Customer Reviews: The Souls of Black Folk (Dover Thrift Editions)
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HALL OF FAMEon November 14, 2002
W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) was the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. This fact alone doesn't really mean much in today's world; there are many firsts occurring at a rapid pace. But DuBois accomplished his feat when America subscribed to Jim Crow segregation and openly espoused racism. Moreover, DuBois went on to a spectacular career of stunning accomplishments-he was, by turns, a sociologist, a historian, a cultural critic, and an accomplished essayist. In "The Souls of Black Folk," DuBois wears all of these hats and a few more. Published in 1903, this collection of DuBois essays quickly became a cornerstone for future black progressives who wished to bring about changes in American society long promised since the days of the American Civil War. DuBois went on to help found the NAACP before disillusionment with the slow pace of change led him to leave the country. He died in Ghana in 1963.
Every essay in this collection is an absolute jewel of intellectual prowess, eloquent and captivating language, and groundbreaking insight into the conditions of America's black population. Time and time again, DuBois calls it like he sees it and does so without malice or hysterical claims. DuBois's writings are the archetype of calm, reasoned analysis. His goal is not to divide but to expose, not to create divisions but understanding. He differs radically from current race hustlers such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, whose only concern is creating a perpetual black underclass with them as self-anointed leaders. One of DuBois's essays actually take aim at a black leader who, during DuBois's time, harmed black progress. This man was Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, believer in vocational education for all blacks (at the expense of a classical education necessary in training teachers to staff vocational schools), and orator of the "Atlanta Compromise" which promised black acceptance of segregation.
DuBois's concern in the essays rests with the concept of the "veil." This veil is a symbol for the ignorance of America towards the problems of blacks. The veil blocks insight into the problems, as well as preventing blacks from taking their place in American society as full American citizens. Until the veil is removed, argues DuBois in carefully constructed essay after essay, the continuing schism between the two races will grow wider and wider.
Closely tied to the concept of the veil is that of "double consciousness," or the process by which blacks have two identities within one body. At times, blacks are Americans; they take part in working, fighting, and dying so America may reach its full potential. At other times, blacks are Africans lacking the rights white Americans enjoy on a daily basis. According to DuBois, American blacks are conscious of this dual identity and must always be careful about their actions in public. DuBois argues it is this "two-ness" that causes many problems in the life of the American black.
Dubois knows travelogue as well. Two essays, "Of the Black Belt" and "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece" examine the conditions of blacks in Dougherty County, Georgia. It is a sad tale of overwhelming debt, bleak futures, and segregated conditions. DuBois carefully examines the reasons for black failure in Georgia in these two chapters, discovering that the system is set up for black failure. Owning land is difficult for blacks, and the low literacy rate ensures that hustlers will cheat blacks out of money and crops. The extension of credit guarantees that blacks will continue to exist in a perpetual state of debt peonage. The need for education is great, says DuBois, as learning will allow blacks to push for greater gains in society while allowing poor blacks to understand their plight in relation to the rest of the country.
Education is a major theme in many of the essays. DuBois himself received a classical education and it shows on every page of this book. References to Greece and Rome vie with extensive religious themes. These references not only show that a black can benefit from education, but also shows how education will provide a common ground between black and white. However, DuBois does not believe every black should receive a classical education. He recognizes many are not up to the task (as many whites are not, either), but a "talented tenth" could receive this type of education. These blacks will then go out and spread education and culture within the black community.
The essays build up to the phenomenal "Of the Coming of John," a short story incorporating almost every theme DuBois expresses throughout the book. This short story relates the tale of John, a poor Georgia black traveling north for an education. At first, John fails to fit in due to poor discipline and lack of interest. When faced with expulsion, John reaches inside himself and succeeds beyond expectations. He learns history, language, and mathematics while growing into manhood. When he finally goes out into the world, he runs smack into the veil; John is ejected from a classical music concert in New York because he is black, and when he goes home, both blacks and whites are wary of his cynical views about southern conditions. John takes a job as a teacher, but quickly loses the job when local whites feel threatened by the subjects he teaches. The story ends on a depressing note without resolving any of the problems John encounters as an educated black man in the American South.
This is an important American text, required reading for anyone interested in race relations and intellectual history. DuBois never saw the struggle for civil rights in the 1960's or its continuing legacy to this day. This book explains the underpinnings of that movement. Through intellectual examination, elegant prose, and an unswerving belief in what is right and wrong, DuBois's contributions continue to resonate in the present.
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on March 30, 2004
Along with Malcolm X's biography, this book should be a mandatory text in American high schools. If you got this far, please, engage yourself and read the sample pages that amazon has allowed to be shown here.
This work is not just an eloquent attempt of one man to make sense of himself and his history, it is also by far the most sensitive, interesting (and accessible) treatment of Hegel the world has yet to see (including Marx- even though Du Bois spent the later years of his life smitten with socialism and the USSR- a viewpoint that eventually led him to abandon the NAACP's ((which he helped found in 1910)) agenda of integration).
One could spend much time tracing Du Bois' intellectual movements and his confrontations (as with Booker T. Washington). I won't attempt that here. Instead I'll attempt a cursory revealing of his Hegelian sensibilities. I don't use the word debt, because Du Bois doesn't borrow from Hegel- he resurrects him.
Du Bois's understanding of himself as a `problem,' is as illuminating now as it was in 1903. I think at least a cursory engagement with Hegel is needed to truly understand this book and Du Bois' thought in its entirety. For that reason I highly suggest you purchase the critical Norton version of this book (ISBN: 039397393X). It adds a great deal. The preface alone is worth the ten-note...
The master/slave dialectic, as well the unfolding and development of a consciousness of freedom: Du Bois breathes life into this system of `necessary' rational progression. Hegel himself traced the development of `World Spirit,' through six historical peoples: Chinese, Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and Germans. This forms the genesis of Du Bois' conception of black Americans as historically 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... 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."
And that's just page 3. If Hegel himself had been this eloquent... Ah well...
Du Bois once wrote of his heritage that it included "a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but, Thank God! No 'Anglo-Saxon'..." There is much to be admired in that statement's forwardness, and there is much to be understood and reconciled in its anger. As a white American, I have a cultural debt to black Americans, one that I will never be able to pay back. But the impossibility of a task does not preclude one from not attempting it.
Today America is as divided by race as it ever was. Honest dialogue is the only solution. This book- I can think of few places better suited to initiate that dialogue.
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on November 9, 2003
I didn't know what to expect when I picked up this work to read and be part of a book discussion group in downtown D.C. I came away amazed by many aspects of this seminal work. First, it may not be seminal if it were written in 2003, but it was written in 1903! An in-depth critique of the structures that support racism written in words that have carried themselves over a century. Second, W.E.B DuBois is not only a sociologist in the inchoate years of sociology, he is a philosopher as well. Yet, there is a tender chapter on the loss of his first born child. DuBois did not reject the head to follow his heart, nor did he reject his heart to follow his head. He was balanced regarding what influenced him, following sometimes the heart and sometimes the head. To see him only as someone who opposed slavery and racism is one-dimensional. However, this cannot be dismissed, either. Still, he is a magnificent story-teller, as seen in the chapter, "Of the Coming of John". Hurt more than helped by official religion, he is nonetheless spiritual, as seen in his chapters of faith, and the sorrow songs. He is a prolific author, writing well over a dozen books. Because his voice is dangerous, the powers-that-be have kept his name away from our ears and eyes. That needs to change. It is time for an awakening! I don't give 5-stars easily. This book demanded it.
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on December 30, 2005
Written originally in 1903 both as a gift to African Americans and a gift from an African American, "The Souls of Black Folk" describes through one man's (W. E. B. Du Bois) eyes the consciousness of turn-of-the-century African Americans. Using his own life as a social and psychological model, Du Bois traces the inner life of post-Emancipation and post-Reconstruction African Americans. Whether one agrees with all, most, little, or none of Du Bois' conclusions, any serious student of African American history and self-understanding can't afford to bypass this work.

One of the most intriguing aspects is his candid comparison of his views with Booker T. Washington. Washington promoted a more modest, slower-paced changing of the status quo. He also emphasized what today would be called vocational education as the surest way for African Americans to advance. Du Bois was not totally critical, at times lavishing praise on Washington for his many valiant achievements. However, he was not timid in his appraisal that Washington had trusted too much in European Americans and too little in African Americans.

Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction." He has also authored "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," and the forthcoming "Sacred Friendships: Listening to the Voices of Women Soul Care-Givers and Spiritual Directors."
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on July 19, 2015
Keep in mind from my responses that this is not a novel. It is a "documentation" of the conditions of the free blacks after emancipation up until about 1900. It very clearly communicates the very hard time that blacks had after generations of not even being able to read, generations of havng their families destroyed, all of a sudden free but with nothing. The south did not go down easily as evidenced by the problems integrating schools even in the 20th century. Think about 1875. Du Bois goes well beyond the obvious issues and gives the reader a whole new understanding of the issues for the first 40 years after emancipation. A wonderful book; I highly recommend it for required reading for all US school children. Probably best for high school.
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on March 28, 2015
I read this book immediately after reading Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. It is 2015 in the USA and this book is still rightfully on the must read list. You can read this book just for it's historical and economic account of the times, for it's poetic, confessional and brilliant social commentary that is an anguished masterpiece . . . or because some teacher is making you read it. It must have been a revolution when it came out over 100 years ago. DuBois lived a long time after this book, but he still didn't live long enough for his complaints to be addressed. I think the chapter blasting BTW is a shame - DuBois accuses him of "propaganda", "indiscriminate flattery" and ouch . . . lacking in a manly outlook. Can't help wondering if this was really academic vs. tech school feuding. Anyway the book isn't all negative - hope remains, there is recognition and pride in the positives of American Blacks and their gifts to our country . . . not much mention of God - who seems to be in a place this book longs for . . . on the other side.

P.S. This edition was clear, easy to read and a great price
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on August 14, 2013
"Circumstances rule men, men don't rule circumstances" - Herodotus. This book deserves a 5 for it's historical importance, it was revolutionary for it's time as a transitional way of thinking suited to it's circumstances, but it's real value is as a sign pointing away to something better. Stylistically it's verbose, lots of it isn't content but rhetoric, necessary back then but tiresome today. We are given explanations of causes for the actions of the grouping of people called "black" but we are never given causes for the actions of the grouping of people called "white", we need both to understand the relationship that held and therefore to reveal the truth of the situation. The value of a book shows itself in the usefulness of it's ideas, the concepts contained herein are mostly old technology. What a lot of people don't understand is that "white" and "black" are types of concepts, in addition to being historical words like those used in the Spanish casta sytem that nobody uses anymore, they are a kind of technology for categorizing people: forming a group and then getting that group to act a certain way. They really aren't even opposing ideas, they are both expressions of the same "race-religion". To believe that the color of the light that bounces off the molecules of someone's body tells us anything about that person's character, their thoughts and actions, is exactly the same as believing in astrology... and yet there are people today who continue to hold this faith in race, and live their lives according to a set of possibilities decided upon by someone else who died a long time ago and who is today a pile of dust. Thought calls on us to think individually, never as a mass. Old conceptual frameworks become prisons for our thoughts. The real questions are: What are these concepts called "white" and "black"? What is their metaphorical import? Why were they created? Who used them? Who uses them? Why? Look up "honorary white" to see the stretching of the definition of a concept.
It is fascinating to see Dubois display his classical education, and in particular his reference to the beautiful, the good, and the true. Today in our postmodern culture almost no one is learning about this, and almost no one cares.
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on December 16, 2015
Great classic read. This book is under-rated, but it is really good. I read it recently and I feel DuBois really captures the souls of black folk in his vivid descriptions. The sad part is that his work may still hold true to this day, which means society hasn't advanced much in the way of racism.
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on October 11, 2015
After eading this book, it is easy to undeerstand why it's considered the seminal work for understanding the condition and the plight of the so-called African-American of today. He excellenty describes what all African-Americans know as that "double-consciousness", mainly through the periscope of his own experience. His placement of spirituals to introduce each chapter is a brilliant way to help us and others understand the depth of our suffering. His debate with Booker T. Washington is significant in demonstrating part of the dilemma the African-American faces even today. His travels through the Jim Crow south, as well as the death of his only son because of racism give a poignant view of the horror of this system. His narrative speaks of the cost of hatred ad the extraoridnary power it takes to resist it. This is must-reading for anyone trying to understand the problem of the "color-line" in America.
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It is also a challenge to add anything. What struck me about this collection of essays was its diversity and its humanity. Dubois was an elegant, gifted writer. He was a little bit flowery and a 19th century manner, extravagant in his use of image and metaphor. Extravagant, but successful! The writing is amazingly fresh for being a century old.

One thing that comes through clearly is the intimate relationship between black and white society in the South both before and after the Civil War. Dubois, born free in New England, saw the South both through the intimate eyes of a black person - he calls it the "veil" - and rather objectively as a person who had traveled broadly and spoke several languages. He put the situation of the black man in America in a world perspective.

His stories about the injustices suffered by black men are very poignant. Nevertheless, and adding to the poignancy, is his sympathy for the white people who are constrained by time, culture, history and their society in their relationships with black people. He has what one would call a tragic view of the situation.

The tragic view is on best display in his essay on reconstruction. Most of the people who established the reconstruction program and managed it had the best of motives. As managers, they had their human limitations. In order to be effective they needed supra-constitutional powers, which the American Republic was understandably reluctant to give. And, of course, there were the predictable constraints of money in politics. I finished this 20 page essay with a profound sense of how incomplete my education had been, and a new sympathy for all involved in this American tragedy.
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