The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader

By Rowden, Terry | MELUS, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader


Rowden, Terry, MELUS


The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 680 pages. $26.95 paper.

If the quality of a reader or anthology can be determined largely by how teachable it makes the subject that it documents and how accurately it outlines the parameters of that subject, The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader, edited by Eric Sundquist, is exemplary. Despite his almost unchallenged prominence as the intellectual patriarch of African American cultural and literary history and his self-conscious desire to "write the history of African American culture," Du Bois has always been a somewhat difficult figure to integrate into literature and cultural studies courses. Much of this difficulty has stemmed from the sheer range of his accomplishments and interests. As Sundquist points out, "Du Bois wrote alternately and equally well as a sociologist, an economist, a political scientist, an educator, an artist, and a civil rights advocate, and more often than not, several of these intellectual roles were combined in any given speech or essay."

The generic singularity of Du Bois's two major "literary" works, The Souls of Black Folk, often considered the ur-text of African American literary modernity, and the brilliant and under-appreciated Darkwater, a text that Sundquist accurately sees as "anticipating as well as instigating modern Pan-Africanism and the culture of anticolonialism that has come to play such a prominent role in Western (or anti-Western) literature of the late twentieth century," has also contributed to the under-reading of Du Bois's work. Both of these texts are included in their entirety in this reader and their juxtaposition makes clear the value of reading them in relation to each other, "If The Souls of Black Folk became the century's most important statement of African American resistance to segregation, Darkwater joined the battle for black civil rights in the United States to a broader campaign against European colonial rule abroad, especially in Africa."

Placed under five broad headings ("Concepts of Race," "Representative Men," "Literature and Art," "Politics, Economics, and Education," and "Africa and Colonialism"), the other essays that Sundquist has collected provide an exhaustive documentation of Du Bois's intellectual and ideological development. They effectively cover practically the entire range of his non-literary writings. In its entirety the reader's representation of Du Bois's "constant engagement with current events and arguments," offers a political history of a diasporically self-conscious "Blackness" as experienced by a man whose "narrated life begins during the presidency of Andrew Johnson and ends just short of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson" and whose roles were, among others, those of "a historian, a sociologist, a teacher, a cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a magazine editor, a novelist, a governmental envoy, a Pan-Africanist, a spokesman for socialism, and an opponent of anticommunism."

The one significant problem with Sundquist's choice of texts is that the critical selections on "Literature and Art" are scanty and finally unsatisfying. Sundquist may have felt that because "the great bulk of Du Bois's writing ... is devoted to politics, economics, and education" and his critical writings on literature are the ones most readily available elsewhere, this de-emphasizing of the literary Du Bois was necessary. …

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