The Canon: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

August 19, 2010

"The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." Few sentences have proven as prophetic as this one, taken from the first paragraph of W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903.

In the century that followed, Nazism arose and was defeated, revolution upended European colonialism in Africa and Asia, apartheid came and went in South Africa, and in the US a black-led freedom movement wrested legal equality.

After being drawn and erased in so many ways, the colour line has left behind a smudge. Race is widely understood today to be cultural, not biological. Its transcendence has been glimpsed in the elections of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Yet race remains a significant marker of deep-seated inequalities in wealth, longevity and other metrics. Du Bois' world is closer to ours than we care to admit. Still with us is the question he heard posed to those of darker complexion: "How does it feel to be a problem?"

The Souls of Black Folk offered a powerful metaphor for race: "the Veil". Mixing memoir with criticism, sociology with polemic, it is a work of literary-philosophical lyricism. Its author was born free in Massachusetts after the Civil War, the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard University. Having studied in Berlin and taught in the American South, he was 35 when this book appeared, the work of a talented upstart.

Its raison d'etre was to challenge the conservative leadership of Booker T. Washington, who urged blacks to countermand lynching and disenfranchisement with an industrious work ethic. This "silent submission to civic inferiority", Du Bois held, should be repudiated for the bold assertion of civil and political rights.

While irreducibly American, The Souls of Black Folk deserves appreciation for its international qualities. Du Bois - pronounced with a hard final consonant, rhyming with "voice" - held that in an age of empire, "emigration beyond the borders of the United States" was no escape route for American blacks. "For where in the world," he asked, "may we go and be safe from lying and brute force?"

Du Bois' advocacy of a "Talented Tenth", a black professional-intellectual vanguard, has invited charges of elitism. Yet the very form of The Souls of Black Folk is democratic. Each chapter opens with two epigrams: a stanza from Schiller, Byron or some other poet alongside a bar of notes from a "sorrow song" (the musical laments, says Du Bois, of those "weary at heart"). Untutored, enslaved fieldhands here met the European literati on a perfectly level aesthetic plane.

This juxtaposition both reflected and repudiated "double-consciousness", the best-known concept in The Souls of Black Folk. "One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings," wrote Du Bois, who refused to accept the division. Nothing in world culture was alien to him. The Souls of Black Folk speaks to us one century later in good part because Du Bois aspired to merge "double self into a better and truer self" - to cast aside the Veil.

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