“The Souls of Black Folk” by W. E. B. Du Bois

Title: The Souls of Black Folk
Author: W. E. B. Du Bois
ISBN: 9780486280417
Pages: 176
Release Date: 1903
Publisher: A.C. McClurg & Co.
Genre: African-American literature; sociology
Format: Audiobook
Source: Personal collection (Lit2Go download)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

It is impossible to rate The Souls of Black Folk too highly. It is a worthwhile read solely for the impact that it has had upon American society, both in its time and in the decades since its 1903 publication. The Souls of Black Folk was a major contribution to the African-American literary tradition, and it is also a cornerstone of the literature on sociology. Beyond its historical and educational value, though, I highly recommend this book to everyone for the piercing glimpses Du Bois offers into the souls of all men and women.

W. E. B. Du Bois first came under the spotlight by opposing Booker T. Washington, a prominent member of the African-American community who emphasized the importance of accommodating the policies of race separation prevalent in a Jim Crow society.

Du Bois believed that in order to attain suffrage, political representation, and civil rights, American society had to acknowledge the wrongs done to African-Americans and strive to integrate them fully into U.S. society. His book documented the conditions of post-slavery America while simultaneously arguing for improvements in the unequal black and white communities.

Du Bois was an impassioned advocate for higher education. While Washington focused on educating blacks for the trades and manual labor, Du Bois insisted that blacks should have access to intellectual education rivaling that available to whites. As Manning Marable states in Living Black History,

Few books make history, and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. (96)

However, more than simply a revealing microcosm of post–Civil War and Jim Crow society, The Souls of Black Folk offers brilliant glimpses into mankind as a whole, regardless of color. Du Bois discusses religion, politics, history, education, money, morality, music, and mortality. His chapter on death of his young son, his first child, is some of the most impressive, tender, and passionate prose I have ever read.

It is easy—at least, it was for me—to pigeonhole Du Bois as a figure who did much for his community in the Jim Crow era, but whose work is outdated and useful only as a historical account. However, this view does Du Bois, and yourself for that matter, a disservice. I found his insight profound and his opinions valuable even after more than a century, and I learned a lot about the nature of people.

The salience of The Souls of Black Folk attests to Du Bois’s insistence on the importance of an intellectual tradition, both among black thinkers and, on a grander scale, in the then-emerging field of sociology.

Though at times the book seems to be a rather disparate collection of essays loosely centered on African-American (and cultural) identity, that connection serves, in fact, to emphasize that topic’s importance by displaying the ways in which racism was affecting all areas of African-American life.

I have one piece of advice for enjoying this book: I listened to it on audiobook, and I’ve discovered that I tend to pay better attention to stories than intellectual discourse in audiobook format. If you’re anything like me, you may want to read a paperback or e-book. You’ll want to highlight dozens of passages anyway!

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