The quality of classic books varies based on a number of factors. Some old books stick around and continue to be read because they have historical value—they tell us something about how a particular group thought or lived at a given time. Some old books remain popular because they are foundational—they are so regularly referenced and alluded to by later literature that they are necessary for understanding culture. Some old books deserve to be read because they are fine literature and point effectively toward the good, true, and beautiful.
I recently picked up W.E.B. DuBois’s classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, because I believed it fell cleanly into the first category. It might one day fall into the second category, but I hope that we don’t need it to. I was pleasantly rewarded while poring through the book to realize it also fell into the third category as well. The Souls of Black Folk is an important piece of history, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature, too. That made this book an enjoyable (if convicting) read.
DuBois is best known to many of us because many cities and towns have an urban renewal center named after him. He was an influential voice for the rights of African-Americans and the pursuit of racial justice.
The Souls of Black Folk was originally published in 1903, nearly 50 years after slavery had officially ended in the U.S. However, this was also decades before the Civil Rights movement really got popular traction. The shame is that in many ways, despite the clear advances in legal rights for African-Americans, the situation has not changed nearly as much as it should in the past century.
The book centers around a major problem in America. The problem is the color-line. Or, more properly, the place of people of color in a land that does not seem to want them. As DuBois writes,
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
That is a simple vision and one that should have come to pass long before this day. In some ways it has come to pass and things are hopeful. In other ways, if we are honest, it is a long way away.
The book as a whole traces out DuBois’s critique of the situation. It is filled with beautiful prose and clear evidence that DuBois had a fine mind and good education. DuBois provides a survey of the progress and sometimes lack of progress of blacks in the South. In some cases, they had advanced and were prospering. In other cases, the intentional roadblocks and legalized (or overlooked) abuses had managed to keep African-Americans back. His book is a short study in the need for careful study and the avoidance of generalizations.
This volume also offers a balanced criticism of whites. He notes,
First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,--needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others – usually the sons of the masters – wish to help him rise. . . . To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust. . . [but to critique those worthy of it is an imperative duty.]
In DuBois’s approach we see neither toleration of injustice, nor unfair animus toward those who did not create the problem. There is a message for a wide range of readers in DuBois, which should urge us to make things better without blaming those who did not cause the problem in the first place, even if they benefited from it.
One does not need to agree with all that DuBois writes to benefit from this book. This is the sort of book that, even if you disagree, makes you better because you have to explain why. For example, DuBois takes a somewhat dim view of Christianity in the book. There may have been good cause, particularly as Christians did not represent Christ well in many cases. But even though I disagree with his final analysis, his critique is written well and in good faith.
The Souls of Black Folk is the sort of book that is easily read in a few days and much easier to read than to read about. It is a book that should be more regularly included in reading lists, since it is clearly written and balanced in content it could easily be digested by a high schooler. This is a volume that gives insight into our time specifically because things aren’t as much better as they should be. For that reason, it is exactly the sort of critique of our thinking that so many of us need.