A Timeless Legacy: Celebrating 100 Years of W.E.B. Du Bois' the Souls of Black Folk

Article excerpt

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 Boule, 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. …