150 of 156 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2000
The Souls of Black Folks, as other reviewers have pointed out, is a masterpiece of African-American thought. But it is even more than that when we consider the context and time in which the book was written. Most of what DuBois discusses is still relevant today, and this is a tribute to the man, not only as a scholar, but as someone who was continually adapting his views in the best image and interests of black people.
Some reviewers refer to DuBois as "the Black Emerson" and, as a university instructor, I heard similar references made: 'the Black Dewey" or "the Black Park," referring to the Chicago School scholars. Du Bois was brilliant; indeed, these white men should be being called "the white Du Bois"! Du Bois literally created the scientific method of observation and qualitative research. With the junk being put out today in the name of "dissertations," simply re-read Du Bois' work on the Suppression of the African Slave Trade and his work on the Philadelphia Negro and it is clear that he needs not be compared to any white man of his time or any other: he was a renaissance man who cared about his people and, unlike too many of the scholars of day, he didn't just talk the talk or write the trite; he walked the walk and organized the unorganizable.
White racism suffered because Du Bois raised the consciousness of the black masses. But he did more than that; by renouncing his American citizenship and moving to Ghana, he proved that Pan Africanism is not just something to preach or write about (ala Molefi Asante, Tony Martin, Jeffries and other Africanists); it is a way of life, both a means and an end. Du Bois organized the first ever Pan African Congress and, in doing so, set the stage for Afrocentricity, Black Studies and the Bandung Conference which would be held in 1954 in Bandung, Indonesia. Du Bois not only affected people in this country, he was a true internationalist.
Souls of Black Folk is an important narrative that predates critical race theory. It is an important reading, which predates formal Black Studies. The book calls for elevation of black people by empowering black communities -- today's leadership is so starved for acceptance that I believe that Karenga was correct when he says that these kind of people "often doubt their own humanity."
The book should be read by all.
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2000
"Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of beling black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century." -W.E.B. DuBois, in the Forethought
This book contains essays written by W.E.B. DuBois. Some of them are very historical and recount the African American events and progess, and some of them are very personal, in which DuBois tells about his own life. I learned a lot from reading this book. For instance, I had always thought of what an awful thing slavery was- a horrible part of America's history- and that is was such a good thing that it was finally stopped. However, I never thought about the implications of life for the ex-slave after it was ended. Here were many African Americans, free, yes, but with what? Nothing. How would they get anywhere without money, education, jobs, etc.? And after freeing them leaders imposed unfair segragation and Jim Crow laws upon African Americans, so they were not really free at all.
Another thing that interested me about this book was the evolution of the slave's religion. It is very interesting to me how DuBois discusses their original religion of magic/ancestor and earth worship,etc and their gradual progression to the Christian religion of their masters, and then back to the beginning in an almost cyclical pattern. I don't think the African-American culture would be the same at all today if it were not for this mix of religious belief, although some would argue about how good it was for a religion to be forced about them and I would tend to agree.
W.E.B. DuBois was a pioneer of African American literature and thought. This book of essays will make you rethink the progress and status of African Americans throughout America's history, and will help you understand and sympathesize much more. I do agree with a previous review's critique that this book has some disturbing anti-semitic passages in it; in fact, a friend of mine wrote her paper for our 20th Century American Literature Class on that subject, so that did point that problem out to me. I find it strange that DuBois can so effectively and reasonably argue for the equality of African-Americans while so irrationably spout such anti-semitic comments. Except for this problem (which should not be overlooked), the book is very important and powerful, and it did and continues to do a lot for the advancement of African-Americans in the US.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 1999
I can remeber reading this book in my liberal high school for our American lit class and thinking that they just stuck it in for diversity's sake--that black history and American history are separate entities. But as I began to study more history in college I began to realize that American history could not exist without black history and experience--that Dubois' insights into double identity and how racism affects both the reciever and promulgator of racism in insidious ways are crucial to understanding of how America continues to wrestle with the implications of hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and now, more subtle racism.
I haven't read the book in 8 years, but Dubois description of the moment when a black child realizes achieves enough self awarenesss to undersstand that he is "black" and what that means to one's sense of self (at least in the 1910's south) is absolutely heartbreaking.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2008
These essays, actually sketches and ruminations of DuBois', remain an enduring backdrop for the picture in which race in America is framed. At the end of each decade, they seem to continue emitting new pregnant meanings:
During the decade of the 60s, when I first read the book, it seemed to be an open message to white America about the Negro: an appeal, as it were, that "the Negro was on the march," and that his main instrument of entering the American mainstream (his only secure dream) was his spiritual cadence and his deep and abiding faith in religion, and equally deep faith in the meaning of the American revolution, and in the American dream and its misapplied ideals. A warning was issued in the "parable of the Coming of John": a reckoning of this fractured meaning and it's implied promises inevitably had to occur.
When I read it during the 70s, it seemed more like an interior dialogue between "Blacks," about "being constantly on the struggle against racism." It was especially a dialogue between the "uneducated and unsophisticated" on the one hand, and "the educated and sophisticated" (the "so-called "talented tenth"), on the other. But also it was a dialogue between the conservative forces of "compromise" that wanted to win by "turning the other cheek," and the more progressive and revolutionary forces who wanted to do so "by any means necessary." Yes, Martin and Malcolm were summoned up through DuBois' words in the same debate that had occurred two generations before between DuBois and Booker T. Washington. The words, but not the structure of the arguments, had changed. They were issued with the same degree of passion, and with the same unfortunate results: more promises, but powerful little "real progress," and then the murders of both Martin and Malcolm.
Then when I read it in the 80s the meaning took on an entirely different character for me. I had watched DuBois' struggle at close range, as I had that of other black intellectuals and heroes, like Paul Roberson, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, etc. They all followed a pattern: the black heroes were either forced out of the country, or left voluntarily as DuBois, Cleaver and Stokely eventually did, or were jailed, deemed to be social outcasts, or killed. Those remaining were co-opted and otherwise neutered: It became clearer and clearer that the "Souls of Black Folk" were not about black people after all, but, in relief, was just a mirror of the "dark troubled souls of white people."
DuBois' little book now began to make sense: His references to Freud, to Marx, his most famous line "the problem of the color line," and of course his parable: "The Coming of John" all seemed to snap into perfect alignment: The Souls of Black Folks was no longer about blacks, but in relief, in its subtext, was about the tenacity and persistence of "white hatred, white fear, and white resistance", about the fear in the white heart: The problem of race, the problem of the color line was not about blacks at all, but was about white fear and resistance to the very thing they claim to cherish most: "freedom and equality."
In the 90s this frightening new meaning of the "Souls of Black Folk" as a metaphor for white fear and resistance was being "filled-in" and confirmed: For instance, even though the language of race and racism had begun to change, (it now had a positive patina grafted on to it) but as was the case eight decades before, little else had changed. The resisters had circled their psychological wagons. Morally they had been forced into a defensive crouch if not back into the closet altogether, but they were far from going away: Through a new vocabulary of coded language, and the false civility of "political correctness," and "tokenism," a misappropriation of Dr. King's life and death, a feint back to rightwing religious ideology, by exaggerating non-existent racial progress, and through a whole repertoire of other reactionary stratagems, they were scrambling to make a determined comeback, a final desperate attempt to retain the old meanings.
Now at the turn of the new millennium, even as it appears that our first Black (half white) President" might replace our most incompetent (all white) president, "The Souls of Black People," are again just a reflection of what is hidden in the white heart. Now it is hidden under the elusive and empty notion of "multiculturalism." In today's racial narrative, DuBois' black souls are: the "troubled inner city," with its statistics of horror, with its "at risk low-achieving children," its "high crime rates," "the troubled public schools," the "welfare mothers," and the "social meltdown" more generally.
The souls of Black Folk have been fragmented and shredded down to nothing. In the mean while, its reflection, its doppelganger: the America's reactionary white forces, with their hatred and fear normalized in plain sight, are again on the march, winning as usual by fiat: They have succeeded in changing the scenery on "front street" so that there, America looks very much like racial progress would look if America ever decided to have any, but everything else in the background, on the back streets -- the context, the pretext, and the subtext of American racism -- remains exactly the same as it did in 1903.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
If you are unaquainted with this book or with this author, you should remedy the situation immediately. In terms of eloquence, clear and ringing prose, descriptive power and any other quality that seperates great writers from mediocre ones, Dubois stands in the first rank. If Afro-Americans had had access to this book on a mass scale, there would have been a third real revolution in this country (I include the Civil War, obviously). This is the voice of suffering, but also of great ideas and ironclad arguement. It is also an incitement and very much an indictment, against racial boundaries that have plagued this nation since its inception. Dubois was and is one of the most powerful voices this country has ever produced. My jaw dropped on numerous occasions when first reading this text. He conveyed better than any other author, and there have been many great ones (Baldwin, Morrison, Wright, etc.) what it means to be "seperate, but equal." He is never an apologist. He at all moments maintains the dignity of his race. I really prefer in all aspects his demaeanor to Marcus Garvey's, even though that author was a more prominent "player." For modern revisionists (like Jane Smiley)who think that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was "great literature," I would recommend that they read this text and then decide. One voice is authentic, the other sorely disingenuous, and even, historically, counter-productive.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2002
If you read only one edition of this work, this is the edition you should choose. The preface is outstanding, and the "Contexts" and "Criticsm" sections (which comprise half of this volume) are extraordinarily helpful to the nonspecialist reader. Please note, however, that there is a serious error in at least one of the footnotes. On the last page of "The Niagara Movement" essay DuBois refers to Robert Gould Shaw, whom the editors describe (in footnote #4) as an African American Union Army Civil War hero. Not so! Shaw was white; there were no African American officers during the Civil War. (I contacted Henry Lewis Gates Jr. about this, and he confirmed that this was an error in editing.)
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2012
It was a great book. A book that should be required reading in schools, from elementary, to high school. Like all good books I had to read it twice to make sure I did not miss one single thing.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2003
The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of fourteen essays by brilliant African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois written 100 years ago, is a stirring and insightful look at the lives of the former slaves following Emancipation. It thoughtfully addresses nearly all aspects of life, from religion to prosperity (or lack thereof) to race relations, and how they were affected by the abolition of slavery. Some essays take a more historical view while others are nearly in the form of short stories.
What makes The Souls of Black Folk unique is Du Bois' insider's approach to the subject. He himself was African American (although neither of his parents were slaves), and that gives him quite a different view from white historians of the time. He is deeply sympathetic to the plight of the freed slaves and understands with infinitely greater clarity their daily struggle to overcome the subtle manipulations of those cunning and cruel enough to take advantage of their vulnerable, somewhat naive position.
Du Bois also takes immense pride in his race and doesn't hesitate to share all of its accomplishments and contributions to American society with his audience. Given the prevailing attitude of either indifference or animosity towards African Americans at that time in history, The Souls of Black Folk appears to take some important steps toward earning respect for black America or at least making others aware of its positive aspects: "Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped across her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song- the rhythmic cry of the slave- stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half-despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people."
Du Bois' use of a metaphorical "Veil" that separates the blacks from the whites is a very unique image that appears throughout the book and serves to unify perspectives on how blacks are perceived by white society. "Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live... a hope not hopeless, but unhopeful, and seeing... a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty is a lie."
For the most part, Du Bois achieves his purpose of depicting, in gory detail, the hardships faced by the newly freed African Americans. In "Of the Black Belt" and "Of the Sons of Master and Man" particularly, Du Bois discusses the economic injustices that blacks faced. "Of every five dollars spent for public education in the State of Georgia, the white schools get four dollars and the Negro one dollar." As a reader, it was disconcerting to hear of the ways in which whites (especially Southerners) found legal ways of denying African Americans their rights as citizens of the United States.
Du Bois' writing is both elegant and persuasive. One can only marvel at the grace with which he assembles his thoughts: "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls... So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?"
Also remarkable is the tone with which Du Bois approaches the sensitive subject matter. Racial prejudice is something that could very easily incite anger and intense emotions in the calmest of people, yet Du Bois is able to take a step away from his anger and tone down his emotional response. He is intent on making his points, but a feeling of calm pervades every page: he is never out of control. This serves to lend even more credibility to his writing.
However, The Souls of Black Folk has one noticeable detractor. Parts of it seem redundant, so much so at times that many of the essays blend into one mega-essay. Essays with similar subjects, such as "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece" and "Of the Black Belt," which both discuss (to a greater or lesser degree) Negro cotton farming in the South, particularly run together. The overlap of material is probably due to the fact that some of the essays came from individual publications in magazines over the course of years.
The Souls of Black Folk was a surprisingly good read. It was not nearly as boring as I feared it might be. I greatly enjoyed the essays that were more like stories, most notably "Of the Meaning of Progress" (an autobiographical look at Du Bois' first teaching experience in Tennessee), "Of the Passing of the First-Born" (the story of the birth and death of Du Bois' first child), and "Of the Coming of John" (the tragic story of a young black man who leaves home to get an education and returns to find life very different). They had a much stronger emotional pull than the more historical essays, and I became very involved in the events they told of.
I also found myself learning things from this book, things that I really hadn't thought much about before, like what life was actually like in the South once the slaves were freed. I didn't know anything about the Freedmen's Bureau's troubled history or the fact that it was destroyed long before it should have been. It was a much more eye-opening literary experience than I ever expected it to be.
Despite its age, The Souls of Black Folk still rings true today, and Du Bois' foresight is startlingly accurate: "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line". Despite the radical social changes of the 1960's, racism is still ingrained here. Things have gotten better, but it makes one question whether racism is a defeatable problem. Will ever "the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare"? Will Du Bois' "Veil" ever be lifted? I hope so.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 1999
At the end of the century, in a few months there will be much debate about the person of the century, the writer of the century, the actor of the century and so on. This book, this writing should put DuBois at the very least in the top five ranking of the most important writer and thinker of the twentieth century. He is as far as I am concerned the Black Nostradamus. He forsaw what has been happening in recent years with the increase of hate crimes and mass acts of violence and oppression against the colored masses of the United States and the world. DuBois like no other from his time captures the spirit of the America Black and he allows his reader to read and to understand what has caused the Black consciousness to be in the state of disaster that it was in and is in in some aspects. He is a great writer and this book should be required reading in every American Literature and Black Literature class in every high school and college in this country. This is an important work not only for Blacks to read but whites as well. Well written and well received is all that I can say about this book. GREAT!!!!!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK has long been seen as a book about race, yet it is really a seminal book about the cultural and economic history of southern reconstruction from a Marxist worldview-class struggle not civil rights.
DuBois discusses the vexing structural problems in rural Georgia's economy which persisted until the New Deal. Georgia was cursed with feudal backwardness influenced by inefficient appraisals, incompetent tax collection, backward farming and absentee ownership unchanged by the confederate defeat.
The plight of the poor-both black and white- created a life of angst for those who lived in southern rural poverty. The Marxist perspective here is invaluable in analyzing poverty and avoiding moralism. How would Bu Bois have fared in the current atmosphere of political correctness which seems to plague us? Would he have argued for class based preferences instead of racial ones? Another interesting aspect to this book is the lack of comment on western expansion or Manifest Destiny.
The book is well written with poignant pictures of backwardness. One scene describes a group of black farmhands asleep in a rolling wagon as corn drops out of the back...a day of hard labor lost. In another we are taken to a plantation turned sharecropping farm where the farmhands are convinced to buy nice looking but frail carriages at usurious interest rates...farm slavery replaced by debt slavery to northern banks...the fate of a carpet-bagged South.
Du Boises' Marxism made him few friends in Cold War America, both inside and outside the civil rights movement he was pursued by anti-socialists and class reactionaries both black and white as well as the FBI. Du Boise gave us a unique perspective on an era and place where class conflict may have been a bigger influence than many care to admit.