Review: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois

The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Dubois, author of The Souls of Black Folk, was born in 1868. He earned his B.A. at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, and went on to earn a second BA at Harvard, continuing his studies there until he earned his doctorate in history, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

The Souls of Black Folk is a collection of essays first published together in 1903. The book includes both arguments and narrative, as Dubois draws on his own experience and that of people he knew.

One of the most famous passages introduces the idea of double consciousness, now used in sociology as a term describing the internal conflict experienced by oppressed groups:

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 contempt and pity. 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.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

The book is well known for its critique of Booker T. Washington. Washington was one of the most influential black leaders from the last generation of black Americans born into slavery. Washington was the main architect of the Atlanta Compromise. Dubois critiques his strategy of accommodation:

The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate,—a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,—so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,—we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Dubois’s prose is very quotable. I really liked these two bits from chapter twelve:

The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy, — the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves, and millionaires and — sometimes — Negroes, became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, “Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?”

Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.

If you, like me, have read the book but haven’t read anything else by the author, you might find this lecture about Dubois’s contributions to sociology interesting.

This is my book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Classic by a POC Author.

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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