returns to again and again, one that “only gets more interesting” every time.

For writers, Wideman says, “It opens the way for experimentation, for freedom, for figuring out that, when you have something to say, you can use all the resources available to you — of language, of style, of discipline — in order to say it.”

“It’s become an iconic document in the way the Gettysburg Address is an iconic document or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech or the best prose in the Declaration of Independence,” Lewis says. “Now and then someone comes along with a vision that alters the highest conception we hold of what a people can be. Those works have eternal validity, and The Souls of Black Folk is one of those works.”

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