I’ve had the pleasure of reading selections of W.E.B Du Bois’ work The Souls of Black Folk three times, including as an assignment for this class. The most consistent element of my praise is how singular Du Bois’ voice is: it seems to reverberate in the historical context, in the philosophical context, in the literary context, and in the present day. I know of very few works, literary or otherwise, that have that wide of a reach.
The word “radical”, in its original form, does not mean extreme or absurd. “Radical” means actually cutting down to the essential truth. One example of this phenomenon is a radical revision, which seeks to cut down unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, and words, and reorganize to find the direction in which a piece is meant to go. I believe that The Souls of Black Folk is radical in the original sense of the word; a document that seeks to reconcile the conflicting existences of the black person and the American.
When I read The Souls of Black Folk the first time, I read it in my American Studies class in eleventh grade. My classmates and me compared The Souls of Black Folk to Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Speech. Two years later, I took ENGL 203: Poetics with Dr. Doggett, and read Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk along with his work Criteria of Negro Art, which introduced the idea of criticism and Du Bois’ ideas not only existing in history, but in philosophy. This last experience of reading Du Bois in this class has been the most transformative to me, because of three things (much like Du Bois does in Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others)
1.We took the time to analyze the language paragraph by paragraph. When we read the second paragraph, taking the time to find words such as “peremptorily”, “veil”, and “stringy” added a lot of context compared to when I had read that same document previously. The amount of rhetorical twists and turns Du Bois has in his work is astounding.
2. We analyzed him in the context of an African-American thinker who was exceptionally broad in his contribution to American thought. His ability to write a well thought out work every 12 days until age 85 is astounding to me, and I can’t help but think of Alexander Hamilton when I look at both the density of prose and work ethic.
3. We discussed his capacity for reflection and intellectual humility, and how important it is to have those qualities in the midst of call-out and cancel culture. Du Bois was human, just as we all are, and in the first edition ofThe Souls of Black Folk, he contributed to the anti-Semetic portrayal of Jewish people as greedy for money and power. In his revision, Du Bois substituted the word “foreigner” or “immigrant” for the mentions of Jewish people, which clarified his point without any anti-Semetic bigotry.
Sometimes re-reading seems tedious, but as I have re-read The Souls of Black Folk, it seems like each reading gets closer to the radical aspects of Du Bois’ work, but also inches further away. To close this blog post off, I include three of my favorite quotes from The Souls of Black Folk to ponder:
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out of their world by a vast veil.” (Du Bois, qtd. in Call and Response, p. 738)
“The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood.” (Du Bois, qtd. in Call and Response, p. 739)
“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…we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them.” (Du Bois, qtd. in Call and Response, p. 748)