A Timeless Legacy: Celebrating 100 Years of W.E.B. Du Bois' the Souls of Black Folk. (A Salute to Black History Month)
Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education
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 straggling 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."
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 preeminent "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."
Du Bois' was a voice that, for the times, was dating 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."
In Celebration Of the 100th Anniversary
The Souls Of Black Folk
* Cleveland State University, in partnership with 12 community organizations, presents "The Soul of W.E.B. Du Bois: Celebrating the Genius of an American Scholar," a three-month citywide celebration of the famous civil rights activist and writer. The celebration kicks off during Black History Month in February and ends in early May. Celebration includes book discussions, a world premiers play, lectures and other free public events. For a complete calendar of events, please visit
* North Carolina Central University's Department of English (Durham), in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of The Souls of Black Folk, will host a university speech contest for undergraduate students in February. Cash prizes to be awarded. Each contestant must submit a 6 to 8 minute speech on the following:
* "100 Years Since The Souls of Black Folk: Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Going?";
* "The Souls of Black Folk: Bridges Over Which We Have Crossed; Shoulders on Which We Stand";
* "The Souls of Black Folk: 100 Years of Amazing Grace and Amazing Gifts."
* Berklee College of Music (Boston) this month presents a lecture by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Encarta Africana: "W.E.B. Du Bois to John Coltrane."
* The Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Blacksburg) will host several discussions, facilitated by faculty and student leaders, on The Souls of Black Folk during the month of February. In addition, during Poetry Slam! Open mic night, participants will read poetry related to the theme "The Souls of Black Folk: Centennial Reflections."
* The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Afro-American Studies, in conjunction with the university's Center for the Humanities, presents the scholarly symposium "The Souls of Black Folk: 100 Years Later" April 7-13. Numerous public events, lectures and performances are scheduled. Speakers include Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Mary Frances Berry, along with a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. For the schedule of events, visit
* Morgan State University hosted a symposium "The Dawn of Freedom: The Legacy of The Souls of Black Folk" in February.
* Johns Hopkins University's Black Faculty and Staff Association and the Black Student Union co-sponsored a discussion of The Souls of Black Folk in February, moderated by Dr. Nahum Chandler, Du Bois scholar in the university's Humanities Center.
* Please note this is not meant to be an exhaustive listing of events.
RELATED ARTICLE: W.E.B. DuBois: a towering intellectual.
"Well, you can say Marx, and then you can say Freud, but then you'd better say Du Bois really quickly in the triumvirate of seminal minds," says John Edgar Wideman, novelist, essayist and distinguished professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Dr. David Levering Lewis, the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of history at Rutgers University, agrees. "Today, it's considered sufficient for a person to have one good idea to be called a genius. Du Bois had many."
His first major idea was contained in The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, which Lewis calls "an extraordinary doctoral dissertation ... It ended by saying that slavery was the result of the Founding Fathers blinking and was the first in the Harvard Historical Studies series. I'll never know how he got away with making those moral judgments at the end. Objectivity was a god at that time; men of science were to be passionless."
Next came The Philadelphia Negro, which Dr. Joe Feagin, graduate research professor of sociology at the University of Florida and a past president of the American Sociological Association, says virtually invented urban sociology. "It was the first urban field study by an American sociologist," he explains.
"Du Bois famously went out and knocked on 7,000 doors," Lewis adds. "Just imagine opening your door to this man with a handlebar moustache and a cane who then proceeds to ask a set of very personal questions. Why he wasn't hit over the head is astonishing."
Then there was The Souls of Black Folk--"an electrifying book," according to Lewis. "Nothing like it had been written before."
Black Reconstruction followed, a book that singlehandedly overturned an entire school of historiography, the Dunning School, which posited a "prostrate South" raped and pillaged by corrupt and incapable Negro politicians during Reconstruction.
In the midst of all these scholarly projects, Du Bois founded "the most robust journal of public opinion in the country, The Crisis," notes Lewis. At its peak, The Crisis had a circulation of 100,000--higher than The New Republic and competitive with The Nation.
And then there were the areas that were not central to Du Bois' concerns but where he made important contributions. The word Feagin uses frequently to describe Du Bois is "prescient."
"The Souls of White Folk" from Darkwater anticipates the entire field of Whiteness studies, Feagin says, though it's almost never cited--while "The Damnation of Women" from the same volume, notes Dr. Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science and history at Columbia University, is a radical call for the political, intellectual and economic emancipation of women.
However, as Dr. Nellie McKay, the Evejue-Bascom professor of American and African American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out, Du Bois was never able to implement his radical principles in his dealings with the women in his own life: his first wife, Nina, who suffered from his serial affairs; his daughter, Yolande, of whom he was alternately demanding and neglectful; and strong-minded women such as the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, with whom his clashes were legendary, and others.
But as Du Bois said of his sometime-nemesis, Booker T. Washington, "Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give them force." For Du Bois, a man of capacious and even voracious intellect, all relationships in the personal realm suffered.
"People basically couldn't stand him--but that didn't alter the fact that he was still the towering intellectual on the American continent," Marable says.
Throughout the course of his long and extraordinarily varied life, "the Doctor," as he was not always affectionately known, showed a real genius for making enemies. Indeed, Du Bols joked in his autobiography that he would have been sincerely mourned had he died at age 50, but "at seventy-five, my death was practically requested."
His death, when it came, was quite dramatic. "He knew how to make an exit," Marable says. The report of his death came during the 1963 March on Washington--moments before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium. As NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins asked for a moment of silence, one aged Black woman in the crowd is said to have wept: "It's like Moses. God had written that he should never enter the promised land." The words were to prove prophetic.
"Great leaders see things further than others and desire things more greatly. Great scholars like Marx, Freud, Du Bois, Einstein see further than other people, see the deeper patterns of history," Marable says.
Du Bois was, in effect, "trapped by history," Marable explains. He was a great forerunner and visionary who was also blunt, curt, apolitical and, most of the time, abominably rude. He battled Washington and the Tuskegee Machine --though the dimensions of that conflict have been overdrawn in many accounts, note Lewis and Marable--he feuded with Oswald Villard and Walter White over leadership of the NAACP, and took on Marcus Garvey. A grudge match with the U.S. government eventually led to his seeking expatriate status in Ghana.
Feagin is deeply chafed by the fact that "no major American university ever offered Du Bois a position. People knew he was a giant. Any dummy did by 1915. And with Black Reconstruction in the '30s, everybody knew," Feagin says. But Du Bois remained marooned in Black colleges with their comparatively heavy teaching loads, low salaries and poor libraries.
"His counterparts at Harvard--and who's heard of them today--would quibble and gripe, `The citations aren't as precise as they should be. There aren't any original sources.' How racist can you get!" Feagin exclaims.
"The man is producing path-breaking book after path-breaking book without research assistants, without libraries, without big grants--the entire apparatus that any White scholar would have had available any day of the week. And the work is still fresh. There's probably no scholar of his generation who's less dated in terms of his arguments."
Marable recalls asking Dr. Herbert Aptheker--the prolific race scholar and literary executor of Du Bois' papers--how he would sum up Du Bois as a man and a thinker. "He looked at me with surprise. He said, `Manning! He was an artist.'"
Feagin agrees: "If Du Bois were alive today, he'd open up another book. It would probably begin, `The problem of the 21st century ...'"
--By Kendra Hamilton…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: A Timeless Legacy: Celebrating 100 Years of W.E.B. Du Bois' the Souls of Black Folk. (A Salute to Black History Month). Contributors: Hamilton, Kendra - Author. Magazine title: Black Issues in Higher Education. Volume: 19. Issue: 26 Publication date: February 13, 2003. Page number: 24+. © 1999 Cox, Matthews & Associates. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.