Du Bois' power endures

December 26, 2003|By Dolan Hubbard

TEACHER, AUTHOR, editor, scholar, Pan-Africanist and founding member of the NAACP, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, is best known for The Souls of Black Folk, published 100 years ago this year.

This slender volume of 14 essays quickly established itself as a keystone in 20th century thought. Both its title and language suggest the idea of a revelation, which is only partial. Mr. Du Bois hints of a deeper interpretation on "the strange meaning of being black" and on the promise of America at the dawn of the 20th century.

When Mr. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he knocked a gaping hole in the wall that excluded black people from a meaningful role in history.

The Souls of Black Folk is one of the most significant documents in American intellectual history. Like those words of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the words of The Souls of Black Folk have become woven into the discourse of America. Explicitly, The Souls of Black Folk echoes Lincoln's call for a "more perfect union."

Knowledge of The Souls of Black Folk helps one understand the historical background and current character of American society: Despite Reconstruction, the New Negro, the New Deal, the Great Society, the War on Poverty and "compassionate conservatism," blacks in the United States still remain largely "faces at the bottom of the well," as contemporary legal and social critic Derrick Bell reminds us.

The Souls of Black Folk awakens a heroic spirit in fair-minded people for whom the story of black struggle remains a major part of the unfinished business of reconstructing democracy in America.

Mr. Du Bois frames his discussion of black folk in the stately language of the King James Bible, not only to draw on its rhetorical flourishes, but also to reflect the ethical and religious character of black people. Mr. Du Bois implicitly aligns himself with the prophets of the Old Testament. Echoing them, he expresses fear for the salvation of his people and of America.

The Souls of Black Folk belongs in the canon of American letters; that is, it is a book for all seasons that has special authority. It provides us with a powerful interpretive scheme or point of view on black life that diverges from the orthodox reading of America as contained in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and Bill of Rights. The telos or endpoint of The Souls of Black Folk is directed toward a pluralistic America where "two world-races" can coexist in the "kingdom of culture."

This collection of 14 essays published at the dawn of the 20th century continues to resonate at the dawn of the 21st century.

Mr. Du Bois predicted the debate on multiculturalism that surfaced at the end of the century. He saw ethnic mixing, the blending, as a strength and not a weakness in the American body politic.

The Souls of Black Folk had a revolutionary impact on American discourse.

First, it gave a context for the failed promise of Reconstruction and placed black life in a global context. Mr. Du Bois wrote against the backdrop of a world where the European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 "with great gusto" carved up Africa and where America, as a result of the Spanish-American War, strode onto the international stage as an imperial power.

So tightly was the color curtain drawn around black people during what historian Rayford Logan called the "nadir" of black life in the United States that this low point prompted Booker T. Washington to deliver what Mr. Du Bois bitterly termed the "Atlanta Compromise" in 1895. In essence, The Souls of Black Folk was a single candle in the dark -- a testament of hope.

Second, it liberated black scholars, intellectuals and artists: Mr. Du Bois provided them with a grammar for understanding what it means to be black in the United States. In the apt language of Richard Wright, he used "words as a weapon."

His words have become background music for critical thinking: "double-consciousness," "life behind the veil," the beauty and originality of the "sorrow songs" and black religion, the division of the modern world along "the color line," and the need to develop vibrant black educational institutions are but a few of his memorably phrased concepts.

Finally, black and Third World intellectuals bonded with Mr. Du Bois because he put his tremendous intellect to use in improving the quality of life for all in the beloved community. He combined academics and activism to a degree uncommon in American society.

It is appropriate 100 years later to pause and assess the influence of this Old Testament of 20th century African-American letters.

Dolan Hubbard is professor and chairman of the department of English and language arts at Morgan State University. He is editor of The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003).

Excerpts from Du Bois' `The Souls of Black Folk'

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